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By the Book
Robert Henderson Robertson (1849-1919) may be the most significant, innovative and versatile architect you've never heard of. There's no monograph about him, no definitive buildings list, no trove of papers yet found. But during a four-decade career based in Manhattan, the Rutgers-trained Philadelphian designed everything from mansions and clubhouses to hospitals, factories, churches, barns, train stations and skyscrapers – his 1899 Park Row Building, a pair of 386-ft. towers near Wall Street, ranked as the world's tallest structure for its first decade. Robertson built throughout New England and New York State, especially in Romanesque mode but also dabbling in French Gothic, Byzantine and Renaissance Revival. Unifying all the variety is a proto-modern streak.
"His work was on par with H. H. Richardson's, and anticipated Frank Lloyd Wright's," explains Daniel Snydacker, executive director of the Pequot Library in Southport, CT, an 1893 Robertson masterwork. Snydacker adds, "He trained at Rutgers, not at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – he was very American, and very subtle and no-nonsense in his approach." The library director has traveled to dozens of Robertson's known surviving buildings, studying their commonalities: elongated roof planes that foreshadow Prairie Style, ribbons of windows with geometric pane patterns, sparing use of low-relief carvings, vaulted ceilings clad in tongue-and-groove boards.
Partly thanks to Snydacker's enthusiasm for Robertson's role in architectural history, donors have happily funded a $3-million restoration of the library over the past three years. The building is a jewel box, a summary of Robertson's best ideas.
Under the multi-dormered, Ludowici-tiled roof, "there are four different colors of granite in the walls – the subtle manipulations of shades are masterful," notes Jeffrey M. Hoover, principal at Tappé Associates, Inc., in Boston, architects of the restoration (in close collaboration with David Frassinelli, chair of the library board's building committee). Robertson limited the exterior ornament to some blind arches, quarter-round brackets and stone foliage on the portico capitals and pediments. In the equally restrained interior, fiddlehead fern motifs recur in the ash wainscoting and fireplace mantels in the two main reading rooms, while the crown moldings and window trim have simple dentils and egg-and-darts. The auditorium is a jaw-dropping pyramid of redwood beams and tongue-and-groove planes, supported by foliage-carved brackets. On leaded-glass windows and glazed partitions throughout the building, square or hexagonal clear panes mingle with bulls' eyes in amber or moonstone hues. "The proportions and details in every room are welcoming, generous and human-scaled, not ever condescendingly huge or intimidating," says Snydacker.
The library's original patron, a Southport jewelry and real-estate heiress named Virginia Marquand Monroe, meant for readers of all socioeconomic levels to feel comfortable there. "She set this up very intentionally as a public library, not just for subscribers or members," says Snydacker. She donated a Steinway grand piano for the auditorium, which has such superb acoustics that classical concerts have been recorded there. (Robertson, a music connoisseur, headed a Manhattan choral club and designed its headquarters and concert hall.) For the book stacks' pine shelves, which rest on billowy cast-iron brackets and copper-plated Ionic columns, Mrs. Monroe and other local philanthropists bought not only history tomes and contemporary novels but also medieval and Colonial rarities. In fact the Pequot Library has one of the finest special collections of any American public library: 30,000 items, including Saint Gregory's 12th-century illuminated letters, journals of Revolutionary War soldiers and woodblock-illustrated volumes from William Morris' Kelmscott Press.
The special collections have been largely kept offsite for decades however, due to lack of space and less than ideal archival conditions. When Snydacker took the job in 2004, the mechanicals were outdated and the building envelope unhealthy. "The copper had reached the end of its lifespan, and some roof tiles had fallen," says Hoover. "Dysfunctional gutters were causing leaks that damaged interior plaster and worsened the mortar degradation." The masonry joints also suffered from an aesthetic problem, he adds: "At some point the mortar had all been tinted red, so there was a distracting, almost cartoony outline around every stone. But you could see in old photos, and from the samples we cored out, that Robertson's mortar was white." Petra Construction ground out the red and put back white, re-creating the architect's austere planes of stone.
The restoration team also had to determine Robertson's color scheme for the interior, which had been almost wholly whitewashed – except, thankfully, for the auditorium redwood. Architectural Conservation Services of Bristol, RI, concluded that Robertson had coated the ash in clear shellac over copper-based grain filler. Numerous coats of Peel Away have brought back that gleam. Wherever sections of woodwork had been lost – including three fireplace mantels – Tappé and Petra created ash replicas based on sometimes-blurry vintage photos. The most delicate carvings – the wainscoting fiddleheads and mantel foliage – were delegated to Sten Havumaki, a woodworker in North Branford, CT.
Since the restoration work has adhered so closely to Robertson's sometimes-quirky tastes and choices, the building is infused with personality. Conant Custom Brass of Burlington, VT, fashioned electrified versions of the original brass ceiling fixtures and sconces, salvaging some antique ruffled-glass shades found in the basement and re-creating spheres shown in old photos. For the fireplace surrounds, North Prairie Tileworks in Minneapolis, MN, simulated Robertson's six-by-one-inch rectangles in a chocolate and coral palette. The library also meticulously redid its eclectic stacks, with florid metalwork that Robertson had ordered from Melville Dewey's card-catalog pioneering company, the Library Bureau.
"There's probably no other library in New England that has kept its original stacks, and certainly none with such an elaborate design," says Howard Newman, head of Newmans, Ltd., in Newport, RI. Petra dismantled the stacks' 6,000 pieces and packed them into 500 custom boxes, which two moving vans hauled to Newmans. At the Newport headquarters and a rented nearby boat-building shop, Newmans brushed away the coal-black soot (the library is a few blocks from a rail line long used by coal-burning trains) from the shelf supports and from two copper-plated staircases with wreaths and ribbons for balusters.
The restorers also fixed cracks with techniques Newman likens to "major but delicate root-canal jobs – welding the cast iron would have made a mess of the fine details." One staircase had been damaged to make way for ductwork; an art foundry re-created the lost components in bronze, which Newman patinated to resemble copper. A few of his interventions are visible in the stacks, though: when the library was electrified in the early 1900s, he says, "half-inch holes were drilled into every column, to install light-switch buttons. We patched those holes with tiny plates and screws. The patches celebrate the history of the structure, the evolution of technology, and are in keeping with Robertson's aesthetic."
Despite the dramatic overhauls of every library room, Snydacker kept the place open. At least one reading room was always available, and the auditorium was busy with recitals and lectures around Mrs. Monroe's Steinway. "We only closed for one day, to unplug and move the computers," he says. "It wasn't easy to pull off, but I'm very proud that we did. And the community really appreciated it. We've just had our best financial year ever, with the annual fund exceeding our goals. This place is a beloved cultural center for the region, as well as an architectural joy. We're an example of how high-level preservation can be a winning proposition for a well-designed, highly functional building in continuous use for its original purpose." TB
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