Jones Library’s Overdue Historic Structure Report Identifies Irreplaceable Features To Preserve

Wheat motif carved into the pilaster capitals of the bookcases in the children's stacks of the Jones library. Photo: from the Jones Library Historic Structures Report by Eric Gradoia

A Zoom meeting of the Jones Library trustees and the Amherst Historical Commission (AHC) on January 12, 2022 reviewed a historic structure report that had originally been slated for completion by September, 2017. All members of the commission, except Robin Fordham, and all Jones Library trustees attended. 

The report features stunning color photographs of irreplaceable historic features in the 1928 Jones Library original building, as well as historical background on the library’s unique relationship to 17th- and early 19th-century Connecticut River Valley vernacular architecture and furniture design. (some of those photos are posted in a photo essay by Hilda Greenbaum in this issue of The Indy).

“The original L-shaped portion of the Jones Library (1928) currently comprises about 60% of the total library space and is on the State Register of Historic Places. It is also on the National Register as part of the historic Amherst Central Business District.  The National Park Service developed the genre of Historic Structures Reports in the 1930s as a type of study to facilitate effective preservation planning. Such a report assembles documentary, graphic, and physical information about a property’s history and existing condition. It can also include owners’ goals for the use or re-use of a property. 

The Jones report, which was presented by Eric Gradoia, Director of Historic Preservation at Historic Deerfield, could “help ensure the long-term preservation of the 1928 library, a work of architecture unique to Amherst…that for generations has been the vital core of the community.”

The Jones Library Trustees are also required to work with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to eliminate, minimize, or mitigate adverse effects.

The report is critical to the current renovation and expansion project for legal reasons as well as aesthetic and historic reasons.  First, as a condition of their construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, the trustees must submit their plans to the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) for its determination of the project’s “adverse effects” on the exterior and interior of the property. “Adverse effects” include destroying all or part of the State Register property, and introducing visual or other elements that are out of character with it. The trustees are also required to work with the historical commission to eliminate, minimize, or mitigate adverse effects. 

Second, although the trustees intend to fund part of the project by selling historical preservation tax credits, in order to qualify for federal tax credits, all work on the Jones must comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for the rehabilitation of historic properties. These standards are discussed at the end of the report.

Gradoia is the report’s principal author. Members of the UMass Department of Architecture, who helped prepare this report, include Professor Eldra Walker, lecturer  Ann Marshall, and graduate student Carly Regalado. The library’s report was funded by $10,000 in Amherst Historical Commission due diligence fund, and a Community Preservation Act grant for $25,000. 

The commission requested the report in November, 2016 after receiving a presentation by Finegold Alexander Architects on its plans for the Jones Library demolition and expansion project. In proposing the report, Commission Chair and Emily Dickinson Museum Director Jane Wald commented that it was “the homework you were supposed to do” before making changes to a historic building. 

Gradoia noted how the Connecticut River Valley’s isolation from the coastal cities and European influences, coupled with the agricultural prosperity that produced its wealthy “River Gods,” supported a local architectural tradition of large, gambrel-roofed houses with elaborate “frontis” main doorways.

Connecticut River Valley furniture styles used carved ornaments in the form of characteristic rosettes, vines and tendrils, flowers, and wheat motifs instead of classical ornamentation. South Hadley-born-and-bred architect Allen Howard Cox, of the Boston architectural firm of Putnam and Cox, transferred these Valley domestic elements to an institutional setting, using them throughout the 1928 Jones Library.

The Jones represents much more than what is known as Colonial Revival architecture, according to the report. It is Cox’s take on the 18th century, adapted for the 20th. Instead of the double doors common in the “frontis” of a Connecticut River Valley mansion, for instance, the library’s main entrance has a single door surrounded by clear glazed panels. Gradoia noted the Jones’ “cohesive exterior [that is] brought in to the interior.” 

Historic black and white photos of the library’s interior show that the original wall paints were in colors, with white molding and other trim. Gradoia said that the loss of  this color on the walls has made a huge difference in patrons’ experience of the library. Calling the library’s rooms “intimate and inviting,” he explained that “to call it a library does not do it justice.” 

The 1928 building is in fairly good condition, he found. He attributed this to the design, the high quality materials used for the Jones, and “a stout” construction. He also detailed a number of areas that have not been well-maintained. For instance, trees that have grown close to the library have trapped moisture t, affecting painted surfaces. The library was last painted in about 2010, when the need for a paint job had become dire, and much of the paint had actually peeled down to bare wood. The painted exterior woodwork looks like that now. The report also notes damage to the fact that some of the original chimneys were left uncovered.

Despite additions and interior changes made in the 1960s and early 1990s, Gradoia emphasized that much of the original library interior remains in good shape. The 60-page report does not document these historic features room by room or include photos from all of the historic rooms.

The report was met with approval and appreciation. Commission Chair Jane Wald called it an “amazing presentation about the importance of this structure and its unique Connecticut River Valley architectural and furniture traditions.” Austin Sarat, said that he was “incredibly grateful.” He said he had thought he knew the building, “but seeing it through your eyes gives greater appreciation.” 

Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry called the presentation “awesome,” but opined that the small rooms Gradoia likes so much “don’t work now.” Amherst resident Hilda Greenbaum said that Gradoia “hit every nail on the head…He highlighted all the things I have learned about Connecticut Valley architecture and décor over more than 60 years here,” she said.

How the new report will influence what is saved and what is not considered worth saving in the current renovation/expansion project remains to be seen. 

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3 thoughts on “Jones Library’s Overdue Historic Structure Report Identifies Irreplaceable Features To Preserve

  1. “Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry called the presentation ‘awesome,’ but opined that the small rooms Gradoia likes so much ‘don’t work now.’”

    Surely a thoughtful director would find a way to “work” with the beautiful old space she’s inherited, even while vastly expanding the library with new space that may seem to work better for some things today — but who’s to say how today’s planned new space will work 94 (or many fewer) years from now?

  2. Having grown up in Amherst, the Jones Library was an anchor in my childhood. I have watched the evolution of its mission over the decades since 1960, and the struggles with spatial restrictions imposed. Amherst itself has followed a similar course, it seems to me. Amherst Academy torn down to become a parking lot, the elementary schools on Kellogg Avenue demolished and replace with housing, and the building of new elementary schools to take their place elsewhere with “the latest and best ideas for flexible, open-model classrooms” that turned out to be so disastrously poor in actual use, let alone the closed-system-no-open-windows poor ventilation that accompanied some focus on, what was it, energy efficiency? It’s interesting to see that the “original” Jones building is so structurally sound, whereas it’s the “improvements” that have had the leaks and the issues requiring the vast sums in repairs. I hope that the designers, architects, and engineers not only work well on the new but also preserve what is unique about the Jones. I no longer have unequivocal faith in good outcomes of projects undertake with good intentions, having seen too many things go awry.

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