An enthusiastic group of more than 60 people gathered behind the North Amherst Library on Wednesday (6/15) to break ground for the long anticipated expansion and renovation of the building. The North Amherst Library is one of the oldest buildings in town, completed in 1893 in what was the remote northern end of town characterized by farming and factories along the Mill River. The architect was Roswell Putnam (1840–1911) the foremost residential architect in Amherst and Northampton in the last two decades of the 19th century. The library design is in the Queen Anne style which was typical of much of Putnam’s work. The project for the addition took form in 2017 when Town Meeting allocated $50,000 for a design study of the library. In 2018, the Friends of the North Amherst Library requested $45,000 of Community Preservation Act historical preservation funds to begin raising money for a single unisex bathroom and an elevator. Afterwards, an anonymous donor offered to fund a more ambitious expansion of the library to include an accessible addition with two bathrooms, a community meeting room that will accommodate 40-50 people, and a half-floor lift. Kuhn Riddle Architects created the design, and Wright Builders will do the construction. The construction will add 1,210 square feet to the library’s current 926 square foot building and is expected to cost $1.7 million. The library will close in July and construction will likely take 10 or 11 months once begun. The library’s collections will be moved to a space in the nearby Mill District and will remain accessible during construction. In preparation for the renovation/expansion project, the last day of services at the North Amherst Library will be Saturday, June 25. Beginning Monday, June 27, staff will start boxing-up materials in order to get ready for them to be moved to the interim location at 81 Cowls Road (The Mill District).
Town Manager Paul Bockleman opened the ceremony by thanking all who had made the day possible, especially the organizers. He noted that this was the first new building to be constructed in Amherst in decades and he hoped that it marked the first of several such ceremonies to be held in the near future. He also observed that the plans for the design of the addition were received enthusiastically and without criticism, which he termed a possible first for Amherst. He said, “The renovated library will be an iconic addition to North Amherst Center and fits in perfectly into its setting.”
Town Council President Lynn Griesemer gave heartfelt thanks to the anonymous donor and recognition of the three women who she said got the project started, Pat Holland, Molly Turner, and Hilda Greenbaum. She gave thanks to W.D. Cowls president Cinda Jones for providing space for the library collections in the Mill District during renovation.
Hilda Greenbaum and Molly Turner, conceptualized the project (along with Pat Holland, who was not present) and shepherded it from start to finish. Turner is a former Jones Library trustee president. Greenbaum’s late husband, Louis, was also a past trustee, and Greenbaum has long been active in historic preservation efforts around town.
Barbara Puffer Garnier who grew up in North Amherst, shared memories of using the library as a child. She is the daughter of the late Stephen Puffer, a well-known contractor and a 66-year veteran of Amherst Town Meeting. She said, “When we were kids, we got to come to the library every week. The North Amherst School was just around the corner. The librarians and the teachers collaborated on guiding our reading and that was the beginning of an intellectual life for us — and especially for kids who didn’t have much to read at home or whose parents weren’t encouraging.” She recounted a long list of life skills that she began to develop at the library and concluded by reading a poem by Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things.” She also introduced 99-year-old Peter Kaslaskas, who has lived on Summer Street in North Amherst his entire life and was her school bus driver. Kaslaskas helped out at the library often.
Nancy Jenks Hankinson grew up in North Amherst. She told of how her great-grandfather built the North Amherst library in 1893, on land donated by his father. She said, “I’m thrilled that after 100 years, we’re getting something that is the same design as what he created way back when!” She brought pictures of North Amherst Center from the 1900s as well as pictures of the library when it was brand new.
Suzannah Fabing Muspratt, an art historian with a life-long interest in architecture, recounted the history of Roswell Field Putnam , who designed the library in 1892 for a fee of $25. (She requested that Kuhn Riddle Architects and Wright Builders take notice). Putnam , who trained originally as a carpenter, was Amherst’s leading architect in the 1890s, and designed more than 20 buildings in Amherst, many of which are still here and have aged gracefully. The library in North Amherst was the first of three jewel box libraries that he designed, the other two being the Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury and Meekins Library in Williamsburg. Putnam loved books, and it was reported in the Daily Hampshire Gazette of his time that he had “the best private library this side of New York City”. Muspratt said, “[Putnam’s] reverence for books shines forth in his designs….I think it’s great that the town takes architecture and historic preservation seriously because it’s these historic buildings that give Amherst a special sense of place. The North Amherst library addition demonstrates that in the hands of talented architects, these older buildings can be adapted to current needs without losing their original character.”
Jessica Mix Barrington spoke on behalf of the District One Neighborhood Association (DONA), which has been a consistent advocate for the North Amherst library renovation and has worked to build strong community ties and commitments in North Amherst. She said that the library is “the heart of the North Amherst community” and welcomed the enhancements that are now under way. “These changes will allow us to bring more people together under the library’s roof more often,” she said.
W.D Cowls President Cinda Jones said that her family calls North Amherst “the dirty hands district,” as this is where the farms and the factories used to be located, and where “the immigrants” lived. She said it is a place where hard work and dirty hands get things done. She recounted some of the history of North Amherst, noting that her great, great, great-grandfather was one of the 45 dues-paying members ($45 dues) who created the North Amherst Library Association (NALA), which was responsible for building the library. She said that soon after the library was completed, 65 residents created the North Amherst Village Improvement Society, which provided, among other things, oil street lights for Sunderland Road. She pointed to the continuity of community involvement in North Amherst, saying that yesterday’s NALA is today’s anonymous donor.
Town Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) recounted how important the North Amherst Library was to her kids, who used to hang out there after school, and how her mother, who moved to Amherst late in life, used the library nearly daily and was well-known and warmly welcomed by the librarians. Town Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) said she is looking forward to holding district meetings in the community room at the library.
Note: Meg Gage contributed to this article. See her preview of the groundbreaking here.