The following article was selected by the editors from Volume 39 #2
of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (Winter 1955-56) pp. 73-75.
Copyright © 2000 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
The Inception of the Library Building
for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin
By Jackson E. Towne
"Now that the Society is possessor of all it surveys, it is well to recollect events when the union of two libraries was proposed, and Superintendent Thwaites asked: 'Shall we by this proposed alliance take what we can probably get, or shall we wait single-handed for something we may never obtain?' Through combined effort Thwaites and President Adams brought about the union, of fifty-two years duration."
When the time came to seek a legislative appropriation for a library building for the State Historical Society, to be erected on property at the edge of the campus of the University, Secretary Reuben Gold Thwaites was fortunate to have an able and experienced collaborator in Charles Kendall Adams, who had been inaugurated as the University of Wisconsin's seventh president on January 17, 1893.
In 1892 Adams had completed seven years as the second president of Cornell University, having gone to Ithaca from the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1861 and served successively as instructor, professor and dean. At Ann Arbor, Adams had much to do with the planning of the library building erected in 1883, and during his presidency at Cornell the University Library building there was planned, erected and dedicated, with funds donated by a wealthy local philanthropist, Henry W. Sage.
Although something of a self-made scholar, Adams was the compiler of the well-known Manual of Historical Literature. The library buildings which he was so instrumental in projecting at Ann Arbor and Ithaca were regarded as important structures in their day, but the first one was no longer much admired by 1893. Nevertheless, Secretary Thwaites thought the Cornell Library, when he visited it in anticipation of planning the forthcoming building at Madison, "by far the best-planned and best-built University library building in this country." 1 And it is interesting to note that although he was a Westerner, President Adams always advanced the claims of an experienced Eastern architect, Henry Van Brunt, who built the Michigan Library in 1883. Ultimately he was not the architect selected by the Trustees at Cornell or by the Commissioners at Wisconsin, although his competing designs were submitted in each instance against the winning local contestants.
The 1883 Michigan Library, which came down during World War I to make way for the present General Library at Ann Arbor, had certain resemblances to the red brick Gothic Memorial Hall at Harvard, which Van Brunt designed. The great stone library at Cornell, with its separate tower, long the focus of alumni nostalgia "far above Cayuga's waters," was designed by a local architect named Miller and reflected the influence of the well-known American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who derived much of the inspiration for his style from early Romanesque. But when the time arrived for the erection of a library for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the influence of the much-admired architecture of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago was in the ascendant, and the straight lines of the classic orders, with flat roofs, domes, and colonnades were the order of the day for every large public building then contemplated. For some years the notion of combining the library of the University of Wisconsin with that of the Historical Society had been entertained, and one of the strongest arguments for the combination lay in the fact that for years the major use of the Library of the Society was from members of the University. 2
It is interesting that President Adams actually preceded Secretary Thwaites in officially presenting the case for the union of the two collections, at a special meeting of the Regents on January 4, 1893. 3 Thwaites offered a nine-page typed statement before the Board of Curators of the Society a few days later, with Adams present.
There were hazards to be foreseen in the union from the point of view of either the University or the Society, but these were inevitably never printed in any document, nor can they be found in any surviving letter penned by any of those most closely concerned. There was but one good answer to the final question, which Thwaites asked: "Shall we by this proposed alliance take what we can probably get, or shall we wait single-handed for something we may never obtain?" 4 No appropriation was voted in 1893, but the Legislature obliged in 1895 and the act provided not only for an initial building fund but also created a commission which included the governor, representatives of the Society, Secretary Thwaites, and the University regents, together with President Adams.
The Board of Commissioners for erecting the State Historical Library Building drew up a general statement of requirements. These envisaged a cruciform floor plan with book stacks for the Society Library in a wing facing State Street, and stacks for the University Library in an identical wing facing Langdon. It was thought that the rear wing should face Park Street, and that the front wing, longer than the others, should jut out into the campus, facing east, with an imposing set of steps leading up to the entrance. The structure was to be topped by a low Pantheon dome. A blueprint incorporating these ideas, so different from what was ultimately adopted, was supplied to the competing architects.
