Funds to construct the Hart Memorial Building and the lot on which to build it were donated by Mary E. Hart to honor her late husband, William Howard Hart. Designed by the New York City architectural firm of J. Stewart Barney and Henry Otis Chapman Architects, the Hart Memorial Building, now known as the Troy Public Library, is a distinguished and early example of the American Renaissance style. When they came to design the Troy Public Library, Barney and Chapman were working in an emerging and exciting new style. This style evolved with the architectural success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago which introduced the general public to what had been a more intellectual movement with a limited number of completed projects. Examples of the style prior to construction of the Troy Public Library include the Villard Houses (1886), The Low Library at Columbia University (1894) and the Boston Public Library (1887).
The Troy Public Library was conceived as a demonstration of the integration of art into architecture, and is truly indicative of the remarkable design and construction achieved by American society in the late 19th century, aptly called the American Renaissance. The library, in design and scale, is loosely based on Italian renaissance palaces. The principal facades (south and west) are white marble, probably from Vermont, which rich carving to emphasize important architectural elements. The north and east facades are brick, and since they were not to be seen in their urban context are rendered simply and with a minimum of decoration.
In addition to the elaborate carvings, the new building also featured an original Tiffany window which was designed by Frederick Wilson to portray Venetian scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius (1450 – 1515) at the height of his career. Aldus created an educational and commercial revolution by adapting the octavo format to secular texts, thereby generating the widespread circulation of inexpensive books.
In this window scene, Aldus presents to his associates the proof sheets of an octavo edition of the Divine Comedy by Italy’s greatest poet Dante Aligheri. In addition to the memorial inscription is a quotation of Isidore of Saville (upper right corner) which perhaps expresses Aldus’ own philosophy of life: “Study as if you were to live forever and live as if you were to die tomorrow.”The desire for quality was not limited to antique artistic expression, but carried over to modern construction methods. The library is a “fire-proof” building with load bearing masonry walls and floor systems of low brick arches spanning between iron beams. This system of construction was first used at the Cooper Union School for Arts and Industry in New York City, and adapted for high-rise construction. The Troy Public Library was an expensive building, produced with the finest materials and the best construction techniques available.
The Past Century
The building opened on May 12, 1897 with appropriate ceremony and fanfare. Unfortunately, needed operating support did not match the grandeur of the new library. Mary E. hart presented the sum of $5,000 on the condition that if another $45,000 was raised, she would contribute an additional $5,000. The necessary funds were never raised and under the special conditions of the gift, the original $5,000 reverted to her estate. In 1903 the Trustees voted to change the name of the institution from the Hart Memorial Library to the Troy Public Library in hopes of attracting municipal funding. In 1904 the city of Troy appropriated $2,500 toward the operation of the library, all of which went to pay off a deficit.
By 1905, the library had made all the necessary changes to its book classification and circulation systems to qualify for a charter from the State Education Department allowing it to function as the public library for the City of Troy. In that same year, the Troy Children’s Neighborhood Library, a separately established library that first opened in 1894, moved to the Hart Memorial Building, thus consolidating all independent libraries in Troy under one roof. The first children’s story hour was subsequently held in 1906.
Branches of the Troy Public Library have long served the important function of bringing public library service into the neighborhoods. Between 1907 and 1914, several book delivery stations – the precursors of library branches – opened around Troy. The first appeared at the store of William Devenport at the corner of 17th Street and Second Avenue. Then came a station at Groom’s Glass, 777 Burden Avenue, one at Stillman’s Pharmacy on Pawling Avenue, one at Berger’s Drug Store on Fifth Avenue, and finally one at Beman Park. In 1921, the East Side Branch Library opened at the back of a store on the corner of Pawling and Locust. By 1924, this branch was moved to School 16. In 1927 the Sycaway Branch opened in the newly built School 18 where it has been ever since. In 1939, the Lansingburgh Branch opened in rooms in the old Lansingburgh Academy building at 114th Street and Fourth Avenue where it is still located. In 1949 a branch library was opened in South Troy in School 12, but this branch was closed in 1970.
By the early 1970’s, the Hart Memorial Building was beginning to show its age. After the discovery of a leaky roof in 1972, plans were made for a complete restoration of the building, both inside and out. Work was divided into three phases and included re-roofing, interior painting and exterior cleaning. As part of the added focus on the building, the Hart Memorial Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and in 1976 won the Beautification Awards Contest sponsored by the Greater Troy Chamber of Commerce.
Throughout its long history, adequate funding has been a chronic problem for the Troy Public Library. Contracts for service with the City of Troy and Rensselaer County have always been on an annual basis and must be renegotiated each year. In an effort to address this problem, the Library Board of Trustees elected to petition the state legislature to create a special library taxing district in the City of Troy for library service in 1990. While this home rule initiative passed the state legislature, it was defeated at the polls in the November, 1991 election.
The Troy Public Library celebrated its 100th Anniversary in the Hart Memorial Building in 1997. As the Trustees and Friends look forward to one hundred more years of service, the Troy Public Library remains a vital institution, committed to serving the diverse needs of the citizens of Troy.