BRATTLEBORO—Current Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell was 5 years old when the town tore down the original Brooks Memorial Library on Main Street in 1967.
“My memories weren’t very vivid,” he said.
But he does remember the new library being built and that it opened on Sept. 23, 1967, five days before his father’s 40th birthday.
Corwin “Corky” Elwell was the Town Manager then. Five days from his 90th birthday, the elder Elwell shared the story about how the new Brooks Memorial Library was built during its 50th anniversary anniversary celebration.
The Victorian-era library, built in 1887 with funds from successful Brattleboro entrepreneur George J. Brooks, was showing its age by the 1960s.
It sat between the Post Office and the Masonic Hall on Main Street, and the federal government coveted the land the library sat on for a parking lot and to expand the busy Brattleboro Post Office.
“They made the town an offer we could not refuse — $70,000 for the site,” Corwin said.
There was little outcry over the plan to demolish the library. Corwin Elwell said the Library Trustees were completely autonomous then, and their only interaction with town government was the article they put on the town meeting warrant each year seeking funds to supplement their operating budget.
“The [Selectboard] didn’t make any of the decisions,” Elwell said. “We just paid the bills.”
But the trustees knew what they wanted. Elwell said they had prepared a report in 1955 anticipating the day when a new library needed to be built. That report had two primary recommendations. The new library needed to be on Main Street, and it must have open space so it is welcoming to its patrons.
It cost $560,000 — almost $4.2 million in today’s dollars — to build the new library. A house that once stood at the foot of the hill where Brattleboro High School — today’s Municipal Center — is was bought and demolished.
Frederick J. Mahaffey of Hartford, Conn., was chosen by the Library Trustees as the architect for the new library, and he designed what was then the most modern looking building on Main Street, with its large glass windows facing the street and an airy, high-ceilinged main reading room.
The patrons certainly liked the new building. According to former Library Director Jerry Carbone, Brooks Library saw a 20 percent increase in circulated materials in its first year.
But Carbone said the loss of the old library “left some scars in the community.” He attributes the success of efforts to save the Brooks House and Union Station from demolition in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the realization of what was lost when the old Brooks Library was torn down.
After 50 years, the current Brooks Memorial Library is a fixture on Brattleboro’s Main Street, a space that current Library Director Starr LaTronica calls ”Brattleboro’s living room.”
At every hour of the day, something is happening there. As the special guest of the birthday celebration, author and advice columnist Amy Dickinson, said in her remarks, “Every visit to a library is an opportunity to make connections.”
And the most important connection of all, she said, is the human connection shared by everyone who uses public libraries.
That connection has been maintained, as Corky Elwell said earlier in the day, “by the effort and support that the people of Brattleboro have given to its library services.”
As someone who benefited from that support while growing up in Brattleboro, Peter Elwell called Brooks Library “a really, really important space in our community ... it is not just a place for knowledge and experience, it is a place to come together.”