Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A railroad architect builds a library: E. Francis Baldwin and the Bosler Memorial Library of Carlisle

Three important take-away messages from my sabbatical project:

1). Libraries were present at all points in American history.
2). All points of American history were present in libraries.
3). If we study library history, we can learn new things about American history.

Here is a case in point. Last week, I was researching the Bosler Memorial Library in Carlisle (Cumberland County), when I learned that its architect was E. Francis Baldwin. The name sounded very familiar to me. Pulling out my iPhone, I confirmed that yes, he was an architect in Baltimore. When I worked at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I frequently walked by churches, homes, and other structures he had designed.

The Bosler Memorial Library, Carlisle, PA
Baldwin is best known a the architect of more than 50 stations of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, as well as dozens of churches and other structures for the Catholic Church. Michael Lewis explains that unlike some better-known designers of their day, Baldwin and most other Victorian architects did not develop "signature styles." Instead, they "felt their task was to serve their clients ably and responsibly, to translate their programmatic requirements in durable, efficient, and fashionable designs, and to guard their clients' money zealously." They "adjusted themselves to the ever-changing vagaries of fashion" and focused on "planning," "problem-solving," "money-saving," and "coordinating the frenzied activity of major building enterprises" instead of "cultivating an arresting signature" (see pg. xv in Carlos P. Avery's E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond, Baltimore Architecture Foundation, 2003).
Among more than 500 projects which Avery attributes to the architect, only 1 is a library and only 4 are in Pennsylvania. Thus the Bosler Library is rather unique within Baldwin's body of work. It isn't clear why the family chose him as their architect. Avery surmises that they met through the Fidelity Trust Company. Herman E. Bosler was a board member, and Baldwin had been the architect for the bank's new headquarters. Unfortunately, Bosler Library's board of trustees meeting minutes begin in 1901, after Herman had deceased and after the library was constructed. There are no pertinent correspondence files at either Bosler Library or the Cumberland County Historical Society, and Carlisle's newspapers aren't searchable via database or index. According to Avery, Baldwin was born to a Catholic family in Troy, New York, and was educated in Maryland. Thus there is no obvious social connection between Baldwin and the Bosler family (who were Presbyterians) or Carlisle. Perhaps readers of this blog can provide more clues!

I am no expert in architecture, but to me, the Bosler Library is fascinating from a stylistic point of view. The exterior, with its pediment, columns, and symmetry, seems to reference classical design. Yet, the stacks area -- which has been wonderfully preserved -- reminds me of "Stick" style. I believe the steep pitch of the roof, the wooden trusses, and the trefoil cut-outs point toward that type of design.

Looking at the space with an eye toward function, I can't help but wonder if  Baldwin consulted with contemporary library architects (such as Edward L. Tilton) or visited newly-built libraries before designing the Bosler.

The original layout strikes me as similar to designs advocated by the Carnegie Corporation. After walking through the library's front entrance and vestibule, one would have passed the librarian's office and a reading area on either side before approaching the "delivery desk" at the back. Yet, the Bosler Library departs from other examples in terms of storage space for books. At the time, closed-stack libraries tended to pack the greatest number of volumes into the smallest possible space, thus allowing more square footage for public uses. Given the choice of whether or not to have one or several floors of stacks, libraries were quick to install electricity or glass flooring rather limiting themselves to a single tier.  However, in Baldwin's plan the second story is mostly open air -- unusable space. The beautiful stained glass window at the back, a memorial to a daughter of Herman E. Bosler, lends to the impression that the he never envisioned the need to add more floor space or shelves.

Thus the Bosler provides several thought-provoking springboards. One can consider the complexity of social networks -- how a Catholic employed by a Baltimore railroad came to design a library building for a Protestant family in a small Pennsylvania city. One can also ponder the various architectural styles in evidence and debate whether the Bosler Library represents an "eclectic" approach or rather some kind of transition between styles. One may also critique the building from a functional perspective, taking into consideration the ongoing conversations that were occurring among librarians and within other professions about efficient workplace design.

Yes, the Bosler is indeed a "gem" for American and library historians!



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