THE CONNETT MEMORIAL LIBRARY
South Orange, New Jersey
By Thomas Vilardi
One of the architectural gems of South Orange sits at the corner of Taylor Place and Scotland Road. For almost 75 years it directly served the needs of the Community as the South Orange Public Library and most recently for various meetings, events and home to an organization dedicated to providing access to the printed word for the blind. Plans are now underway to incorporate its regular use back into a “Library Campus” concept to better service the needs of our Community.
It is the vision of the Library Board that the South Orange Public Library continue to be the integral physical and virtual gateway by which our Community may access information, congregate to freely exchange ideas, celebrate literacy and cultural growth in a leisurely yet lively atmosphere and provide individualized services delivered in a professional manner while being responsive to individual needs.
In pursuit of this vision the Board recognizes the need for additional Community space; a place to gather, to access technology, for neutral meeting space and quiet study, to serve the needs of all, including young families and senior citizens, to provide working space and support for community organizations and to make it simple to get professional assistance in an increasingly technical and information-laden world.
As we look ahead, the physical space, as well as the virtual, will become increasingly important to this Community. This portion of the Library Campus requires preservation that is integrated with the future needs and growth of its vital, multifaceted residents.
A Brief History
In November 1864, William Bebe, a New York Merchant and South Orange Villager invited some friends to his home to discuss the creation of a local Library. Membership would be by subscription and interested villagers could donate their own books. The idea was enthusiastically received by those assembled and so the South Orange Library Association began.
Early on many of the leading names in the Village donated their money, books, time and effort to help the Library grow. Families like Durand, Henry, Mayhew, Mead, Taylor, and others appear in the earliest documents of the venture.
From 1864 to 1889 the Library was located on the second floor of several buildings on Sloan Street, Becks Hardware being the most notable, eventually making the remarkable move to the corner of Scotland and South Orange Avenue, when one of the buildings was physically moved, books and all, up the Avenue because of a Sloan Street widening project. In 1886 the “Association” went from a private subscription membership to its current status as a Free Public Library available to all citizens of the community. The growth of the holdings over the next decade required that the library be moved once again to a building at the current site of Café Arugula on South Orange Avenue, but even that larger space proved to be short lived for the burgeoning collection.
An 1895 Report from the Library Board queried obtaining larger space, but how and where to locate it were still unanswered. That answer quickly came from Eugene Connett (for which Connett Place is named), who offered his own land on the corner of Scotland Road and Taylor Place for the construction of a new edifice. Contingent upon this offer was that the Library Society raise the sum of $7,500 necessary for the completion of an appropriate building to house and expand upon the current collection.
With the generosity of the Connett family as a stimulus, public construction funding efforts were quickly implemented and the South Orange Bulletin of September 21, 1895 provided the first glimpse of what was to become the new Library designed by the New York Architectural firm of Stephenson & Greene.
Connett Library from the South Orange Bulletin Circa 1895
A Report presented to the Associate members of the South Orange Free Public Circulating Library Association at their Annual Meeting of May 12th 1896 reported in part as follows:
- Early in June last year it became possible to accept Mr. E.V. Connett’s offer of a building lot, a sufficient sum of money having been subscribed, and at a meeting of the Trustees the resident was instructed to appoint a Building Committee, of which he was to be a member…. The Committee immediately proceeded to carry out the work for which it had been appointed, and a number of architects were invited to submit plans. In response to theis invitation six plans designs were received, all tasteful and well planned. The plans submitted by Messrs. Stephenson & Greene were finally selected and the ground for the building was broken on the 23rd day of September, 1895.
- The building, of Indiana Limestone and light grey pressed brick, with red slate roof is 54 feet in length and 30 feet wide, containing a reading room 20 ft. by 27 ½ ft. and 16 ft. high, an entrance and delivery room, with Libraran’s desk and a stack room 18 ft. by 27 ½ ft. and 20 ft. high, with a storage capacity of 25,000 volumes. Over the delivery room is a Committee Room 12 ft. by 27 ½ ft. and 10 ft. high. The building further contains a large attic for storage purposes, an excellent cellar, with lavatories, etc……
- Construction was practically completed in April, and the books were moved in towards the end of that month.
