Back to the Future Part One: Stetson Redux

Greetings — welcome to my new blog.  My name is Steve Satullo, Williams Class of ’69, or so the alumni office says, even though I didn’t get my diploma in the mail till 1972 (long story — don’t ask).  Until now I haven’t been one of those involved alumni for whom Williams is so famous.  I’ve never attended a reunion or written a class note, and my contributions to the Alumni Fund have been nominal at best.  Despite living in Lanesborough — just 14 miles south on Route 7 — for three decades, my connection to the college has been tenuous.  If a Son of Eph, I have been a freeloading, layabout son indeed.  For a long time I ran a bookstore in Pittsfield, and Williamstown was mostly off my Berkshire map, but for the past 11 years I have been connected to the Clark, buying books for the museum shop and running the film programs (as well as writing and consulting for other museums).  So I have thereby reattached to the Village Beautiful, and the College that occupies it.  I’ve become a regular user of the Sawyer Library and its collections, as well as a devotee of the Chandler gymnasium during some rousing Final Four basketball seasons, thereby bringing to mind the presidents during my days at the College.  

But just over a year ago I read an announcement in the Berkshire Eagle that struck me as a eureka moment:  Williams was going to stride boldly into the future through the portal of the past — Stetson Hall was to become the once and future library of the college.  This decision seemed so surprising and so right, design genius combined with institutional courage, that I wanted to know more.  I had a particular interest since I was more attached to Stetson than any other building on the campus, having worked there throughout its last decade as the college library.  The Sawyer Library building was going up as I left, and though later I was grateful to use it, it never struck me as anything other than an architectural mistake.  To acknowledge that, and correct it by returning to an earlier incarnation, seemed to me an inspired idea.  So a year later, here I am committed to telling the story (and stories) behind the idea. 

When I first set foot on the Williams campus in September 1965, moving into Lehman West as a freshman, one of my first stops was the nearby Stetson Library, to apply for a financial aid job, and I proceeded to work up to 18 hours a week during term time.  Returning to Williams in 1968, after dropping out for two years and getting married, I lived off campus (in the trailer park next to the racetrack in Pownal, if you must know) and my first point of return was the Library.  I resumed my part-time work and also worked full-time in the summers, then after graduation continued seamlessly in various roles .  A stint in acquisitions was — little did I know then — prep for a long career in book buying.  And as serials cataloguer I can claim to have computerized the first function in the Library, a updatable list of current serials, produced from punch cards.  When I returned to the area after Sawyer had been built, I was pleased to see they were still using my innovation.  Thirty years later, of course, virtually every aspect of library function has been, or soon will be, digitized — a major theme of all that follows. 

This Web site is meant to offer an ongoing, online biography of a building — its genealogy, conception, gestation, birth, maturation, and ultimate interaction with environment and indwellers. In “Pages” linked to in right column, the history of libraries at Williams will begin at the very beginning, in a tiny room on the third floor of West College, and pass through habitations in Griffin, Lawrence, Stetson, and Sawyer, to the emergence of the grand Stetson-Sawyer synthesis.  While the story to date advances in linked “Pages,” news and notes on current developments will be posted to the body of the blog, latest news first, with internal links to graphics or more information. 

Starting from the indispensable writings of Professors Fred Rudolph ’42 and Whit Stoddard ’35, I have delved into the historical archives of the College, attended presentations by the architects, and begun interviews with involved faculty, librarians, and administrators.  So I will have real news to report on this site, but permit me in this initial post to take a more personal approach, so you can get an idea of who will be your guide through this labyrinthine tale of libraries, this maze of books.  

Lately I’ve taken to haunting Stetson Hall like Marley’s ghost, conjuring up visions of the Library past, present, and future.  One time I was lucky to be shown around by Sylvia Kennick Brown, College Archivist for twenty years and now Chairwoman of the Library Building Committee.  As she has written, the melding of historic Stetson with new construction “will stand as a wordless metaphor representing the finest of old and new, a symbolic union of tradition and future.”  So let me take you along for the tour. 

Approaching the main entrance of Stetson from the West, the Georgian Revival facade is much as it has been for 85 years, the main difference over that time whether the ivy was overgrown or cut back, on which debate will continue indefinitely.  The names that look down from above the recessed upper-story arcade have remained the same — “ARISTOTLE … VIRGIL … AQVINAS … DANTE … SHAKESPERE [sic]” — though nowadays they are probably more referenced in trivia contest questions than in curricular deliberations.  This will once again be the face of the main library on the Williams campus, with the bulk of the new building set back and deferring in design to the traditional frontage.   

