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Olin Memorial Library History

 


Earlier Libraries & Campus Growth

When Wesleyan opened in 1831, the library was housed in one of the public rooms in the Lyceum, now known as South College. Soon after the Civil War the institution began its expansion to the south with a separate library building. Funding was guaranteed by Isaac Rich, a Boston fish merchant and longtime trustee, provided that alumni raised an endowment for the purchase of books. 

President Joseph Cummings himself designed a light and airy new library, in the then popular alcove style, and superintended its construction. Dedicated in 1868, Rich Hall -- described in the student newspaper as an "elegant edifice" and "noble structure" -- cost $40,000, contained 18,000 volumes, and served a student body of 148. The faculty, including President Cummings, numbered seven.

In 1871 two buildings flanking Rich Hall were dedicated. Memorial Chapel commemorated the heroism and patriotism of alumni and students who died in the Civil War, and the Orange Judd Hall of Natural Science gave impetus to the University's tradition of eminence in scientific research. Construction of these two buildings completed the "Brownstone Row" that remains the University's architectural and administrative focal point. The brownstone quarried in Portland, just across the Connecticut River, not only supplied local markets but was also shipped to New York, Boston, and San Francisco during the second half of the 19th century.

By the early 20th century Rich Hall's capacity of 80,000 volumes was rapidly proving inadequate. A new library was one of several urgent building needs addressed by Henry Bacon, a New York architect engaged by the Trustees in late 1912. His 1913 general plan for the harmonious development of the campus called for a large quadrangle west of Brownstone Row, including a library on the present site of Olin and ten other "future buildings."

The choice of Henry Bacon as Wesleyan's advisory architect was a fortunate one. Earlier that year Bacon -- whose first Middletown design had been the Eclectic fraternity house on High Street (1907) -- was commissioned to design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Bacon's eleven years of work for the Trustees had a significant effect on the look of the campus. Existing buildings were improved, and in 1916 two Bacon-designed brownstone buildings were completed: the Van Vleck Observatory and the dormitory later named Clark Hall. Bacon also designed a brownstone chapter house for Skull and Serpent, completed in 1914.

 

The 1928 library

Preliminary sketches for the new Wesleyan library were made by Henry Bacon in January 1923, less than a year after the dedication of his Lincoln Memorial. He envisioned it as a T-shaped building of traditional brownstone placed between the 1916 dormitory and a proposed new dormitory.

After Bacon died in 1924, at the age of 56 and at the height of his career, his ideas for Wesleyan's library were turned over to his first employers, the influential New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. Because the local brownstone quarries formerly used for campus construction were exhausted or closed by 1925, the library's exterior was to be finished instead in the firm's typical "Harvard" red brick, laid in Flemish bond.

The classically symmetrical structure of Olin was completed in the winter of 1927 and dedicated the following May. The central feature of its 163-foot wide facade is the marble portico of six Ionic columns surmounted by a pediment and capped by a balustrade. Marble, exterior and interior, amounted for 20% of the final construction cost of $727,000.

Three other McKim, Mead & White buildings at Wesleyan were completed within a year of Olin's dedication. Olin and the Harriman Dormitory to its east were balanced by Hall Laboratory of Chemistry (demolished in 1968) and the adjacent Shanklin Laboratory of Biology across the street. In 1929 the city street which had been immediately in front of Olin was relocated to the south, permitting the installation of a spacious lawn. By 1930 Rich Hall, the former library, had been remodeled as a theater by the class of 1892.

When Olin was dedicated, the library's 160,000 volumes served a student body of 600 men and a faculty of 58. Recognizing the probable need for future expansion, the architects designed a north wall that could be easily removed and left its facade, facing Andrus Field, unadorned.

In 1938, at a cost of $200,000, the book stacks were extended 40 feet to the north, with a more elaborate facade. A connector to Harriman Hall, including a second reference room, was added in 1956 when the dormitory was remodeled as the Public Affairs Center. In succeeding decades a number of internal rearrangements accommodated growing collections and changing functions.

 

1980s Expansion & Renovation

By 1980 --with undergraduate enrollment at 2500-- it was imperative that library space planning begin once again. Architects Perry, Dean, Rogers & Partners of Boston were chosen to design the badly needed renovation and addition. A large planning committee debated expansion alternatives in the light of library needs, site constraints, and budget limitations.

Eventually the decision was reached to complement the McKim, Mead & White design rather than to compete with it, and the architectural challenge was resolved by designing a U-shaped addition to be wrapped around the 1938 stack extension. Construction for this $9.8 million project began in 1983, and Olin Memorial Library was formally re-dedicated at a university convocation in September 1986.

This addition of 46,000 square feet nearly doubled Olin's existing space. The old building itself was remodeled for improved efficiency. Total shelf capacity was increased by a third to 800,000 volumes, and seating increased from 200 to 620 places (including 100 individual study carrels for honors students).

The arched windows of the 1938 north wall, now serving as an interior wall, are echoed by the larger arched windows of the expansion's outside wall. Olin Library's new curving north facade serves as a dignified and pleasing backdrop to Denison Terrace, the site of Commencement ceremonies.

Restored was the original 1928 "monumentalism" evidenced by the imposing south facade with its steps and portico and, inside, by the memorial lobby, the high-ceilinged main reading room, and the wide staircase. Together with the new reference center on the north side, all give architectural expression to Wesleyan's regard for its library as representing the power of knowledge and learning.