- The formal opening took place on the 8th of May, 1896, the principal feature of the occasion being the delivery of an address by Mr. Edward Self, giving a sketch of the first establishment of the Library in South Orange and its Founders. Mr. Morrow, on behalf of the Building Committee, made a full report on what the Committee had done and in conclusion turned over the building to the Library Trustees, handing the key to the President of the Association…
The new Library quickly became a popular destination not only for adults, but also saw increased use by younger members of the community for both recreational reading and scholarly pursuits.
Eugene Connett remained active in Library affairs until his death in 1906. Upon his passing Mrs. Connett took up his cause, remaining active in Library affairs until her passing in 1912. Shortly thereafter the Library Trustees renamed the building in their honor.
In 1930 a rear wing was added which incorporated several more rooms and a grade-entrance Children’s Reading Room accessed from Taylor Place. The Annual Report for 1930 stating:
- The Most important step in the entire history of the Public Library is the completion of the addition authorized last year, which doubles the capacity and makes it possible for the first time to carry on the many complicated features of library work in an orderly and convenient manner.
- From the viewpoint of the public the attractiveness and usefulness of the Library are also greatly increased. The addition has been in use for four months and has resulted already in an increase of twenty-five percent in the number of books circulated…
You can imagine that with the 1920’s real estate development in full swing, the ability to service not only the reading needs of families moving to the area but also providing well defined special programming and related activities for their children was particularly attractive.
The decade from 1920 to 1930 saw the population of South Orange almost double in size from 7,274 to 13,630. Even with the Great Depression and another World War in full vigor the Library saw adult use continue to increase in book circulation, special programming and other activities to assist residents transition though changed economic, family and societal times.
In addition to the large Children’s room downstairs, further repurposing of space provided a Young Adult area in an upstairs space adjacent to the Library Trustee Meeting room, regular story hour for children as well as Summer reading programs and other activities to encourage youngsters to develop reading skills. Book discussion groups for adults were also one of the more successful post-war library activities.
The Library Directors Annual Report of 1960 provides a good summary of the changes undergoing both the town and American society in the mid-20th Century:
- …Thirty years ago the Village erected a substantial addition to the Library which now houses the main book stack and Children’s Room. To the Librarians, and to the Public of that time, there must have seemed plenty of room for growth into an indefinite future. And so there was! South Orange, in 1930, could well be proud of its new Library facilities.
- The succeeding thirty years, however, have seen changes in both South Orange and in the nation, and changes also in the function of the Public Library. The growth of population in the Village is but one factor involved. Equally important has been the cultural and social change in American life brought by depression and war. A far greater proportion of the population have advanced education. The level of instruction in the secondary schools has been raised to a surprising degree. A more serious word seeks detailed information on subjects and places of which their grandparents had never heard; and a world with greater leisure time seeks recreational reading on a far broader scale.
- Even beyond this, the field and function of the library in American Life has been vastly broadened in the past three decades. Modern technology has perfected means to preserve sound and to reproduce pictures and images with great fidelity. Modern interests have sought a meeting of minds and an exchange of ideas in a process that continues long after formal education has been completed. The modern public library recognizes all this, and seeks to meet it as fully as possible. No longer merely a collection of books on shelves, where one can find something for Saturday-night reading, the public library has become a cultural center for the entire community…
Sentiments that were as true half a century ago as they are today.
While not as drastic a population change as earlier in the Century, the period from 1950 to 1970 saw the Village population increase to just under 17,000.
By the mid 1960’s changes in technology, the desire to stock more books for this population, more programming for all ages, an increase in archival materials storage and the need for dedicated librarian spaces to carry on the business of running the facility, continuing to host all these activities in a place that had little changed from the quaint wood-paneled atmosphere of the 1890’s became increasingly burdensome. And so, as had been the case almost three quarters of a century before, money was raised, land acquired, spaces outlined, designs proposed, architects hired and ground broken, which ultimately led to the dedication of the new and current Library in November 1968.
A facsimile of an article from the 1895 South Orange Bulletin