The Norfolk Library was swinging last Saturday night as the Library Associates celebrated their 50th anniversary. Despite a spate of nasty weather, residents flooded into the library to visit, enjoy hors d’oeuvres and drinks and listen to music of the past five decades.
On the walls were images of the town captured by turn-of-the-last-century photographer Marie Kendall, whose work constituted the first art exhibit sponsored by the associates in 1977.
State Representative Maria Horn presented a congratulatory citation and Library Director Ann Havemeyer offered a history of the work done by the associates over the decades.
Havemeyer lauded the group as the agency that brought the library back to life as a cultural center it was intended to be when Isabella Eldridge built it for the town in 1888. It was Eldridge’s wish, according to Havemeyer, that the building be more than a library, but also a place for concerts and lectures. “And during her lifetime, she made sure it was,” Havemeyer said.
Havemeyer invited the audience to vicariously go back to 1890 to hear a lecture on the history of Italian art given by Professor Arthur Frothingham of Columbia University. Conjuring up the scene, she said, “As you enter the building, you pass a miniature gondola sitting in a tank of water. The main hall is decorated with floral garlands in the colors of Italy, interspersed with Roman shawls, aprons, rugs and mats. A large photograph of the Colosseum is placed at one end of the hall, draped with Italian flags. The audience is treated to red, green and white Italian ices shaped like guitars and mandolins by Maresi Confectioners of New York, while a group of Italian musicians play their mandolins.”
“This,” she said, “was the sort of unique and elegant entertainment Isabella produced.” When space became limiting, Eldridge added the Great Hall in 1911.
After Eldridge’s death, America descended into the Great Depression and the Second World War II and for 55 years the days of lavish entertainment became a distant memory, then, in 1974, the library trustees decided it was time to resurrect the library as a cultural center. Trustees Tibby Robinson and Martha Walcott took the lead. Walcott, an accomplished musician, thought the Great Hall would be perfect for concerts. She gave the library her Steinway baby grand piano, still in use today. Together, the women made phone calls soliciting help and a group of 10 women had their first organizational meeting in June 1974.
There was little money, barely enough to give concert musicians an honorarium—certainly not enough to purchase chairs to seat the audience. So, they decided to have a book sale, the first one taking place in 1976. The sale raised $650. The book sale grew dramatically over the decades until today it is eagerly anticipated by booklovers near and far and brings in thousands of dollars each year.
The associates’ first art exhibit was held a year later, and they have since hosted more than 250 artists. A carol sing on the weekend following Thanksgiving has been held for 45 years and fireside gatherings, held in the Great Hall, continue today.
Currently, most of the programs and events at the library are funded by monies generated through the leadership and enthusiasm of the associates, including adult and children’s musical and literary programs, the library newsletter, additions to the audio-visual inventory of the library and other events or purchases not covered by the library’s annual budget.
In 1987, library director Louise Schimmel suggested that the all-women group consider the addition of men. Havemeyer noted wryly that such a radical move would not be made in a hurry. It would be another 17 years before men joined the group in 2004. The first man was David Davis, who was at the party Saturday.
The associates made significant contributions to the Preserve the Past for the Present capital campaign to restore the library and its red tile roof in 2015 and to the renovation of the Children’s Room in 2018.
A number of special programs are planned this year in celebration of the group’s anniversary.
The Library Associates meet monthly and always welcome new members. For more information click here.