The History of the Woburn Public Library
Woburn’s library history began 200 years ago in 1789. On April 13 of that year, just 17 days before George Washington was inaugurated as the country’s first President, thirty-three gentlemen and ladies signed a document in which they agreed to purchase shares in what would be known as the Social Library. Subsequent libraries in Woburn were also of the subscription variety; the concept of a free public library did not receive much support until 1854. At that time, Jonathan Bowers Winn offered his salary of $300.00, which he had received as a delegate to the Convention to revise the State Constitution, to found a public library if the Town would give a matching sum. The offer was accepted and in 1856 the first public library opened in a room in the Municipal Building. L.L. Whitney was the first librarian, a post he held until 1860.
The Woburn Public Library grew slowly over the next few years, usually receiving not much more than the $300.00 first appropriated. In 1865, two events of note occurred: the library was moved into rooms in the old Wade Block and Bowen Buckman, a well-known figure in the community, left the Library its first trust fund, the sum of $500.00. In 1873, Timothy Winn, brother of J.B. Winn, died and also left the library a bequest, this amounting to $3,000.00. Scarcely two weeks later, J.B. Winn also died and bequeathed to the library $2,500.00 while leaving the bulk of his considerable estate to his only surviving child, Charles Bowers Winn.
Charles Bowers Winn (1838-1875), never in very good health, died within two years of his father. Included in his will was the following bequest to the Town of Woburn: “I give and bequest to the town of Woburn, in trust, the sum of one hundred and forty thousands dollars, to be used and disposed of for the purpose and in the interest of a Public Library …” And later: “As I am very desirous that this Library building shall be an architectural ornament to the town, I hope that no expense will be spared in the most important of all matters, namely: the selection of a plan; and I would suggest that several architects of the highest reputation be requested to make drawings, so that by comparing one with another, a satisfactory result in the matter of a choice of a plan will be more likely to be attained. This course, if pursued, may possibly be quite expensive, but in this case that ought not to be an obstacle or objection, for I think the within bequest for the Library and the other purposes in connection therewith, will be found to be of sufficiently liberal amount to allow of having everything of the very best, and consequently of the most expensive order…”
The February following the death of C.B. Winn the Town gratefully accepted his generous bequest. A committee consisting of the executors of the will, John Johnson, Parker L. Converse, and Edward D. Hayden, was formed to expend the money and execute the trust. After a site was selected, the Winn homestead on Pleasant Street, the best known architects of New York and Boston were invited to submit plans for a library building which according to C.B. Winn’s wishes would also include a reading room, art gallery and museum.
According to the diary of George Mather Champney (who would become the first Librarian of the new building and whose son Edwin worked on Richardson’s Trinity Church) on December 22,1876: “This evening Mr. Hayden invited the Library Committee to examine the new plans for the Library Building at this house. All were there except Mr. Pollard. The plans were all gone over. None of the Committee had any very marked or decided opinions of their own; but after the examination and the remarks made upon each, it was quite unanimously agreed that the Gambrill & Richardson offering was the most complete and satisfactory. I do not believe this result would have been arrived at if the Comm. had looked at the plans individually, for no words of approval were given it when first gone over; but the leanings of Mr. Hayden and myself gave it character and it was then gradually fallen in with as the best and at last fully endorsed. ” And again on Tuesday, January 16, 1877: “The Library Building Committee has accepted the plan of Gambrill & Richardson which from the first has been the favorite one, and they have been notified to that effect. It may need some slight modifications, but as a whole the design is an admirable one both in architectural form and in interior arrangement.”
Henry H. Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), whose plans were finally accepted by the Library Committee, was born in Louisiana at Priestly Plantation. He graduated from Harvard in 1859 and then was only the second American admitted to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1860. He returned to the United States in 1865 and partnered with Charles Gambrill in New York (by 1874 Richardson had left New York and Gambrill and moved to Boston). After a number of other projects, Richardson’s reputation was finally made when he won the competition for Boston’s Trinity Church. The church was dedicated in February 1877, just about the time Woburn’s Library Committee had decided upon Richardson’s plan for their building. Norcross Brothers, the Worcester contractors who had collaborated with Richardson before, and especially on Trinity Church, were also selected to work on the Woburn Public Library.