Each of the competing firms suggested a cruciform structure with a dome, except the H. C. Koch Company of Milwaukee. This firm proposed a rectangular building with a flat roof and an Ionic colonnade. A large clock was sketched at the top of the façade over the main entrance, on the Eastern side of the long wing of the rectangle. The two wings of book stacks, instead of jutting out toward State and Langdon, were appended at the back, both extending toward Park Street, with their ends facing up the hill toward Bascom Hall: the arrangement of the building today. 5 But, although the Koch Company was awarded a prize for its plan, the larger and better known firm of Ferry and Clas of Milwaukee won the competition. This firm had built the Milwaukee Public Library, which, like the Wisconsin structure, had to house separate agencies, in Milwaukee's case the city library and the city museum. The design for the final competition for the library of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin which won the award for Ferry and Clas was immediately scrapped, and the winners erected the design of the H. C. Koch Company, minus the clock over the main entrance!
This statement is something of an over-simplification of what actually occurred, but it is literally true so far as the general massing of the larger units and the arrangement of the major wings of the building ultimately erected.
A comparison of the floor-plans of the competing architectural firms in the pages of The Inland Architect and News Record for December, 1895, should make fairly clear to the average layman that the Wisconsin Commissioners chose the best arrangements for the purposes for which the building was to be built. At least we may be sure that it was wise to instruct Ferry and Clas to discard the dome which they had included even in their final competition design.
Although neither Secretary Thwaites nor President Adams served as chairman of the Building Commissioners, they were nevertheless key planners of the structure and this was most true of Thwaites. His predecessor, Draper, had anticipated the time when a separate library building would be needed and had collected some floor plans of other library buildings all of, which were obsolete by 1895. Thwaites brought his own information up to date with an extensive tour to visit library buildings in the East. A long letter to the President of the Wisconsin Academy written in March 1899, offers evidence of Thwaites' detailed planning for the new building.
The construction is rather fully documented in the files of the Society. Francis Grant, as superintendent, kept a close check on the contractor and on the architect. Structural engineering in the 1890s involved numerous difficulties, which do not confront the modern builder. Costs rose, an experience no less common today. The original estimates had not included book stacks and this required further funds. There were other bothersome delays; but finally the building was completed, and on October 19, 1900, an audience of 900 persons, comprising members of the Society, State officers and members of the Legislature, members of the University faculty and of other educational institutions in Wisconsin, together with invited guests, gathered in the general reading room for the dedication. 6 Exercises were held both in the afternoon and evening. Charles Francis Adams, representing the Massachusetts Historical Society, was the chief speaker at the evening session.
President Adams left Madison on the very day following the dedication, setting out for Europe, where he hoped to, regain his health. Returning, the following fall he was soon forced to withdraw to California, where he died in July 1902.
Adams had kept a close interest in the planning for the new building. When the University librarian had addressed him at the sanatorium at Battle Creek in June, 1900, regarding the contents of the future University Library seminars, urging the inclusion of mathematics, President Adams ruled against this, restricting the first seminars to German, Latin, Greek, French, English, philosophy, and education. 7
The University Library's book collections grew slowly. Although needed for some years, the northwest University book stack wing was not erected until fourteen years after the dedication.
Both President Adams and Secretary Thwaites must have been fully aware from the beginning of possible administrative difficulties inherent in any arrangements whereby the Society was to be moved onto property formerly part of the campus of the University, into a building where the Society would act as landlord for the University Library, although not subject to the authority of the Board of Regents. But the then weakness of the University Library, and the great strength and prestige of the Historical Society holdings were telling arguments for the union, even though it might, for the time being, involve an imbalance of administrative control.
The resulting building was hailed at the time of its dedication by scholars and librarians throughout the nation and today, some fifty-five years later, we behold it, with the University book collections now withdrawn into a great new building of their own, reconditioned and rededicated, for what we hope will prove many more years of service as the home of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
1. Records of the Proceedings of the Board of Commissioners for the erection of a Library Building for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin under Chapter 298, Laws of 1895 (1895), Manuscript in State Historical Society Library.
2. Charles Kendall Adams, "The Case for the Union ...," undated, signed leaflet, paragraph.
3. 'Reports of the Regents, C :405, University of Wisconsin Archives, Memorial Library.
4. Board of Curators, Minutes of Proceedings, 1854-1897, in the State Historical Society Library.
5. The Inland Architect and News Record, 26 (no. 5), passim (December, 1895).
6. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Exercises at the Dedication of its New Building, October 19, 1900; together with a Description of the Building, Accounts of the Several Libraries contained therein, and a Brief History of the Society. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites (Madison, 1901).
7. Smith to Adams, June 15, 1900, in the Presidents' Papers, University of Wisconsin Archives, Memorial Library.