New Life for the Old Library

or / Old Library Turns a Page

by Pamela White

At the south end of the Nelson Common, at the top of steep granite steps, perches a little building now known as the Old Library.  Its story is as rich and interesting as the many it used to hold on its library shelves.  The first chapter is told in a booklet written by my grandfather, Robbins Milbank, and published by the trustees of the library in 1964.  It is the story of Olivia Rodham, whose life inspired the library’s creation and purpose, and the group of citizens who brought the library into being in 1926.  These include Nelson patron Henry Melville, who donated the land; Nelson summer resident Mary Elliot of the Keene Elliots, who conceived and carried through the plans to build the library; her son-in-law (also a summer resident of the town), Boston architect Alec Law, who designed it; Homer Priest, who built it; and Margaret Redmond, who later did the stained-glass windows.

These persons were among those in Nelson who, as recorded in the minutes of the special Town Meeting in July of 1926, “Desiring to preserve and honor the memory of a noble woman well-versed in literature, and a true lover of books, and feeling that the town of Nelson needed better accommodations for their public library than they have hitherto had … and knowing how beneficial to any community it is to have a building with ample accommodations and attractive surroundings”, presented the land and building as a gift to the town.

The chapters of the building’s life as the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library, from 1926 to 1997, remain unwritten but are well-known to generations of its users.  By all accounts, the library thrived, and eventually it became clear that the library’s size and accessibility were inadequate, and thus it was that another group of citizens working together raised funds for the construction of a new library building adjoining the Town Hall.  The new building was designed by architect Tom Weller, with a beautiful multi-angled oak desk and shelving built by Ron Trudelle and Brander Merrifield.  The placement of the desk and windows, according to one of the library’s organizers, Henry Putzel, “gave prominence to the stained-glass windows that had been in the old library for years.  They were treasured there but had been practically unseen because they didn’t get sufficient light.”

The newly situated Olivia Rodham Memorial Library opened in 1997, and quickly became a kind of town center, providing educational activities for children, an informal gathering place for book clubs and discussions, as well as a wealth of books for all of its users.  As librarian Kris Finnegan says, “If we don’t have it, we can get it in a few days.”

But what happened to the old library building when the books, shelves, and lovely windows were taken out and moved?   What did those next chapters contain?

The plot twisted and turned, like any good story.  For eight years, the members of the Nelson Artists Coop exhibited artworks on weekends through the summers and often until Christmas.  One of the artists, Karen Tolman, said, “It was wonderful to have an art gallery in Nelson, but eventually it became difficult to get volunteers.”   The gallery closed and, after a time, a probate process was initiated by the Selectmen to determine whether the library or the town actually owned the building and the tiny parcel of land it occupied.  In 2005, the court ruled that ownership rested with the town.

The Selectmen, in considering its future, had new issues now to think about.  If the town continued to use the building for public purposes, the Americans with Disabilities Act would require major changes, affecting not only the old building but adjoining sections of land.  The building itself, with its perfect proportionality to the Common, is a little jewel.  Its bullet glass squares above the front door, and Law’s trademark arched windows, make it distinct.  A study was conducted to evaluate possible renovations, but ultimately, the limitations of the small site, and the desire of most of the town not to alter the appearance of the building and its relationship to the Common, gave rise to a solution:  private ownership coupled with public purpose.

The Selectmen appointed a committee and, after a public process of soliciting proposals, a transfer of the real estate was authorized by vote of the Town of Nelson at its Town Meeting in March, 2007 to Wally Francis, husband of Alec Law’s daughter, Mamie, and their daughter, Lynn Francis.

The original purposes of the building, as provided for by the donors, and recorded in the minutes of the 1926 Town Meeting, were broad, and included, besides the housing of books, education, arts, and “other suitable purposes of community interest.”  Certainly the Nelson community and its landscape are important to the new owners, but again the purposes are broad.  Wally says, “We’d like to make it into some sort of conservation center, where maps and documents relating to Nelson’s conservation efforts would be available.  People need to know what’s going on, and this could be a center of communication.”

The transfer deed reflects this objective, stating:  “The Owner shall open/use the Property for public purposes, including but not limited to: using it as a conservation center for collecting, displaying and archiving conservation materials, displaying maps and photographs of Nelson’s conservation lands, holding meetings of conservation groups, and using it as a center for displaying and selling arts and crafts produced by local artists (if permitted by zoning).”

Wally and his family are interested in protecting the building for a long time.  He asks, rhetorically, “Who knows how long the building is going to be good for?”  And answers, “Should be a couple hundred years ….”

But first, the building erected in Miss Rodham’s memory needed a face-lift.  The painting crew this summer consisted of Bud French, his son Marty, and Marty’s friend, Gavin Beeker.  Ricky Hutchins pointed up the chimney and replaced some of the tiles on the roof. And he brought in a friend of his who is a chimney man.  Harvey Tolman is doing the electrical work.  Harvey had kept the original fixtures when they had been removed and replaced with a different lighting system.  They are 16” glass globes with pull chains, at the base of which are little triangular mirrors.  They have a modern yet ornate look.  Harvey says, “The plan is to put those back in, and then put in some more electrical outlets.”   The lighting will be supplemented with lamps, and other needs, such as perhaps a computer, will be addressed.

Wally points out that some problems remain.  For example, moisture builds up, particularly on joists in the basement, a condition which requires repainting.  “Last summer it was really dripping off the joists down there,” he says.

My grandfather, who was tutored by Miss Rodham, wrote in the 1964 booklet, “Once or twice each year, we would climb Monadnock.  Up the mountain Miss Rodham would point to the marks of glaciers, the timberline, the microscopic rock plants.  I am told that ‘in the Nineties’ Miss Rodham used to start from Headlong Hall [where she lived, at the top of Lead Mine Road] and walk to the top of Monadnock and back in one day, and think nothing of it.”  Miss Rodham herself, he wrote, “was a character of strong faith, conviction, wisdom, and compassion.  Like a lovely light, she drew to her a world of friends.”  Her grave in the Nelson Cemetery is appropriately marked by a huge presumably glacial boulder.  She is drawing new friends, still.  They are stepping forward now to ensure the future, and the story of the little building on the hill will continue.

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