Welcome to the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy Massachusetts. Dedicated in 1882, the original part of this library that now serves 90,000 residents in a city nine miles south of Boston–was designed by America’s first celebrity architect: Henry Hobson Richardson. Fully restored and renovated in 2001 as part of a 16 million dollar library expansion project, this “small masterpiece” is still a working and beloved part of the library–and open to visitors and residents alike. Now listed in GreatBuildingsOnline, the Crane Memorial Library has been voted one of America’s 150 favorite works of architecture.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Crane Library exemplifies the elements that define Richardson’s style–Richardsonian Romanesque:
“Instead of the narrow vertical proportions and Gothic features used by his contemporaries, [Richardson] favoured horizontal lines, simple silhouettes, and large-scale Romanesque or Byzantine-inspired details. The Crane Memorial Library in Quincy, Mass. (1880-82), with its granite base, clerestory windows, tiled gable roof, and cavernous entrance arch, stands among his finest mature works.” ( Richardson, Henry Hobson. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 26, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9376888)
Why it works
“The general form of the building is simplified to one comprehensive shape with a minimum of elements, each of which articulates a particular interior function: window-wall for reading room to the right, entrance arch, tower for a staircase leading to offices behind the second story gable, and raised windows in the stack room to the left. Horizontal lines and bands of brownstone organize the composition. The ornament, though inspired by French Romanesque and Byzantine sources, is broadly scaled and bold rather than archaeological. The walls are a continuous textured surface of quarry-faced granite and brownstone, creating a visual continuity as do the textured shingles in the houses.”- Leland M. Roth. A Concise History of American Architecture. p167-8.
What follows is a short history of the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy Massachusetts: the original building, the man who designed it, the artwork within, the landscape without, and the meeting of people and circumstance that made this Library not just possible–but a vital part of Quincy today. By Jessie Thuma.
Harpers Weekly Magazine called it “the best Village library in the United States”. Architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock called it “an advanced step away from traditional design”. Henry Hobson Richardson, the man who designed it, considered the Crane Memorial Library, opened in 1882, among the most successful and simple of of all his civic buildings.
The people of Quincy just plain love it.
“I don’t think you have to know anything about history or architecture to be affected by how beautiful that building is,” says Library director Ann McLaughlin, who oversaw the 2001 restoration and renovation of this national historical landmark.
Today, three additions and more than 125 years later, the Thomas Crane Public Library’s Richardson Building is still considered one of the country’s finest examples not only of Romanesque architecture, but of design principles that helped transform building styles across the entire American landscape.
“It’s a warm building that radiates a sense of power and permanence that modern architecture doesn’t have,” says Richardson biographer James O’Gorman, who is also a professor of Art History at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Since its dedication in 1882, The Thomas Crane Public Library has grown from Crane Memorial Library–a stately monument to its namesake, the wealthy stone contractor who got his start in Quincy’s granite quarries, to one of the largest regional libraries in Massachusetts.
The expansion of the library happened in three stages, through the efforts and endowment of the Crane family, and the involvement of three distinct groups of architects, library benefactors and trustees that included members of former US president John Adams family, and library staff. Each addition has added historical character to a building that now contains more than two acres of space.
The original Richardson Building was made possible in 1880 through a $20,000 bequest from Albert Crane, who wanted the city to erect a public library as a memorial to his father Thomas Crane. The elder Crane, who was born on Georges Island but lived most of his childhood in Quincy Point, took the money he earned in the Quincy granite quarries to New York City, where he married, raised his family, and made a fortune investing in real estate.
Builders for the project were the Norcross Brothers of Worcester, Massachusetts, whose other construction projects include Richardson’s Trinity Church and buildings at Harvard University. According to company records, Norcross was paid $44,000 to build the Crane Memorial Library, a project undertaken in 1880 and completed in 1882.
As part of the latest addition in 2001, the Boston architectural firm Childs, Bertman, and Tseckares–CBT–also directed the restoration of the Richardson building, repainting the walls, recreating period light fixtures, and restoring the yellow pine woodwork and wide planked floors. Tables and chairs designed by Richardson were restored and put back into use for the public to enjoy.
By the 1930s the Library had again outgrown its building. This time the Crane family helped finance a major addition, designed by Boston and Quincy architects Paul and Carroll Coletti, that more than doubled the size of the Thomas Crane Library. Completed in 1939, and funded in part with a grant from the United States Public Works Commission, the Coletti addition matches the style and building materials of the Richardson building, and boasts bas-relief carvings by the well known sculptor Joseph A. Coletti.
