Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Built to Inspire: The James Library Building in Madison, NJ

Built to Inspire: The James Library Building in Madison, NJ
Written by NJ Historian

In 1899, philanthropist D. Willis James wanted to give back to the community where he owned a summer home. Neatly placed homes and shops lined the street of Madison, New Jersey at the turn of the century. School children and young adults found sanctuary at the public school on Green Street and Drew Theological Seminary on Madison Avenue. However, this small community lacked a proper library for children and adults to better themselves. This encouraged James to build a suitable structure to inspire and educate the young and old. The building served its purpose well and eventually outgrew its space. Over a hundred years later, this former library still serves in an educating capacity, incorporating and instilling values and lessons from the past into everyday life, inspiring thought and understanding within its walls.

The James Library building, circa 1905.
The land where the James Library stands was originally a vacant green space, designated "Park" on an 1886 Sanborn map. James purchased the property for $65,000 and on January 27, 1899 officially announced his plans for building a library in Madison. James was concerned for the people of Madison and believed that "a free library would be a means of public enjoyment and benefit." This was not his first gift to the community. He donated James Park at the intersection of Kings Road and Madison Avenue in 1887. Born in 1832 in Liverpool, England, James was a very religious and charitable man. He was born into a family of merchants. He attended school in Scotland and then moved to New York to enter the family business. As the economy of the United States grew and the Industrial Revolution began to transform sleepy villages into industrial villages, James' metal importing company saw much success. He became a wealthy industrial capitalist with interests in mining companies and several railroads. James was very generous with his wealth, reflecting his strong moral upbringing. He was a trustee and president of the Children's Aid Society of New York, a director of the Union Theology Society and a trustee of Amherst College. He donated to the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and American Geographical Society. 

In 1854, James married Ellen Stebbins Curtiss and together they had one child, Arthur Curtiss James, who eventually followed in his father's footsteps. They resided in Manhattan and in 1885 built a summer estate in Madison on the corner of Loantaka Way and Madison Avenue. James died in 1907 and the estate stayed in the family until 1916, when it was sold to Geraldine R. Dodge.

James' legacy in Madison did not end with his death. Although the building did not bear his name and no plaque inside indicated that it was built by him, he left reminders in the subtle details of this magnificent building. Built in the Richardson Romanesque style, it features a cruciform, or cross-shaped floor plan, a large rough-stone on the exterior, semicircular arches, long narrow windows, groin vaults, carved cornices, and a tower. The building was designed by New England architects Willard Adden and Chrarles Brigham. Brigham is best known for his work on large civic buildings, including several libraries in New England, a large addition to the Massachusetts State House, and the Christian Science Church in Boston. Brigham and Adden also designed the James Building together, located across the street from the James Library.

The James Building, built 1899. This building's profits would fund the library.
Ground was broken for the construction of the library on February 24, 1899. By November, the building was entirely enclosed and interior work commenced. Prior to this, on September 15, a 1,560 pound clock bell arrived at the site. On November 17, the clock bell was hoisted into position and almost one month later, on December 15, rang for the first time. Today, the Seth Thomas clock still runs on its original weights and it was electrified in 1991.

The granite stone for the building was mined and sent directly via train from Norcross Borthers' Stony Creek Quarry in Brandford, Connecticut. Although the stone material was not mined in New Jersey, many local tradesman had a part in the buildings construction. John B. Corbett, a Madison native, was the builder and mason. He also built the James Building across the street and the YMCA building across Main Street. The electric wires and fixtures were installed by Edwin P. Felch. Electricity was still very new at this time and the library was very fortunate to have this luxury, including eight chandeliers and 250 light bulbs illuminating the interior on opening day. Charles E. Cook, another Madison resident, oversaw the construction site and acted as a liaison between James and the tradesmen.

No expense was spared on the interior of the library. The library contained a large basement containing a periodical room, the main floor, and a second level in the gallery (stacks). Twenty foot ceilings, giving the building a cavernous feel and allow for light to be filtered in through fifty-six painted and stained glass windows. The stained glass windows were designed by Arthur B. Cutter, a decorator, stained glass painter, and fresco painter from Boston. A majority of his work was for residential homeowners, but he worked with Brigham on a number of public buildings. The stained glass windows include quotes from philosophers, authors and poets such as Longfellow and Shakespeare, and religious influences such as minister Theodore Parker and the Bible. Other inspirational quotes were painted onto the stenciled brick walls and embedded into the mantels of the library's three fireplaces. Dark wood flooring, intricate trim, and elegantly carved woodwork and doors can be found throughout. Of particular interest is the mezzanine level of the gallery floor, which was made of glass to allow the light to shine through on the stacks below.

One of fifty-six stained glass windows.
The building itsself was completed in roughly eight months and filled six months later on May 30, 1900 when it was opened to the public for the first time at 10:00 am. Two days later, on June 1, 1900 the library building officially opened for business. The library opened with 4,500 volumes on its shelves. The first book borrowed was American Commonweath, Vol. I, by Mrs. James A. Webb, a trustee of the library. Newspaper accounts of the time marveled at the building's elegant and grand construction. A letter to the editor of the Madison Eagle published on September 28, 1900 demonstrates one community member's fascination and appreciation for the newest crown jewel of the community:

"The building’s interior appeals to the finer senses, soothes and interests the wearied mortal until all sense of the outer world has departed; to be allowed to pass inside the gated enclosure and handle the beautiful bindings, turn the rightly decorated leaves of the rows and rows of books is equivalent to being turned loose amid countless brilliant gems and precious stones."

Once the library opened, James continued to provide funding from the income he earned from his commercial block built directly across the street. By the 1960s, the library was outgrowing its space and was looking for a new, modern building to house its collection. A new library was built on Keep Street and opened February, 1969. About the same time, Edgar and Agnes Land, approached the Borough of Madison, requesting to use the vacated library as a museum. The Lands were collectors of eighteenth and nineteenth century objects, most with a New Jersey provenance. They wanted to educate others about the lives of ordinary people, farmers, artisans, and crafts people who settled in New Jersey. On February 18, 1969 the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts was incorporated. Since then, the original collection has grown to over 8,000 artifacts. For over forty years, the museum continues the original mission of educating the public about New Jersey's eighteenth and nineteenth century artisans and their trades through programs and permanent and temporary exhibitions.

The library was added to the State and National Registers of Historical Places in 1979 and 1980, respectively. The museum and the Borough of Madison embarked on a $1 million dollar renovation and restoration project in 1996, updating all mechanical systems, adding air conditioning, and making the building handicap accessible by adding an atrium addition with an elevator and ground-level entrance. These improvements enabled the building to serve a greater audience and added to the overall protection of artifacts and comfort of visitors. The building reopened its doors to the public on October 4, 1997, in hopes of inspiring the next generation of historians, thinkers, and leaders.

Additional photos of my trip to the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts on Pinterest

James Library Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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I loved that building growing up. Beautiful inside and out.

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