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Branford's James Blackstone Memorial Library

by Peter Borgemeister

“Come back and sit down, Hammer; I’ll pay for the whole thing!” commanded Timothy Blackstone to Alfred Hammer, and the James Blackstone Memorial Library was born.

Until that day in 1890 or 1891, Branford did not have a permanent public library. John Carr, in his history of Branford written for the State’s 300th birthday, said that two libraries had been started, but they didn’t last.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Branford had grown to 5,ooo people, and the need for a public library in Branford became apparent. A committee was formed in 1890 to solicit funds. Chaired by the Reverend Melville K. Bailey of Trinity Church, it contained three other prominent Branford people; Dr. Charles W. Gaylord, Lester J. Nichols and Alfred Hammer, of M.I.F., out to Chicago to talk to Timothy Blackstone. Born in Branford, Blackstone had left for Chicago where he became an eminently successful railroad magnate, rising to the presidency of the Chicago and Alton Railroad.

Timothy was the son of James Blackstone who was born in Branford in 1793; James had been first selectman of Branford, a captain in the Connecticut militia and served in both the Senate and House of the Connecticut General Assembly. The story of the episode in Blackstone’s office has been told this way; “Mr. Blackstone was extremely busy and didn’t seem very interested. Mr. Hammer rose to leave. Timothy Blackstone ordered him to come back and sit down, and he declared that he would pay for the whole thing.”

Timothy Blackstone must have harbored a great love and respect for his father. He said “nothing shall be wanting in its (the library’s) completeness and that it should be at the same time, a worthy memorial to my father, whose name it bears.”

Blackstone commissioned an eminent Chicago architect, S. S. Beman to design the building. Beman set about to design the library in “the purest Grecian Ionic style; the architectural details being taken from the beautiful Erechtheum of the Athenian Acropolis.”

The exterior of the building is of light-tone Tennessee marble. The “footprint”, or plan, approximates the form of a Latin cross. At the top of the marble entrance stairway and beyond the spacious marble vestibule are two highly decorated entrance doors of pure bronze, each weighing nearly 2000 pounds. A classic rotunda, octagonal in shape, 44 feet in diameter and 50 feet high, is just inside the doors. A reading room leads to the right. At the end of the room is a large fireplace over which hangs a life size portrait of James Blackstone. Office space and book stacks fill the winf to the left. A hallway directly opposite the entrance doors leads to an assembly hall. Featuring solid oak wainscoting 16 feet high and a highly textured elliptical ceiling, the auditorium is renowned for fine acoustics.

Architect Beman commissioned artist Oliver Dennet Grover of Chicago to produce eight large paintings illustrating the evolution of book-making from the gathering of papyrus to the then current method of book binding. Beneath these paintings are portraits of famous authors.  This art work adorns the interior surfaces of the rotunda’s domed roof, topped by a delicately detailed skylight.

The library was dedicated on June 16, 1896 in a lavish ceremony that included speeches, prayers and songs by children’s chorus. Timothy Blackstone, the donor, chose not to be present, fearing that his presence would detract from the memory of his father, for whom it was built.

The magnificence of this building so impressed a reporter rom the Boston Herald that he started his story with “In a very plain village in Connecticut by the sea, nine miles east of New Haven; in a lonesome little town called Branford, which has a malleable iron factory, a lock shop, a quarry and miles of farm patches that produce annually 50,000 quarts of strawberries for the Boston market, there is a public library that cost nearly $600,000!”

Last Updated: Thu, 06/20/2019 - 12:06pm