When a building is moved today, it is a rare sight, so it is a pretty big event. But 100+ years ago, moving buildings was very common. After all, it took a lot of time to build a building, and New Englanders are known for their frugality, so why waste a perfectly good structure?
I think it might surprise people to hear that one large, significant building, no longer standing, was moved in Springfield in 1911: the old city library.
When you think about it, it makes some sense to move the library. It occupied a very desirable spot on State Street. It had a collection of at least 50,000 books, where would those be stored? And if it was closed for the construction of the new library, what would the public do?
But I can understand that people are skeptical of my story, so I've assembled some proof.
Here's a postcard of the current Springfield library from around 1911.
Take a look at the left side. What do you see in the background, peeking over the top of the new library? It sure looks like the turret of the old library, doesn't it?
Poppycock, you say. It must be a mistake. Well, take a look at this photo:
The postcard is entitled "Christ Episcopal Church, Old Library & Deacon Samuel Chapin Statue, Springfield Mass."
They wouldn't call it "old library" if there wasn't a new library in people's minds. And if you look at where this library is standing, it is no longer on State Street: it is clearly pushed further back in the Quadrangle.
If you look at the lower right, you'll see what appears to be some kind of construction shed. It would seem the photo used as the basis for this postcard was taken during the construction phase.
But I finally found a postcard with indisputable proof: both libraries in the same photograph:
The evidence is quite clear: the old library was moved back into the Quadrangle and the present-day library was constructed on its highly desirable lot.
If the planets ever align and I get copious free time, if the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum gets better hours, or if the Springfield Republican puts its archives online, I might just find an old newspaper article on this, because even though moving buildings was commonplace in that era, I have to believe that moving libraries was not.
Thanks to Jim Boone for the idea for this story.
Thanks to Ben Murphy, who found an article in a 1962 City Library Bulletin describing the move which had occurred 50 years earlier. I've reprinted it below (sorry, no author was credited).
From the City Library Bulletin
Vol. 81, No. 1
The “New” Library
Fifty years ago January 12th the present Library building was completed and opened to the public. The transfer from the old building to the new was an event a surprising number of residents still remember vividly. In 1909 Charles R. Trask, who had helped build the original library (in the ‘60’s), was engaged to move it back to make room for the new. From the basement floor the magazines and newspapers were moved to a nearby building, and a temporary wooden structure was built in back to serve as the Children’s Room the next two years. Christ Church moved its Rectory to the other side of the church. Then the Library’s basement was knocked out and twelve long steel slides put underneath to support the walls, they in turn resting on huge timbers. Patrons were encouraged to take out more books – it was estimated that the building with contents weighed between 3,000 and 4,000 tons. On nearly 1,000 little steel rollers twelve men operating turnscrews in unison moved this huge building an average of ten feet a day. The sidewalk superintendents were out in force then! The movement was actually imperceptible but in less then three weeks the building had traveled almost 200 feet, and was open for business again. This Herculean accomplishment caused the NEWS to herald “Trask the modern Atlas”, declaring that “not another hereabouts has won such fame as raiser and mover of structures.”
The beauty of the new building was apparent while it was going up, with its pure white marble hand-cut blocks.
Almost at once however an acrimonious dispute broke out, some declaring that white marble was notoriously soft, utterly unfit for building – that this, in fact, was so soft a man could bite it: and that it would start to crumble away in 15 to 25 years, It seems these critics were wrong.
The building, the modern plans, and the public-spiritedness so evident in the residents of Springfield caused Andrew Carnegie to increase his donations toward it twice, with no conditions attached – which was unprecedented. The plans incorporated all the very latest ideas for a library, including easy access from the street and book shelves open to the patrons, and librarians came from as far as Ontario to study it.
At last it was finished, and truly beautiful: Italian Renaissance in style (to go with the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum), with a pink granite base from Grand Isle, Maine: the “finest obtainable” white marble from Rutland, Vermont; a decorative band over this of terra cotta, and a green tile roof topping it. It was freely acknowledge one of the finest buildings of its kind in the country. On January 10th, 1912, the dedication exercises were held.
Then came moving day for the books. A trestle – apparently Mr. Wellman’s own idea –was built between the second floor of the old building to the main floor of the new, a distance of 125 feet. It was variously described as a conveyer belt, a “jinnyroad”, cable cars “like Mt. Tom’s”, a special inclined gravity railroad. Anyway two boxes or “cars” 6 feet long by 2 ½ feet wide were attached by a circular cable, the loaded one going down pulling the empty one up, with a man operating, a friction brake at the top. Pages and staff at both ends (while others waited on borrowers) made the books fly, as they loaded the car with books at the top – in perfect library order of course, - and unloaded them at the bottom and put them right on their proper shelves. The only books you could not take out were those in transit at the moment.
In eight working days it was finished. It may be apocryphal that two Reference Librarians rode down in the last “car.”
I'm glad to see that my original idea for this blog has worked -- people contributing to an account of Springfield's history online. Thanks!