Building an addition to a masterpiece like the Thomas Crane Library– widely considered the best of all Richardson’s libraries–is cause for both excitement and trepidation.
“If you are adding a little bit to an old building, you would keep the architectural styles similar,” says lead CBT architect Richard Bertman. “But if you are adding a lot, you are changing the whole character. My sense was that if we tried to be the same” as the Romanesque design of the Richardson and Coletti buildings, the new addition could look like a cartoon copy of the original.
What CBT did try to preserve were certain signature features of the older buildings, like the red slate roof, the granite foundation, and the decoration around the windows. “Especially in libraries,” Bertman says, “it’s important to honor traditions.”
In January 2002 the library was awarded the Mass Architectural Access Board’s 2001 Honor Award for Accessible Design in Public Architecture. In May 2002 the library received a Massachusetts Historical Commission Historic Preservation Award.
In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20ieth century, Henry Hobson Richardson was one of three men whose related works transformed American Architecture.
Along with Louis Sullivan, who designed some of the country’s first skyscrapers, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, this triumvirate pioneered the use of modern materials to open up interior spaces, and made the division of that space extremely flexible by eliminating the use of the supporting wall from the inside of a structure. Richardson, who predated both Sullivan and Wright, was one of the world’s first architects to remove conventional facades from the exterior of his buildings, giving them, in the words of contemporary critics, a “curiously modern” appearance.
HE COULD CHARM A BIRD OUT OF A BUSH
H.H. Richardson, one of the most famous architects in American history, died in his bed at the age of 47: grossly overweight as a result of a kidney disorder, deeply in debt, and never having owned his own house.
“His early death was a wise career move,” observes Richardson biographer James O’Gorman wryly. “I think he had already done his best work.”
One of those “best works” is the original Thomas Crane Memorial Library.
“That Romanesque arch over the doorway was [Richardson's] signature,” observes O’Gorman. “As an architectural monument, the Crane Library is as important as (any other historical or architectural artifact) in Quincy.”
With an art historian’s fervor for protecting the integrity of any great work, O’Gorman adds that any modification to the original Crane Library was an architectural mistake: “Architects say it’s a design problem and they can solve it. But Richardson’s buildings were not designed to be added to.”
Of course the beauty for Quincy residents of a library that includes the Richardson building is that they get to see and use the space he designed. “We wanted the H.H. Richardson building to remain a living part of the library,” says Library Director Ann McLaughlin. “Too often, buildings that are architectural gems become museums, and nobody really enjoys them.”
Born on a sugar plantation in Louisiana in 1838, Richardson moved his wife, their six children, and his architectural firm to the Boston area in 1874. Over the next 10 years, his firm produced some of America’s finest buildings, including what is considered Richardson’s masterpiece: Trinity Church in Boston.
The architect’s presence can still be felt in what had been his bedroom-unchanged after 121 years-in the house he and his family rented on Cottage Street in Brookline.
“The most moving of the bedroom’s items,” writes architecture critic Robert Campbell in an article published June 7, 2001 in the Boston Globe newspaper, “is a pair of rings, like the kind gymnasts swing from, that are fastened to one wall. Richardson used them to pull his great bulk upright, probably when he got out of bed. Yet this sick man never flagged, working until the end with enormous energy.”
When Richardson died, his friend Reverend Phillips Brooks, the first rector of Trinity Church in Boston, likened his death “to the vanishing of a great mountain from the landscape.”
While the rest of the country may have suffered a diminished view, Quincy is lucky. At the very center of this city is an H.H. Richardson building that fully embodies the power and genius of the man who designed it.
Museum Quality Art
Glass: Famous artist John La Farge created the “Old Philosopher” stained glass window in the Richardson Building as a memorial to Thomas Crane. Made up of more than 1000 pieces of glass and valued at more than half a million dollars, the 30 by 10 inch panel is considered a masterpiece. At the left of the fireplace is another La Farge window, “Angel at the Tomb,” given in memory of Thomas Crane’s son, Benjamin Franklin Crane.
THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING PHILOSOPHER
The worst moment in the entire library expansion project came the day that library officials discovered that a rare stained glass window by famed artist John La Farge–valued at $500,000–had been stolen.
“I felt my heart stop!” Library Director Ann McLaughlin recalls of the moment when she realized that the window was missing from its sash. “I was horrified!”
