Archive for the “Local History” Category

Postcard from 1930

Postcard from 1930

Somerville Public Library’s central branch is marking its centennial this year. Way back in January of 1914, the Italian Renaissance-style building at 79 Highland Avenue opened for patrons after its dedication on Dec. 17, 1913.

Famed library architect Edward Lippincott Tilton designed the new building. According to the Somerville Journal in an article dated Dec. 12, 1913, the library was constructed at a cost of $125,000 (which is $2,993,333 in today’s dollars). Great library supporter and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie donated $80,000. The furniture and bookcases were made of oak. The book capacity was 200,000 volumes.

Other events in our library’s life:

– In 1928, the second floor of the central branch – Wellington Hall – was dedicated to library trustee J. Frank Wellington, who at that time had served for 35 years in that capacity.

– The 1975-’76 renovation: $1.7 million was spent on the facelift, which is $7.5 million in today’s dollars. Of that total, $1.5 million came from a bond issue. Staff members recall many books being kept in trailers near City Hall, while staff and some resources were relocated to City Hall’s basement while renovations were taking place.

– In 1976, after renovations were complete, the Children’s Room was dedicated to late Somerville citizen Marguerite “Missy” Alice LeHand, President Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime secretary and confidante. James Roosevelt, grandson of the late president, also attended the dedication.

– In 1981, the library was picked by the Massachusetts Library Association as the Library of the Year.

Can you recognize the difference from today's entrance?

Can you recognize the difference from today’s entrance?

– In 1989, the branch was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

– In 2007, the library was awarded a $40,000 Planning and Design Grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

– In 2012, Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners added Somerville to its waiting list for an $18 million construction grant to build a new library in Union Square. In order to receive the grant, Somerville must come up with a solid plan for funding the whole project, which is projected to cost $45 million. Plans are still developing.


At the dedication in 1913, Drew Bert Hall, Somerville’s librarian, had this to say: “Yet this service, great as it is, is but a beginning of what shall be. For there is not a child or a young man, a housewife or a merchant, a laborer or a banker, a mechanic or a lady in this land to-night who does not need something to be found in good books; whether it be comfort for their sorrows of the day, or of knowledge for the struggles of the morrow, or of inspiration for their visions of the future.”

Can this 100-year-old sentiment still be relevant to us today? You betcha.


For more information on the history of all three branches of the Somerville Public Library, visit the Local History Room on the second floor of the central branch. Our website has some tips to check out before you stop by. There is also a display on the first floor of the central branch with with lovely pictures of the branch pre-renovation, during the renovation in 1975-’76 and a few from the library right after the renovation.


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Books for Somerville Reads 2014 have arrived and are now available at all SPL locations!

Somerville Reads is a project that promotes literacy and community engagement by encouraging people all over the City to read and discuss the same book. The book that has been selected for 2014 is Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo. A companion children’s book has also been selected: The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919 by Deborah Kops. Both of these authors will be visiting the Library in September. Details about the author visits and other Somerville Reads events will be coming soon.

In the meantime, stop by one of the SPL Libraries, pick up your book, and start reading!  And to get in the spirit, why not try a molasses recipe or two?  We will be printing out some recipes for you to try in the coming weeks – they’ll be available near the display of Somerville Reads books.  Slow Cooked Boston Baked Beans, anyone?


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It’s official: Whitey Bulger has been found guilty – of a whole lot of stuff – and will presumably be spending the rest of his life behind bars.  Many of us would like to forget all about the notorious thug but, human nature being what it is, a fair number of us want to know all there is to know about Whitey and his doings.  To that end, here’s a list of relevant books available through the Minuteman Library Network.


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This month we’re happy to have Somerville High School juniors and seniors at the library doing research on the history of Assembly Square. They’re employees of a collaboration between Federal Realty, Artists for Humanity, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and the City of Somerville.

“Based on what we find out, we’re going to make suggestions for a sculpture, ” said SHS senior Larry Barnes. The sculpture will in some way embody the history of Assembly Square and will placed in the new development known as Assembly Row, said SHS history teacher Ted Blake.

Based on the Somerville students’ suggestions, Boston teen artists will make a prototype of the sculpture that will go on display at Riverfest this September.

