Redwood History: A Growing Library

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 1:01pm -- mfarias

While the original construction of the Redwood Library, as designed by architect Peter Harrison, met the needs of its members in 1750, the library had to grow in the centuries that followed to accommodate an ever-increasing collection of books and to serve its new members. By the 1850s, the library was so overflowing with books, “stacked on shelves and chairs, scattered on the floor,” that it became obvious to the library board that an addition was necessary.

 

Redwood Library Newport, RI, n.d. by James Stevens
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

At the Annual Meeting on September 29, 1858, it was resolved, “That the Directors be empowered to take into consideration, in connection with the enlargement of the Library building, the propriety of affording additional accommodations for the Library, by erecting a new building; and if they find it to be in the interest of the corporation to erect a new building, rather than enlarge the existing building, they are authorized to do so.” On the very next day, September 30, 1858, they voted, “That it is inexpedient to consider the subject of an entire new building for the Library.” Thus, the idea of beginning again with the Redwood Library was quickly rejected and all attention was turned towards the creation of an extension to the existing structure. A committee was created at this meeting whose focus was on employing a “competent architect” to submit a plan with an estimate of its cost to the Board for approval.

 

Redwood Library Newport, RI, late 19th century (between 1858 and 1875 additions) by Thomas Nelson & Sons
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

The Committee on Alterations submitted their report by October 18, 1858 where it was voted upon and approved. A Building Committee was appointed and “a sum not exceeding seven thousand dollars, was to be appropriated for the purpose of carrying out the plans, which were drawn by Mr. George Snell, architect, of Boston, Mass.” The plan by George Snell “followed the design of the early building and thus is an important milestone in early Victorian recognition of and regard for 18th century American colonial architectural modes.” With a plan in place and approval secured, the Redwood Library and its new Reading Room was reopened to stockholders on July 5, 1859 and soon after to the general public.

 

Reading Room 19th century, 19th century by Unknown
From the Collection of the Redwood Library


By 1865, the Redwood Library again found itself in a position of needing to grow in order to house its collection of what was then over eleven thousand volumes as well as an impressive art collection. The subject of expanding the library building was introduced on May 8, 1865 and again a committee was formed to discuss the plan. On June 12, 1865, the Committee on the Enlargement of the Library reported that the goal of their enlargement involved a suitable hall “to be used as a gallery for works of art,” which would free up shelf room in the existing library spaces for more books. Their recommendation for the location of such a hall was that the library consider purchasing the lot to the east of the current library building and then carrying out an early design of George Champlin Mason.

 

Harrison & Reading Room 19th Century, 19th Century by Unknown
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

Over the next ten years, many new plans for the Redwood addition were reported in the Annals. By 1868, the library had secured the employment of the architect Richard M. Hunt who proposed a set of plans that would have destroyed the original library building and the recently built Reading Room addition. His plan described a building made of stone and marble, which would have diverged greatly from Peter Harrison’s original design. Ultimately, his plans were dismissed, either due to monetary concerns or because of their content, and his services were no longer engaged. In July of 1874, George Champlin Mason submitted new plans for an addition, which were agreed upon by the Board and the gallery was built in 1875, today known as the Rovensky Delivery Room.

 

From the Collection of the Redwood Library

 

Since the addition in 1875, the Redwood Library has continued to expand. The next major enlargement occurred in 2005 when a new wing allowed for additional compact shelving on the first floor and basement level of the library and the Ralph E. Carpenter Board Room was created on the second floor. Other notable adaptations of library space over the years include: the Pell-Chafee Room and Bernard and Sarah Gewirz Young Adult Library, added as wings during the 1858 creation of the Roderick Terry Reading Room; the Vestibule, a newly renovated entry to the library added in 1875 with the John E. Rovensky Room; the Perry Stacks, which include stacks created in the basement in 1912 and the John Slocum Scholars’ Reading Room on the second floor; the James and Candace Van Alen Art Gallery, converted from a former staff area in 1940; the Alleta Morris McBean Wing, created in 1985 to provide two floors of space for our Special Collections; and the Helen Elizabeth Peirce Prince Gallery, which in 2013 transformed an outdoor space into an exhibition gallery. Through all of these changes, the Harrison Room, as the original building of the library is now known today, has survived as a testament to the history of the collection, the land, the space, and the people who have worked hard to preserve it all.


From the Collection of the Redwood Library