A tribute to a lovely library that needs to grow
Plans are being presented in 2021 to the town of Sharon for a renovation and expansion of the town’s library, known as the Hotchkiss Library of Sharon. Plans were most recently presented in 2008 for a similar expansion and at that time this history of the building was published in The Lakeville Journal.
Khurshed Bhumgara, who wrote and researched the history, was vice president of the Hotchkiss Library Board of Directors and head of the library’s building committee at the time. He died in 2014 at the age of 78.
SHARON — The Sharon Green is a pristine Colonial-era green surrounded by Colonial-era buildings. Or is it?
Look again and you w ill see a fine example of late-Victorian architecture in the form of The Hotchkiss Library, a Romanesque Revival structure designed by one of the foremost architects of his time — Bruce Price (1845-1903), the original architect of Tuxedo Park in New York state, the first planned and gated community in America (Price was also the father of Emily Post).
Maria Bissell Hotchkiss decided that in memory of her deceased husband, Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss, she would donate a library to Sharon and a preparatory school to Lakeville; the preparatory school is now the world-famous Hotchkiss School.
One story is that Sharon had the choice of the school or the library and chose the library.
The bust of Benjamin Hotchkiss, a creation of the well-known expatriate sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, to this day presides over the library from its current location on the second floor. The bust dates back to 1879 and was executed in Paris, where Ezekiel was living at the time.
It was Timothy Dwight V, the president of Yale, who encouraged Maria Hotchkiss to found the preparatory school as a conduit for students to enter Yale, and who most likely recommended Bruce Price of New York as the architect for both gifts.
Bruce Price had designed several buildings at Yale, some of which are still standing (such as Welch Hall) although one of the most prominent, Osborn Hall, was taken down in a dispute with the town. Osborn Hall also was a Romanesque Revival building, although much larger than the Hotchkiss Library.
By 1893, Bruce Price had already established himself as one of the leading architects of his era with the construction of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, hotels and stations for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, office buildings and private residences.
Working in the Romanesque style unique to Henry Hobson Richardson (most famous for the Trinity Church in Boston), Price is reputed to have been a major influence on Frank Lloyd Wright.
In New York City, in addition to the office buildings he collaborated with the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French, on the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial (1898), which is set into the wall of New York’s Central Park across from the Frick Museum at 70th Street.
The Hotchkiss Library is a major part of the very fabric of the late 19th- and early 20th-century architectural movement in America.
However, what makes the Hotchkiss Library so unique is that it is believed to be the only Bruce Price building where the major parts of the interior are virtually untouched since its very first day.
The library opened on Sept. 13,1893, after about a year of construction. Maria Hotchkiss was personally involved in many of the details, including the choice of the local-quarried gray and white limestones used, having rejected the first two choices that had been submitted to her for approval.
The woodwork was done by D.N. Eggleston, who lived within a few steps of the new library, and the stonework was done by John Flynn of Great Barrington.
A detailed description of the library immediately after it opened was given by Charles Sedgwick in his book “History of Sharon,” written in 1898, and in reading the description it is clear that very little has changed, although several stacks, new lighting and handrails, none of which are of the period, have been added.
The library still has the original 10 leaded glass demilune windows, commemorating Homer, Virgil, Moliere, Goethe and Dante in the north parlor and Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Franklin and Longfellow in the south parlor, as well as the original golden oak interior and even the original brass hardware.
The original fireplaces, made of glazed brick and Mexican onyx and with the original andirons are still in place, although one is hidden behind some modern book stacks and neither is functioning at this time.
For a comparison of the library interior as it looked around 1900 and today one can look at the photographs recently taken by Jonathan Doster of Sharon.
The older pictures of the library were developed from the original glass negatives found in a desk on the upper level of the library.
A comparison of the old images with a more recent one shows that very little has changed.
As Charles Sedgwick states in his book, the upstairs and much of the ground floor had empty bookshelves for future expansion.
The library started with 2,640 books; today, after much culling, the library has some 14,000 items including books, normal sized and large print, and on tape, DVDs, video cassettes and periodicals. The space is woefully inadequate for the present collection and certainly will not meet the needs of the coming years and decades. Hence the need for a restoration and an expansion.
Board member Brian Ross sent an update to this 2008 article: “Our collection size is about the same now as it was in 2008 (about 14,500), as we don’t really have the room to expand it.
“The expansion will help but it mostly is to accommodate the expanded programs the library has successfully launched: film series, Sunday at 4 lectures, growing book club groups and increased children’s programs.
“And most of all it is about finally providing access for so many patrons with walkers, wheelchairs.
“And giving the building a spiffing up that it has needed for so many years.”