The architects, from the firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, speak of treating historical Stetson gently and preserving its fabric, but they go beyond restoration to restitution of significance, giving the library a presence on campus greater than it has ever had.  In a recent public presentation, all their design drawings had a dotted red reference line through the old entrance into a circulation atrium where the old stacks used to be, and thence into the new spaces of the library.  This implicit arterial axis will extend all the way from Greylock Quad, between the first-year quad and the new Paresky Student Center, past the front of Chapin Hall, across the quadrangle that will be opened up when the brick box of old Sawyer is removed from between the new North and South academic buildings, up to and through the door of Stetson Hall.  What an unbeatable approach to the new hybrid Sawyer Library – talk about a destination site! 

Through the vestibule we enter what was originally known as the “delivery room,” where straight ahead was the desk where books were delivered from the closed stacks behind swinging leather doors.  In my era those doors swung open freely, from the card catalogue area into stacks accessible to all.  Now they’re locked again, with archival and library storage behind.  The new library will burst right through that wall into an atrium where the stacks are now.  The carved wooden medallion over the door — an open book in a floral wreath — will be saved for use elsewhere, while the rest of the oaken woodwork is restored to its original luster. 

Stetson’s imposing entry room, which was once the vital center of the library, the essential point of access and egress, is now a sad room, a room that lost its purpose and never found another, despite the elegance of the high ceiling and aged oak paneling.  But this is one of the grand spaces of Stetson that will find renewed life in the planned complex.  In deferring to these distinguished old spaces for ceremonial grandeur, the new spaces are free to reach toward pure functionality.  So this will be the library’s point of entry once more, alive with traffic in transition, a 24-hour-a-day nexus. 

In my day, the library’s L-shaped circulation desk was immediately to the right inside the entrance, behind which I sat for my first job there.  The room behind it was then still used to shelve “Williamsiana,” as is carved into the woodwork over the door.  Now those collections are known as the College Archives, and the room has been the Archivist’s office, so that is where I was headed to meet Sylvia to begin our tour.   

The door just to the left of the entrance also has “Williamsiana” carved above it, but is now the faculty mailroom, and served as the acquisitions department office when I worked in it.  Both rooms are planned for group study in the new library, with restrooms on either side.  (One of the many complaints about Sawyer has been the lack of restrooms on the main floor.)   

Further to the left, you pass through the staircase hall into another of the stately Stetson spaces that will be recuperated in the new complex.  Once the reference room, it is now a faculty lounge, and will ultimately become again a dramatically-scaled reading room, steeped in old oak and ancient tradition, but also planned to be open 24 hours a day.  It was feared that the faculty might object to giving up the space, but instead they readily admitted the justice of returning the beautiful room to something like its original function. 

Re-crossing the entry hall toward the south entrance, on the right we come to the Mabie Room, another oak-paneled room with a long and varied history.  At the original construction of Stetson, it was set aside as a resolutely non-academic reading room — no studying allowed — just books of general interest for leisurely reading as if in “the private library of a cultivated gentleman of wide tastes and interests.”  In my era it was the current periodical reading room, where I spent most of my breaks from work.  Most recently, it served as the public shelving and reading room for the College Archives, until they had to pack up for their impending move.  In the future it is expected to serve as a classroom and after-hours study room — though wired for the future, it will retain its antique amenities. 

Across the passageway will be another room converted to 21st century use as a video conferencing classroom, combined out of rooms that were once offices for the head librarian and support staff, now used by special collections for processing, conservation, and storage.   

The south entrance was my usual point of entry back in the day, under the stone tablets inscribed “HOMER … CERVANTES … MOLIÈRE … GOETHE … FRANKLIN,” but I’ve come to understand how the original design cleverly tried to create a second main entrance to serve the Chapin Library.  So now we re-enter and take the marble flight of stairs alongside the heavy scrolling oak handrail up to the second floor, where that under-appreciated gem resides.  

Chapin Library — among the country’s greatest collections of rare books, documents, and manuscripts — is one of the treasures of Williams College that will be greatly enhanced in the new Stetson-Sawyer complex, where it will share facilities with the College Archives as “special collections,” forming one of the three principal tenants of the new building, along with the main library and the Center for Media Initiatives. 

Chapin’s existing space — a two-story room with a balcony on three sides and high windows on the fourth, with columns and wall decorations in Adam Revival style — has been crowded to squeeze in essential functions, but with offices and reading room moved into the new building, it will be restored to its essential role in dramatic display of the remarkable Chapin collections, also serving as an elegant venue for events.   

