Book Keepers

Book Keepers

“It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured, collected here,” the author Susan Orlean writes in her 2018 book The Library Book. “…In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved.”

That feeling of time stopped and saved is a specialty of Branford’s James Blackstone Memorial Library. Less than a 15-minute drive from downtown New Haven, the newly renovated Neoclassical Revival building still boasts many of its original features in marble, bronze, iron and wood. You’re welcome to check out a book with your card from any Connecticut library or simply have a seat in an armchair beside the gas fireplace and read for a spell under the portrait gaze of the library’s namesake.

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Opened in 1896, the library was built by Branford native Timothy Beach Blackstone in memory of his father, James—a “farmer, town selectman, state senator and captain of the Connecticut militia” who was born in Branford in 1793 and died there at the age of 92, a library brochure says. The imposing marble building that bears his name was designed by noted Chicago architect Solon Spencer Beman and inspired by the Erechtheum, a temple at the Acropolis.

Climb the library’s 13 broad steps, pass through its columned loggia and step inside to leave 2020 behind for the Gilded Age. You’ll find yourself in a grand rotunda, with marble mosaic tiles underfoot and a dome soaring 50 feet overhead. From the second-floor balcony, it’s easier to view the eight paintings by Chicago artist Oliver Dennet Grover that circle the dome, telling a history of bookmaking from “Gathering the Papyrus” to “A Book Bindery 1895.”

The rooms to either side of the rotunda retain much of their old character. To the left, where non-fiction is now housed, original iron bookshelves fan out around an old book elevator and a short stairway that leads to an iron mezzanine—now a work station where patrons can settle in with their laptops. To the right of the rotunda, a reading room is much as it appears in historic photos, says library fundraiser Katy McNicol, with its carpet, armchairs, carved oak fireplace and portrait of James Blackstone, his brow slightly creased as he looks up from the newspaper in his lap. Visitors interested in learning more about the building’s historic details can ask for a self-guided architectural tour brochure at the reference desk.

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While these parts of Blackstone Library may call to mind a prior century, the building has just received its first addition. Cloaked in Tennessee white marble from the same quarry used to build the original, the project converted what library director Karen Jensen describes as an uninviting walkway and rear entrance into a new, roomier entry with a large circulation desk, new bathrooms and a rooftop terrace above, which both Jensen and McNicol say they’re looking forward to using when warmer weather arrives. (It’s also available for rent outside business hours.) The addition makes the library “more convenient for patrons, makes it identify as an entrance,” Jensen says. “You don’t mistake it anymore, and brought some of the functional items outside the original footprint.”

Designed by Hamden architectural firm Silver Petrucelli, the added space has allowed for a massive reshuffling of existing areas, including a move for the children’s department from the second floor—the hallway cries of children who didn’t want to go home often echoed off the dome, McNicol recalls—to the ground level, where a circular circulation desk and a MakerLab separate little kids from a new teen section. “The teens have really responded to having a space” of their own, McNicol says.

Blackstone Library is one of about 70 libraries in Connecticut that operates as an association rather than being owned outright by the town. One of Branford’s two public libraries (the other is Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library in Stony Creek), Blackstone is a nonprofit that, until the 1960s, was entirely sustained by the endowment Timothy Blackstone left for it, Jensen says. The town now supports 85% of its budget, and the rest is left to fundraising. Among those efforts, McNicol says, is a March weekend when the entire library will be transformed into an 18-hole mini golf course, with each hole designed and sponsored by a local business or individual. (As of this writing, sponsorships are still available.)

With its computers and 3D printers and annual mini golf games, this surely isn’t the library Timothy Blackstone once imagined. But the patron himself was chasing a faster-moving world when he left Branford for Chicago and the railroad business, which earned him a fortune far from home. When he died in 1900 at the age of 71, his widow, Isabella Norton Blackstone, had architect Beman build a second Blackstone Memorial Library, this one in memory of her husband. Opened in 1904, it served as the first branch of what would become the Chicago Public Library system. Both Jensen and McNicol have visited the Blackstone’s “little sister”—smaller, due to urban constraints, but boasting many of the same elements, including a columned entry, a rotunda, a dome, an iron mezzanine, a similar floor plan, a mosaic floor and many other familiar details.

At the end of every day, having served an average of close to 500 people, the Branford Blackstone’s original bronze doors, each one weighing nearly a ton, are still swung shut—no easy task. The staff “kind of have to get a running start to get them going,” McNicol says. Like every other architectural element of this lasting public space, the doors have their own special touches, most prominent among them a pair of flaming torches of knowledge. Having burned through more than a century, it’s easy to imagine them lighting the way for librarygoers well into our own unimagined future.

James Blackstone Memorial Library
758 Main St, Branford (map)
Mon-Thurs 9am-8pm, Fri-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1-4pm (Sept to May)
(203) 488-1441

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 features Karen Jensen and Katy McNicol.

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