The students have an infectious enthusiasm for the project. “I just like the excitement, that something good is going to come of this, ” said Lucy, an SHS senior. Another senior, Nicole, said, “I like that we’re helping design something and we can say, ‘I made that.’

photoPictured: SHS students Larry Barnes and Fred Gramont. Photo courtesy of Ted Blake.


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Last night yours truly and Kristi Chase of the City’s Historic Preservation department gave a presentation on genealogical and house history research. Since most people remember research processes when they’re given concrete examples, we took one house in Somerville and explained how to use library resources and local government document to find out how the house had been altered over the course of its existence and to find out who lived there since it was built. So technically, the presentation was “Researching the History of Your House and the People Who Lived There.” I demonstrated how to use resources such as the census, deeds, and military service records to gather information on who lived in a specific house, and Kristi was impressive as she showed how one can use maps, historic photos, and building permits to uncover radical changes to the house (in this case, a rather spare house built in the 1850s had been converted into an example of Queen Anne fancifulness).

Our talk was one of the final events of Somerville’s Historic Preservation Month. We’ll be giving it again next year and hope you’ll attend.


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As usual, there’s a lot going on at the Library and all over the City this weekend!

* Saturday at the Central Library from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., we invite you to join us for the Somerville Reads Potluck Celebration featuring great food, prizes, and music by the Michael J. Epstein Library. This is part of the Mayor’s Urban Agriculture Initiative – you can read about related events happening around the City here.

* Sunday at the Walnut Street Community Garden at 1:00 p.m., Cathy Piantigini and Jim Boyd host an all-ages discussion of Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks. Full information can be found here.

* Also on Sunday, at the Central Library at 2:00 p.m., Paul and Rachel Revere will ride again, in a performance by Lee Riethmiller and Jessa Piaia. More information on this program can be found here.

Will the weather cooperate? We don’t know, but either way, it’s SPRING!!! and that in itself is something to be glad about. Here’s a spring song to get you in the mood:


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Join us at the Central Library this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. as Paul and Rachel Revere ride again!

Set in 1805, the dramatization animates the “Spirit of the Day,” as Paul and Rachel recount the exciting tale of life in Boston’s North End when America was still a British Crown Colony. Paul Revere married Rachel Walker in 1773, following the death of his first wife, Sarah, who died after the birth of their sixth child. Rachel took on the care of the children, and with Paul had six more of their own. Hear about the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the stirring events that led to Paul’s famous Midnight Ride in April 1775.

Clad in period attire, Lee Riethmiller and Jessa Piaia portray this early 19th century couple of “forthright hospitality and remarkable good humour,” as they relive the drama of Colonial unrest that culminated in America’s Revolution, and what followed afterwards during our collective journey from colonist to citizen, when Paul Revere ventured from being a respected artisan into being a successful industrialist in Canton, Massachusetts, during the early days of the new Republic.

This performance in appropriate for people ages 12 and older. The program is funded by the Friends of the Somerville Public Library and all are welcome.


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The Director’s “Meet, Mingle, Read” series continues at the Central Library this Wednesday (March 28th) at 7:00 p.m. Join us in welcoming authors Ron Driscoll and John Powers who will discuss their new book, Fenway Park: A Salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-Running Baseball Stadium in America (Running Press).

Since it opened in 1912, Fenway Park has become an iconic destination for baseball fans everywhere and a source of great civic pride for generations of New Englanders. Home to the Boston Red Sox—as well as many important non-baseball events over the decades—it is consistently among the most visited and toured sports arenas in the country. Published in association with the Boston Globe, Fenway Park is the product of an all-star cast of writers, photographers, and baseball historians. It includes more than 250 classic and never-before published photographs, a removable poster featuring the rare blueprints of Fenway’s historic 1931 renovation, a double gatefold of Fenway’s famous Green Monster, a foreword by Jim Lonborg, and a special introduction by former Globe publisher Benjamin Taylor. With a decade-by-decade narrative detailing the remarkable history of the Red Sox—plus over 100 intriguing illustrated sidebars covering memorable events like concerts, political rallies, papal visits, people profiles, and much more—Fenway Park is a collector’s item as well as the perfect gift for any fan of baseball or Boston.

