The Construction of the Cossitt Library

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George Seymour Godard

The Cossitt Library was under construction by Spring of 1890. The letters and papers pertaining to the architect’s specifications are still preserved in the library safe. Cypress lumber was purchased from the A. T. Stearns Lumber Company in Boston. An old envelope still contains color samples of Dexter Brothers shingle stain, which were requested by Mr. Sibley. Sketches of several versions of the distinctive dome also remain on a scrap of note paper.

The style of the building that a local newspaper called “peculiar to itself” was described by Mark Williams for the National Register application. The Cossitt Library, built in the Queen Anne style, is a two-story 36 by 24 wood frame building on a quarter acre lot. The first story is of brick with one row set at angles for decoration and with double arched windows which have stone sills.

The upper story is of wood, some of it clapboard some of it in layered shingles which have rounded lower edges. A board meeting in September of 1890 decided that the shingles for the siding would have “cut corners”. Projecting from the hip roof is a dwarf hip roof, forming a clerestory that is sided all around with multiple arched windows. A circa 1900 photograph shows that it once had some decorative woodwork projecting from the top of the roof.

The entire exterior is painted. The second-story windows are Queen Anne windows with characteristic three-inch glass panes around the outside. The front entrance, two sets of double doors with an enclosed porch and an open Portico, is on the upper story level. Originally the staircase descended straight down to the street rather than dividing into two as it now does.

Money was raised by subscription to build a lower level for a community hall, which had its own entrance on the south side. The faded word “Hall” can still be seen in the glass transom over the door. “The floor of this lower story is partly below street level, but there are full windows on the front and south sides with original large amber stained-glass panes.

The Board of Directors was not idle during the construction phase of the library. Notices were posted in various public places and the townspeople were invited to recommend lists of books for the new library.

Young George Seymour Godard, only 24, was given the rather tremendous responsibility of overseeing the library construction, choosing the furnishings and organizing the library. In 1889, he was a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. While still in school, he wrote letters to other libraries asking for information and advice on library construction, arrangement, management and books. He received their book catalogs and some rather candid letters from librarians unhappy with their own buildings.

Instead of returning to Wesleyan as a senior in the fall of 1890, Godard devoted a year of his life to Cossitt Library. He wrote many prominent people for advice on which books to choose. He requested specific history books from the Connecticut State Library and from individuals. He sent for books on how to manage a public library.

In September 1890, a committee was appointed to select books: George S. Godard, Benton Holcomb, Carrie Holcomb, Wilbur A. Stratton and Kate E. Dewey.

Furnishings for the library interior were also chosen by the board. Godard ordered a desk, two reading tables and 12 chairs for $56.50 from F. A. Guild in Middletown.

100 years later, the original furniture is still in use in the library. So, after many letters from Godard to book sellers, $1,089.30 of books were ordered.

This description of the library is found in an old newspaper clipping:

The library and reading room are in the upper story, the center of the room being devoted to reading tables and bookcases are arranged in alcoves about the walls. The interior is 17 1/2 feet high and is lighted from the sides in a dwarf roof. Two Rochester lamps will furnish light for evening purposes. The lantern is supported by ten columns, and contains twenty-six windows of ground plain and stained glass, producing a very pleasing effect. The whole work of the interior is of light and dark colored cypress, finished in a natural wood. The building is heated by stoves. There is a neat vestibule. The rental of the public hall, which is in the basement, will go towards supporting the library. The hall is 10 feet high, wainscotted at five feet around the sides.

In a letter to builder Green in December of 1890, George Godard exhibited another facet of his experience. He wanted Green to build a cabinet for the card catalog to match the other furniture, “a neat cabinet the size and kind I designed.” Evidently this went beyond Green’s capabilities, because a card catalog to be made of cypress “to match our room” was ordered from W. E. Parker, a Boston firm.

Mr. Green was then asked to build a movable platform or stage for the hall. It was to be 8 feet long, 6 feet wide and 8 inches high with a pine floor and a step riser of cypress. The finish was to match the hall. According to the letters, Godard was involved in every detail of the library. In January of 1891, at the finished library (a month ahead of schedule), the board met with architect Sibley who accepted the work of builder Green.

 The Board of Directors then elected George Seymour Goddard its first librarian. Goddard spent many months selecting and arranging books, preparing them for the shelves and making a card catalog for public use. He was ably assisted in his work by Kate Dewey. In the careful record of library expenses kept by Goddard is a payment of $40 to him for 222 hours of arranging and cataloguing books. Kate Dewey, unfortunately is nearly forgotten in history, although she did much of the work, and shared Godard’s interest yet still received no recognition.

The directors had also been writing regulations for the operation of the library after deciding when the library would be open and who would be eligible to use it. They set rules for borrowing books and a system of fines. One regulation stated that the owner of a library card pledged to abstain from all avoidable noises and unbecoming conduct. It was not considered proper to wear a hat, to chew tobacco, to smoke, nor most of all, to spit on the floor of these rooms. The librarian was ordered to eject anyone guilty of this misconduct!

Please be sure to check the February issue for a story about the dedication of the Cossitt Library.

All details in this article are taken from the book Centennial, Frederick H. Cossitt 1891-1991 by Carol Laun and Gladys Godard.

Image from the archives of the Salmon Brook Historical Society