The physical connection to study and processing areas for special collections was one of the toughest nuts for the architects to crack.  As explained to me by Chapin librarian Wayne Hammond, in the original plans there was no connection at all, and then only a catwalk bridge.  In the final design, however, it has morphed into a corridor that will serve as additional gallery space while flowing into areas that will allow unprecedented access to a spectacular collection of antiquarian printed materials, just one floor away from the most modern means of electronic access. 

Though the old Stetson stacks are now closed, Sylvia let me through the door on the Chapin landing, and with one whiff I was swept back thirty years.  Designed as closed stacks, this core was pretty dark and musty as a study area, the flat grey tables around the perimeter looking more like prison furniture than the variety of desks and carrels that are Sawyer’s distinctive asset.  In the original Cram & Ferguson design, the stacks hold up the floors rather than vice versa.  The marble slabs that make up the floor will be reused in the new building, while the supporting stacks are removed (and recycled) to create the tall circulation atrium that will connect the old and new sections of the building. 

As I recollect, the 1956 addition to the stacks had green metal carrels that were somewhat more comfortable as well as a reading lounge, but they all disappeared when, after Sawyer was built, that area was converted into a warren of low-ceiling faculty offices.  Soon those faculty will move into more functional and collegial offices in the new North and South academic buildings, and that addition to Stetson will be razed for the new library building. 

Leaving the stacks and continuing up the stairs, we come to old-school offices and classrooms on the third and fourth floor, which will be retained and refurbished in the new Stetson.  Crossing over to the north stairwell, we descend past awkward catwalks that provide inconvenient access to the current faculty office clusters.  These long-troublesome arrangements will not be missed, when the initial objective of the whole Stetson-Sawyer project is realized in the new academic buildings that open next fall, as the first step in the unfolding center for the humanities and social sciences, which will culminate with opening of the new Sawyer Library in 2011. 

Down past the first floor reference/reading room, we arrive on the lower level at a similarly dimensioned though less ornate space, which in days of yore served as the reserve room.  For those who remember it crammed with panicky students at year’s end, there would be a small pang to see it closed to the public, to serve as compact storage for special collections, except that long ago the room lost proportion and function when divided up for media services.  And that department will have a much more privileged position in the new library. 

Speaking of privileged positions, the Preston Room, a wood-paneled hideaway half a flight down from the lower reading room, will have its elegant walls and fixtures demounted and reconstructed to become the current periodicals room of the new library.  Thus the special — and currently under-used — features of Stetson Hall will be revivified in the new Library, offering a feel for the past as well as the future. 

The other end of the basement corridor, currently the College’s office services department, will be devoted, like the reserve room, to special collections storage.  Back in the day, that was the cataloging department — overseen for decades by Miss McInerney — and next door my desk when I was serials cataloger.  The big room next door was pamphlet storage, which I was the first to organize in an accessible way — dusty work, but I was pleased to mythologize myself as Hercules cleaning out the Augean stable.   

Which reminds me of one more basement room to look into.  Oddly enough, the men’s bathroom is almost exactly how I remember it from thirty years ago, even if many generations of graffiti have been painted over on the stall walls — one antique amenity that will not be preserved in the new building. 

That completes our tour, but before I wrap up this first post I want to offer a brief aside on Williams librarians I have known.  I started at the library near the end of the venerable Willis E. Wright’s very long tenure as head librarian, but had a close working relation with his successor, Lawrence Wikander ’39, a lively motorcycling Calvin Coolidge scholar.  (Did you ever notice how 1939 had as memorable a vintage of Williams grads as of Hollywood movies?)  Larry oversaw the move from Stetson to Sawyer, but I didn’t know his immediate successor.  I have, however, been coming to know the current head librarian, Dave Pilachowski, who found a building project on his plate from the moment he arrived almost a decade ago.  The focus then was on faculty offices, but he brought the library’s evolving needs to the table, and became a driving force in what became an overall building plan, which now is taking tangible shape but still has years to completion.  He stands to be a transformative leader in the library’s history, and I will be happy to be reporting on the view from his desk. 

In the course of this writing about the evolution of Eph’s libraries from old to new, I will be presenting ancient history and the latest building news, but also meditating on libraries as institutions, now revealed as what they have always been, not simply a repository of old books but a primary portal to a world of information and a meeting place for the community of ideas, an axis of access essential not just to education but to democracy itself.