All are invited to attend this free program. Copies of this beautiful coffee table book will be available for purchase from The Harvard Coop Bookstore for $30. Light refreshments will be served.


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CorkyFall might just be the best time of year for exploring the outdoors in New England. I love walking in beautiful natural places like Mt. Auburn Cemetery and Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary. I used to be a regular visitor to the Arnold Arboretum too, but haven’t wanted to go back there since the demise of Corky, the Arboretum’s much-loved cork tree. Running a hand over Corky’s smooth bark and sitting on that inviting low branch that parallelled the ground was always the highlight of an Arboretum walk. I’ve been thinking about that lately, and wanting to see a picture of Corky, so I checked our Massachusetts Newstand database and found this article: Remembering an Irresistible Tree. A search of the Arboretum’s website also turned up an article entitled Requiem for a Cork Tree from Arnoldia, their quarterly magazine.

Corky is gone, but at least there’s a small bit of consolation in having these articles and photos, and the technology that enables us to enjoy them. Amazingly, it’s been sixteen years since a class of 6th graders gave Corky his last group hug. That’s much too long to have stayed away from the jewel that is the Arboretum. And anyway, I heard that those kids planted a new cork tree as a way of making amends. I really should go back soon and see how that one’s coming along.


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An SPL blog reader recently suggested to me that I write about “crazy books in the collection.”  With over 200,000 volumes SPL definitely has its share of those (among my favorites are a slim little volume on the guys who figured out how to embalm Lenin and a book about the first scientific studies of the duck-billed platypus*)

However, one of the best places to seek out unusual reading material is the Local History Room at the Central Library. It’s used primarily by genealogists, historic preservationists, and people with interest, professional or otherwise, in some aspect of Somerville history. It contains various city records, some of which can provide an interesting window on the concerns of people in the past.

In an age when kids are wired into multimedia of various sorts 24/7 and they use text message acronyms in written school assignment, this passage from the 1859 School Committee Report shows how much things have changed:

Latin and Mathematics constitute the bulk of the study in the High School. The experience of the past….is in favor of these studies, as affording the best means for giving thorough mental discipline, and thus preparing our children to discharge most creditably the active duties of life.

I’m sure a thorough knowledge of Horace and Catullus was of great help to male graduates of the High School 4 years later when they were dodging bullets at Gettysburg.

The Local History Room also has one of only two known copies of  A Brief History of Somerville 1630-1842.  A local named Isobel M. Cheney wrote it to fulfill her thesis requirement for a master’s in history at BU.  In its pages you can learn about little-known men of Somerville & Charlestown’s past such as Col. Samuel Jacques, the proprietor of Ten Hills Farm. Jacques became famous for the remarkable quality of livestock he bred and the produce he cultivated. And he seems to have had a reputation as a veterinarian as well:

In 1840 the first orang-outang known to America was on exhibit in Boston. When the monkey became ill the Colonel was called upon to see if he could make him well. He had a two-floor dwelling made for the animal and after a year the monkey was restored to health.

The LH Room not only contains government documents and works of Somerville and New England history, but also houses books from the library’s nineteenth-century collection: As Nature Shows Them : Moths and Butterflies of the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, The North American Sylva, or, A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia and one of my own personal favorites: The Finding of Wineland the Good, an 1890 translation of the Norse saga of the same name, complete with pictures of pages from a surviving manuscript. It’s really outrageous: characters are constantly getting exiled to Iceland for manslaughter or going on murdering sprees with axes. I also take a childish delight in the names: Thorbiorg the Ship-Chested, Thori the Loiterer, Eyiolf the Foul…

And I conclude by telling you about our local authors collection: some time in the past century an SPL employee thought it would be a good idea to collect books written by Somerville residents, so we’ve got page-turners such as German Criticism of Zola, 1875-1893, with Special Reference to the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, Songs of the Average Man, and Dry Laws and Wet Politicians.

Admit it: after reading this you can’t wait to visit the Local History Room.

*Favorite moment: when the French biologist Etienne Geoffroy St-Hilaire learned that female platypuses produce milk, he said, “If these are mammary glands, where is the butter?”


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