Southport’s Pequot Library – Built Quietly, A Secret No More
Antiques & the Arts Weekly | October 25, 2019
SOUTHPORT, CONN. — In 1894, Virginia Marquand Monroe and her husband, Elbert B. Monroe, brought to fruition a very specific vision: to build a place of learning, infused with culture, with services accessible to anyone who entered its halls. It is thanks to this vision that for the past 125 years, Southport has been home to Pequot Library, a stately and historic cultural hub that has been serving its mission since the first bricks were laid and the first books were shelved over a century ago. The library was honored as a Connecticut Treasure by the American Institute of Architects (AIA Connecticut) in 2018 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pequot Library was built on estate grounds belonging to Virginia’s uncle and adoptive father, Frederick Marquand, a benefactor of Yale College and the Union Theological Seminary, a renowned silversmith, and the figurehead of the prestigious Marquand and Co., jewelers. Marquand was also a Fairfield, Conn., native. The land itself had been in the Marquand family since 1768, originally purchased by Frederick’s ancestor, Henry Marquand. Upon Frederick’s death in 1882, he left the property and his fortune to Virginia, “to use and distribute in the cause of education…and encouraging and aiding in good works.”
Quietly, Virginia and Elbert hired famed architect Robert H. Robertson, whom Frederick Marquand had once hired to build the Union Theological Seminary, and building began on the library. The Romanesque Revival building features three iconic arches, a stonework façade and a pink Ludowici-tiled roof. Inside, the space is reminiscent of an academic study showcasing carefully hewn woodwork and Tiffany windows. The impressive wood-paneled auditorium was a passion project of the architect, who was a classically trained musician. The great room is lined with redwood beams and has nearly perfect acoustics, making it a draw for performers and speakers alike.
Accounts from various 1887 editions of the Fairfield Advertiser suggest that the building was built without any fanfare, and largely in secret — with only rumors and speculation around what purpose the great structure being built on Pequot Avenue would serve. From July 15, 1887: “A rumor reached us that the cornerstone of the new library building was to be laid yesterday afternoon. If so, it was done very quietly. As there seems to be a disposition to keep everything connected with the matter a profound secret, we respected the secrecy and did not investigate. Delicacy is so rare now-a-days, that when it is found, it should be respected.”
It seems the rumor mill did its job dutifully. In 1894, the original Marquand home was razed, and the library opened its doors to the public with a circulating collection of 4,000 books, famously declaring the space to be a center of learning and culture with programs “as free as air to all.”
Virginia Marquand Monroe’s financial and material contributions to building the library’s Special Collections were extraordinary and ongoing. In 1889, Mary Catherine Hull Wakeman gave the library additional rare items, as well as $18,000 (almost $500,000 in today’s terms), dedicated in memory of her daughter, to build the stacks wing and care for the collection. “I have enlarged and furnished the stack-room, sparing neither pains nor expense to make it as perfect as possible,” she wrote to the Pequot Library Association. “My desire has been strengthened by the knowledge of the number and the character of the valuable books which Mrs Monroe has given to the association. In the construction of the addition, in all its details, I have sought to give these treasures, and others which may hereafter be secured, a safe and permanent home.” The oaken stacks, reinforced with strong yet intricate ironwork and featuring a glass floor on the upper level, were also designed by Robertson and remain a tangible touchstone of Wakeman’s legacy at the library.
In curating the collection, Virginia and Elbert Monroe consulted the Reverend William Henry Holman, minister of the Southport Congregational Church and founder of an adjacent reading room in town, who had been mentored by Justin Windsor, the first president of the American Library Association. Holman felt that every library should have a specialization in their materials, and thus the Monroes’ decided to collect books on Americana with a special emphasis on New England town histories. Holman selected much of the Americana collection, while Virginia was especially interested in genealogies. A portion of the Special Collections were placed on long-term deposit at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in 1952, based on the research value for scholars and the need for extra secure storage for these priceless items.
For 125 years, Pequot Library has served the community as a place of learning, culture and community. Today, the circulating collection offers more than 116,000 books and media items, and the library hosts more than 500 programs a year, including author events, book clubs, concerts, panel discussions, community events and workshops designed for adults and children alike.
With the careful consideration of executive director Stephanie Coakley, the library’s Special Collections are returning to the center of focus. In 2018, with thanks to the Dillon Fund, Pequot Library was able to create the Dillon Reading Room on the upper level of the stacks wing, reimagined and renovated the May Room, and build a climate-controlled collections storage room in the lower level of the building. At the same time, the library hired Dr Jamie Cumby, the first Special Collections librarian to hold the post in a decade.
Pequot Library now has more than 30,000 items in its Special Collections, from Egyptian relics and Seventeenth Century Shakespeare folios to pre-Revolutionary War propaganda and extensive genealogical histories. The catalog also includes a Twelfth Century manuscript of Sancti Gregorii magni epistolae (the Letters of Pope Gregory I), the oldest book found in a public library in Fairfield County, Conn. Marquand never meant for the Special Collections to be hidden away; indeed, she always meant for these special items to be accessible to the public. Today, Coakley and the staff at Pequot Library take many steps to ensure that these rare items have public access and are used as intended as instruments of inspiration and learning.
At the most elementary level, anyone who is interested in viewing items from Special Collections can browse the catalog on the library’s website and make an appointment with Dr Cumby to view pieces in the collection. The library also offers regular sessions with genealogists that can help guide history buffs and researchers alike through the extensive references and family histories. Also, this coming year, for the first time ever, Pequot Library will accept applications to fill two Special Collections research fellowship positions, harkening a new level of academic pursuit within the library’s walls.
Most notable are the enticing Special Collections exhibitions that now rotate regularly through the library. Curated by library staff, the exhibitions showcase interconnected items from the collection and are planned with complementary programming that reaches every corner of the library’s mission and services. In the past year, the library has held exhibitions that include “Egyptomania: The Western Fascination with Egypt,” “Illumination to Illustration: Art of the Book,” and “Summer by the Sea: Sloop Logs and Ledgers,” which featured Nineteenth Century primary source records and photographs illustrating Southport’s maritime legacy.
On November 8, Pequot Library will open its next exhibition, “Cover to Cover: How People Bind Their Books.” From marbled papers and gilded covers to simply stitched (and profoundly fragile) leaflets, Cumby has curated a collection that will explore the methods and artistry involved in bookbinding from the Ninth to Twentieth Centuries. The library will offer a gamut of complementary programming to engage all ages, including school programs for K-12, as well as college students.
Still in the planning phase, future exhibitions will explore Revolutionary War propaganda and the spread of “fake news,” the art of the pop-up book, the Women’s Suffrage movement, and leisure in the Gilded Age, demonstrating the limitless opportunities to introduce Pequot Library’s Special Collections items to the public in ways that inspire. As you arrive at Pequot Library, taking in its picturesque Great Lawn and formative yet welcoming arches, it is hard not to be moved by the history that resides there. As you enter the reading rooms, the warmth of wood paneling and stained glass windows welcome you, and it is not hard to imagine yourself as a patron of the library a hundred years ago. Pequot Library has a way of preserving and honoring the past while vigorously pursuing its future. Whether you visit to experience the most recent exhibition, to research a family tree, to leaf through the next New York Times Book Review best-seller or just to take in the gravitas of a place that is unique and authentic in its history, know as you enter that you are now part of a great mission, honoring Virginia Marquand Monroe’s wish to create a perpetual place of learning and culture “as free as air to all.”
The Pequot Library is at 720 Pequot Avenue. For information, 203-259-0346 or www.pequotlibrary.org.