I recently read Sam Fuller’s account of how the library on 50 North Main Street came to be. The building’s inception was awash in what Sam called “blood and tears.” Sam was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees throughout the building process. Warren Platner, the chosen architect, wowed the Trustees. None of the other architects interviewed for the job, could reference work on buildings such as the U.S. Embassy in London, colleges at Yale University and the Ford Foundation Headquarters in New York City.
The “blood and tears” started early. The site the Trustees desired for the library was prime real estate – smack in the center of town, a plot that would have provided a healthy tax revenue. There was much debate. However, the Trustees convinced enough people that “our library would be a real drawing card that would attract taxpayers to the community.”
Platner’s mock-up elicited intense, negative criticism. It was too modern and the flat roof was ugly. It was not monumental enough according to Mead Alcorn. The Historic District Commission, chaired by Mrs. Howard Alcorn, favored an “A & P colonial” as Sam put it, with little window panes overlooking Main Street. Unfortunately, Platner’s design required the Commission’s Certificate of Appropriateness. To make the library monumental, Platner raised the library four feet which in turn created a steep hill, making the entrance less accessible. Mary Anne Zak influenced detractors by demonstrating that over the town’s 300 years, Suffield’s buildings were architectural progressions, contemporary in their own time, and not controlled by earlier styles. Like the buildings she referenced, Platner’s design was contemporary but it also complemented Suffield’s earlier architecture in design, form and material. It worked. The Trustees voted unanimously for the design and the Certificate of Appropriateness was issued, but the discussions were passionate, and the squabbles continued.
In another controversy, when Platner was asked to lower the new sidewalk in front of the library, he exploded, “it would not work to lower the sidewalk only at the library…such sophomoric schemes…are clearly unconsidered suggestions and ridiculous…each of the banks and the commercial development were built without consideration for or correlation with each other, or with the library…how does it happen that in handsome New England Suffield there are ..two A & P inept versions of Williamsburg Colonial that looks like a movie set for a gold rush Western shootout, neither of which has anything at all to do with Suffield.”
Platner “stirred up [another] storm” when he wanted to substitute concrete for the brownstone foundation. When the brownstone supplier went bankrupt, importing brownstone from England was loudly advocated, but instead, durable Stony Creek – from Branford, Connecticut was substituted. Other disagreements concerned a tunnel entrance and the white painted exterior bricks.
In the end, the library took seven years from conception to its completion in June 1972. The building has detractors. In making his final pledge payment, Howard Alcorn wrote, “We would be happier about sending it [his check] if we did not see such a hideous structure evolving.” But the library also has advocates. Proposing to demolish the building created an outcry and a ”Modernism at Risk” exhibit by the World Monuments Fund which toured throughout the United States and Canada. The library was showcased as one of five case studies of imperiled modernism. The library’s legacy of “blood and tears” continues to this day, abating, it is hoped, in the re-opening of the library.
Sam Fuller pushed to “do it right” despite setbacks and controversies. We have tried to do the same. Thanks for all the work, the time and the money that was put into the library. The building is beautiful. It’s time to go home.