McLaughlin was even more upset when a thorough search of the library failed to turn up the 30 by 10 inch panel that depicts a seated man reading a book. Called The Old Philosopher, and considered to be one of La Farge’s finest works, the window had been on display in the original library since 1882.
For one week, the bad news just kept coming: the theft had probably gone undetected for several months because the Old Philosopher window had been hidden from casual sight by plywood during the renovation of the Richardson building; local police and the FBI had no promising leads on such a cold trail; the library was criticized for not having a better security system; art historians bemoaned the loss of a masterpiece.
But on May 9, 2001, in a surprise ending more befitting a Nancy Drew mystery than real life, McLaughlin received an anonymous phone call from a man with a gruff voice: “Write this down! Willow Street, under the Curtis Tomb. You’ll find your window.”
First McLaughlin called the police and FBI. Then she telephoned her sister, who was convinced that the caller was directing McLaughlin to Mount Wollaston Cemetery, where the lanes are all named after trees.
Her sister’s hunch was right. They found the window wrapped in a black plastic trash bag stuffed under the grating of the tomb. “We grabbed it!” says McLaughlin.
“I put it on my sister’s lap and drove away.”
The Old Philosopher is not the only La Farge window at the library to disappear mysteriously and then reemerge. Back in 1998, when library staff was preparing for the construction of the CBT addition, they discovered a long-lost panel that depicts the Greek symbol alpha, tucked into a crate of old clear windows in a library supply closet.
Missing since 1938, the stained glass window matches a similar library window that is decorated with the Greek symbol omega. Now that all three windows are accounted for, they are displayed as La Farge intended, with the alpha and omega panels flanking the old philosopher panel as symbols of the endlessness of man’s quest for knowledge.
The man who designed the newest addition to the Thomas Crane Library had $16 million dollars to work with. But even with that budget, Richard Bertman says you simply can’t buy the kind of ornamentation and sculpture that grace both the original H.H. Richardson library building or the 1939 addition known as the Coletti building.
“We couldn’t do what Coletti did,” Bertman says, looking up at the bas-relief sculptures of riveters, granite cutters, and the two gracefully entwined cranes that decorate the
pediments of the Coletti Building. All three panels are the work of famous American sculptor and longtime Quincy resident Joseph A. Coletti, whose brothers Paul and Carroll designed the Coletti addition.
Born in Italy in 1898, Coletti’s family moved to Quincy when he was two years old. Joseph Coletti attended Quincy’s public schools, the Massachusetts School of Design, Northeastern University, and Harvard.
Coletti died in 1973, but his award-winning work can still be seen in museums, as well as in churches and public buildings, like the ceiling of the Boston Public Library and the rotunda of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Paul Coletti’s daughter-in-law, Alicia Coletti is a Library Trustee and a member of the Friends.
“I remember how proud he was of that library,” says Alicia. “I stand in the atrium and I look to the left and I see the wall of the Coletti building” that now stands as one entire side of the atrium. “Richard Bertman did a wonderful job of incorporating both old and new parts of the Library.”
The CBT addition is 56,000 square feet. The exterior is made of red slate, granite, brick, and cast stone that simulates brownstone. The exterior metal balconies, arches, and trim are designed to recall and repeat similar shapes and features from the Coletti buildings. Interior building materials include makore woodwork, Indian slate floors, and granite topped desks.
Not only was the original Thomas Crane Library built by the most famous architect of the time, its grounds may have been designed by the most famous landscaper of the time: Frederick Law Olmsted.
“I agree that the scraggly elm in the southwest corner of the Library Grounds should be cut out,” writes Olmsted’s Brookline firm in a 1913 letter to the Library Trustees about landscaping around the Aiken addition.
Olmsted is best known for his design of New York City’s Central Park. He also designed the string of green spaces in Boston known as the Emerald Necklace. A frequent collaborator and adviser to architect H.H. Richardson, Frederick Olmsted’s landscape design contributes to the sense that Richardson’s massive stone buildings emerge out of the ground with an energy all their own.
Quincy landscape architect Mary Smith has designed plantings for the new CBT addition that continue the Olmsted tradition of creating a park-like, natural setting for public buildings.
The People and Politics
Few public libraries in the country have a more storied history than that of the Thomas Crane Memorial Library. That history began in the 1870s with a series of events involving three men, each of whom leaves an enduring legacy in this city:
Quincy native Charles Francis Adams—grandson of second U.S. president John Adams—and chairman of the Quincy Library’s Board of Trustees for 19 years. Albert Crane, whose father Thomas Crane took the money he earned in the Quincy granite quarries to New York City, where he made a fortune investing in real estate. And Henry Hobson Richardson, friend of the Adams family and America’s first celebrity architect.
