TBT: Curtis Memorial Library dedicated this day in 1903

TBT: Curtis Memorial Library dedicated this day in 1903

Record-Journal


MERIDEN — The city’s most significant civic event in 1903 was the opening of the Curtis Memorial Library, a gift from Augusta Munson Curtis.

The marble structure of classic Greek design served as the city’s library until 1977, when the Meriden Public Library was built.

The Curtis Library opening was a gala occasion on April 20, 1903 and every seat in the hall was occupied. The Morning Record and Meriden Journal, predecessors of the Record-Journal, attended and documented the events, while detailing the rooms, the furnishings, functions and services.

The dome-covered library was presented to the town by George M. Curtis on behalf of his mother, Augusta Munson Curtis, who had the library built in memory of her late husband George Redfield Curtis and their daughter Agnes Deshon Curtis Squire.

“It is Mrs. Curtis’ hope that the building will prove a help to the education and entertainment of all the people of Meriden,” George Curtis said.

First Selectman George W. Miller accepted the gift and the citizens of Meriden presented Augusta Curtis with a specially-designed silver loving cup with a gold lining.

“The public entered the building as if it were entering a temple, an appropriate gesture since the building itself resembled a Greek Temple in its design,” editor emeritus Warren F. Gardner wrote in the Record-Journal in 1993.

Augusta Curtis was born in Greenfield, N.Y. in 1833. She married George Curtis in 1955. George Curtis became the treasurer of Meriden Britannia Co. in 1854 and stayed with the company as it evolved into the International Silver Co. George Curtis died in May 1893, just two days shy of his 38th wedding anniversary. Seven years later, their daughter Agnes died shortly after giving birth. The baby was lost.

Augusta Curtis’ son George and his wife were working with a civic club to bring a public library to Meriden. The group asked Curtis to commemorate her departed loved ones with a public library. She gave the city $75,000 for the building, with a pledge from the city that it would pay $3,000 a year to maintain it.

To prepare the public for the use of the town’s first public library, the predecessors of the Record-Journal published suggestions on proper library decorum. Directives included speaking in hushed whispers in addition to some not so well-known regulations: “Dogs and cigars are not to be admitted to the building. Neither good dogs and bad cigars, nor bad dogs and good cigars.”

A year later, enterprising business man August Schmelzer marketed a cigar called the “Curtis Memorial Library Cigar” and published an ad in the April 19, 1904 Morning Record boasting they were manufactured in Meriden and there was no better cigar on the market.

The Curtis Memorial Library was left vacant in 1973 and in rapid decline.

A 1972 architect’s report estimated it would cost more than $118,000 just to bring the building up to building code.

“It is rapidly deteriorating,” Alderman Steve Jacobs said in 1975.

Mayor John D. Quine’s office composed a list of individuals, groups and firms which would comprise the Ad Hoc Committee of the Use of the Curtis Memorial Library. Several groups declined to get involved, but those that did pointed to the need for a cultural center.

That 15-member committee expressed fears of seeing the library put to use as a compound for city offices or computers. A five-member subcommittee of members from the Arts and Crafts Association, the Laurel Club, the Historical Society, the American Association of University Women and the Hispanic Civic Center was charged with consolidating all proposals into a report to the council.

In June 1976, the Cultural and Historic Commission voted to recommend the building be used for a cultural center, organized around the two basic themes of art and history. In December 1976, the Court of Common Council recommended approving a report which gave the Heritage and Culture Commission responsibility for the use and renovations to the Curtis Memorial Library Building.

But repairs and renovations were slow coming and many organizations found other homes. In the 1980s, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which made it eligible for federal funds. It was also used to showcase celebrated Meriden residents in its Hall of Fame, and became the home for the collection of famed Meriden opera diva Rosa Ponselle.

In 1994, the City Council agreed to let the Rosa Ponselle Society and the Meriden Hall of Fame supervise use of the Curtis Memorial Cultural Center. By 1996, the estimated costs of renovations and repairs exceeded $1 million, and curators of the Rosa Ponselle collection feared leaks in the building could damage pieces in the collection, including a Baldwin piano.

“In the spring of 1998, the center was in a state of considerable disrepair. Inside, parts of the ceiling were peeling away, shards of plaster were everywhere and rainwater was in the moldings,” Record-Journal Editorial Page Editor Jeffrey Kurz wrote last year. “On rainy days, rivulets streamed downs the walls. Huddled away from the potential damage, in what looked more like preparation for a tag sale than a museum exhibit, was a collection of nearly 400 items from the career of Rosa Ponselle.”

Lester Dequaine, president of the Dequaine Foundation, offered to house the collection at his museum on West Main Street that he purchased in 1997. He sold the building in 2007, and the Ponselle collection was donated to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University for cataloging and safe keeping. The Rosa Ponselle Memorial Garden at the Curtis Center remains as a reminder of the opera star’s legacy in Meriden.

A major civic effort restored the building to its present condition in 2001, but the Curtis Memorial Cultural Center continues to struggle with finances. In March, the board of directors voted to eliminate the position of its executive director, the only paid position. That same board also agreed to transfer managerial duties to the Meriden YMCA, including scheduling and staffing.

Today, Diane Warner-Canova, president of the cultural center’s board of directors, says there is a buzz about the center with increased programming and rentals. “Before entering into the contract with the YMCA,” Warner-Canova told the Record-Journal recently, the cultural center was “always scrambling for fundraisers to try and make sure we could pay all the bills. Under the new contract with the YMCA, the Curtis Center can pay the bills, which is a good thing.”


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