The following is a description of the new Woburn Public Library building taken from an account in The Woburn Journal for Friday, November 18, 1881: “The structure is massively and firmly planted in a large open lot at a slight elevation above the street, and with plenty of breathing space all around, relieved by the distant and rugged hill of Rag Rock as a background. At the main entrance on Pleasant Street, a symmetrical tower rises to the height of 78 feet from the front of the transept, with a cloistered porch at its base. As one walks up the slate walk and steps upon the tessellated tile floor of the porch, the first object to arrest his attention is the memorial tablet directly in front, and beautifully carved in cream colored Ohio sandstone. The base is a settee extending across the porch, above which is the inscription taken from the donor’s will, viz.: ‘This building was erected in memory of Jonathan Bowers Winn, from funds bequeathed by his son for the use, benefit and improvement of the people of Woburn;’ crowning which is the coat of arms beautifully carved, bearing the inscription, ‘By the name of Winn.’
From the entrance lobby to the left, a flight of 36 steps in the tower leads to rooms above, while a door in the lobby to the right opens into the art gallery with its open timbered roof through which a fine light is obtained on the 52 pictures bequeathed by Mr. Winn. This room in size is 22 x 28 feet, with blackwalnut floor and wainscoting, while a massive railing surmounted with brass finish, protects pictures from a too near approach of visitors. The walls are painted a light olive which is in close sympathy with the pictures and their gilt frames, the upper walls being of a lighter shade and separated from the lower by a dark stripe, all being in strict harmony with the art treasures herein contained.
Original Ladies Parlour
To the right through an arched passageway, is the room designed for a museum, unoccupied at present, octagonal in shape, with a conical roof, and is about 30 feet in diameter. The walls as high as the windows, are painted a deep red, with dark stripes at top and bottom, while above the windows the color is of a fight cream shade, producing a rich and pleasing effect by the sharp contrast.’ Floriated capitals separate the windows, beneath which project single gas jets. The ceiling is frescoed with stripes running from the sides to apex, the floor and wainscoting being laid in chestnut. Between these two rooms is the janitor’s washroom and water closets, triangular. in shape, with all modern improvements.
“To the left of the art gallery is the noble reading-room, highly walled and decorated in perfect synchrony of subdued tones; on the opposite side of this room from the entrance is the librarian’s desk from which he has an unobstructed view of the whole length of the building. This room is the largest of all, being 36 by 24 feet, at the north end of which is a beautiful stone arched fireplace supported on either side by two short Corinthian columns on which are carved the Winn family coat of arms, which to the initiated is “Vert, three eagles displayed in fesse, or, crest, a lion’s head displayed on.” These surmount the family legend, “Virtute et labore,” which translated means “By Honesty and Diligence.” The finish of the walls and ceiling of this room is of butternut oiled and polished, the floor being laid in ash. Around the four sides of the room are two rows of drawers, above which are two rows of shelves for books and statuary. The walls are painted a light gray with a wide band of a darker shade at the bottom.
From the reading room is an impressive view down the lofty nave of the library proper, at the entrance to which is the desk of the librarian protected on either side by small iron doors of a neat and tasty openwork design. “This room is 67 feet long by 30 wide, with fourteen alcoves for books, seven on a side, separated by the columns supporting the circular arched ceiling. The floor is of Southern pine, the ceiling of butternut, the shelving and other finish being of Michigan pine, all finished in the native wood. The columns supporting the roof and galleries are surmounted by floriated caps of leaves, vines and flowers, delicately carved, and in excellent harmony with their surroundings, no two being alike. Spiral iron stairways on either side and in the rear of the librarian’s desk lead to the book alcoves in the gallery above, to support which iron girders extend from the walls of the building to the wooden posts, separating the alcoves. There are shelves on two sides with a walk extending the entire length of the room back of them, protected in front by an iron balustrade of neat and tasty pattern and conforming in shape to the curves of the alcoves. Light to this room is admitted through windows, the upper sash of which is of small panes of glass, while the lower is of a large single pane, the architectural effect of which is fine.
The furniture of the library, consisting of ten tables and thirty chairs and settees, are all constructed of solid oak and put together without the aid of screw or nail, was designed and made by the contractors and is of a substantial and unique design in perfect harmony with the other finish of the building. …. There was used in its construction 325,000 bricks, 5,000 feet of Ohio sandstone, 15,000 feet of Longmeadow stone, 225 bushels of cement, 500 bushels of lime, 8,000 square feet of Akron tile, besides the stone used for the foundation. …. there have been expended for construction of building, heating apparatus, fixtures, architect, etc., $95,305.24″ The Woburn Public Library opened for business on May 1, 1879. Much to the disappointment of Woburn’s citizens who had awaited the moment so eagerly, there was no celebration to mark the occasion. Now, because of the generosity of one man, Charles Bowers Winn, the astuteness of the Committee entrusted to carry out the bequest, and the ingenious design of Henry Hobson Richardson’s first library, Woburn’s Public Library has received the recognition its people have always felt it deserved and which they desired for it from the beginning. The Woburn Public Library is now a National Historic Landmark.