In 1879, when the city’s library was housed in the vacant Evangelical Congregational Church on the corner of Hancock and Revere Streets, Charles Francis Adams wrote in his annual report to the Library Board of Trustees that “the great need of this institution is a commodious and better adapted library room, in a more central part of the town.”
Adams’ hope that such space would come in the form of a building donated to the city was realized only a few months later when Albert Crane, who had never lived in Quincy, contacted Adams about building a library there in memory of his father, Thomas Crane.
The architect that the Crane family chose to design the memorial was Henry Hobson Richardson, then and still regarded as the foremost architect of his era.
The Crane Library is as important as anything else in Quincy, including the John Adams Family Mansion, and the United First Parish Church, designed by the famous architect Alexander Parris, where U.S. presidents John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams and their two wives are entombed. “People come to Quincy,” says art historian James O’Gorman, “just to look at the library.”
Even after Adams’ tenure as Chair of the Library Board of Trustees ended, the Crane family continued its involvement in the Crane Memorial Library, funding the 1908 addition to the Richardson building, which consisted of an ell, designed by architect William M. Aiken. In addition to creating more space, the wall of stained glass “bookplates” at the end of the Aiken wing allowed in more natural light.
Throughout this period, Albert Crane kept up a lively correspondence with library officials regarding everything from the placement of artwork and portraits within the library, to comments on the Annual Library Reports and events of the time. In a letter dated 1908, Crane complimented library director George Morton on the Aiken addition. “When prosperity returns,” Crane writes, “and my financial reservoir has begun to receive some rills of revenue, I want to increase a little that fund which you have called by my name if it is not exhausted.”
Even today, the generosity and vision of the Cranes, the Adams, and H.H. Richardson continues to benefit The Thomas Crane Memorial Library and the City of Quincy. The first money down on the CBT addition came from that fund to which Crane referred in his letter. And because it is considered H.H. Richardson’s masterpiece of library design, the original library building will always draw the attention and recognition of art historians, as well as the admiration of ordinary people who appreciate the power and simplicity of its design.
Finally, especially among the people of Quincy, the library’s ties to John and Abigail Adams—both voracious readers whose voices and letters helped define the principles of American democracy—serve as a reminder of how essential books are to an understanding of ourselves and the times in which we live.
THOMAS CRANE NEVER SAW THE LIBRARY THAT BEARS HIS NAME
Born on Georges Island in Boston Harbor in 1803, Crane was seven years old when his family moved to Quincy. He was 26 when he left the Quincy granite quarries and went to New York City where he became one of that city’s leading stone contractors, and amassed a fortune in building and real estate.
Even though he had only lived in Quincy for 19 years, Crane’s affection for this city prompted his son Albert Crane, one of eight children, to donate almost a quarter of a million dollars for a library named and endowed in honor of his father. By the time the Thomas Crane Memorial Library opened in 1882, Thomas Crane had been dead for seven years.
In his keynote address at the library’s dedication, Charles Francis Adams Jr. described Thomas Crane as a man remarkable for his unwavering virtue:
“Thomas Crane,” said Adams, preserved, “amid all temptations, his New England birthright traits of simplicity, thrift, straightforward honesty, and deep religious feeling.”
Certainly no one can question Crane’s devotion to hard work and religion. As a child Crane and his five siblings walked four miles each way to school in Quincy. At the age of 15, when his father died, Crane began his apprenticeship in the Quincy granite quarries to help support his family. One of the early adherents to the liberal religious doctrine of Universalism, Crane also used to walk the twenty mile round trip from Quincy to Boston every Sunday to hear Hosea Ballou preaching the tenets of humanitarianism.
“Not that many people seem to know who Thomas Crane is,” says children’s library staff member Gail Columbare, opening a manila folder that bristles with articles she’s collected about the man for whom the library is named. She picks up a grainy picture of Crane’s portrait that hangs in the Trustees Room on the third floor, and studies Crane’s stern but handsome face.
Like many people familiar with the Library’s history, Columbare thinks of Crane as one of this city’s native sons. “Most people don’t know that he lived in Quincy Point,” she says. “Even though he was born on Georges Island, he was a real Quincy boy. And even after he left and made a fortune, he was a man who remembered his roots.”