Once upon a time...
By Dorothy LaFrance/ Speaking Volumes
Friday, March 3, 2006
Public Library is distinctive, not only for its newly renovated and
expanded facility, but also for its long and distinguished history as
an institution and for the history of the building that it occupies.
Newburyport was among the first ten communities in Massachusetts to
establish a public library after the passage in 1851 of a General Law
permitting towns throughout the Commonwealth to establish and maintain
public libraries through municipal taxation. In 1854, Josiah Little
donated five thousand dollars and his personal library to Newburyport
for the establishment of a public library.
Charles Jackson and Col. Samuel Swett of Boston, both of whom had roots
in Newbury, also gave many volumes to line the shelves of the new library,
located in what now is the office of the City Treasurer in City Hall.
The entrance to the library room was located on the side of the building
and can still be seen at that location as a bricked-up entry way. On
Nov. 20, 1854, the mayor and aldermen adopted the report of the Committee
on Public Instruction that outlined the management of the library and
its rules and regulations: " The Library is to be opened for the
delivery of books on every Wednesday and Saturday from 3 to 8 o'clock,
p.m., except during the fortnight preceding the annual examination of
the library." The library opened with 5,688 volumes on its shelves.
In 1863, Edward S. Mosely, Esq. took charge of seeking subscriptions
for a new library building. In order to provide more space to the expanding
library, eight subscribers purchased the Tracy Mansion, where George
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Arnold Burr, and Lafayette
had been entertained. The subscribers conveyed the property to the city
to be used in perpetuity as a public library.
The Tracy Mansion was built in 1771, five years before the onset of
the American Revolution. Nathaniel Tracy, who at this time was a member
of the merchant aristocracy in Newburyport, was the proud owner. His
father, Patrick Tracy, had purchased, for his son, the former Lowell
estate on Greenleaf's Lane (now State Street) and moved the existing
house to Temple Street, making way for a massive three-story brick structure,
referred to as a "palace" by historians. Nathaniel, just at
the onset on the American Revolution, fitted out a fleet of privateers
and during the next eight years he was principal owner of 24 cruising
ships and 110 merchant vessels. Privateering, or legalized piracy, contributed
to the Revolutionary cause but was only great, while it lasted. After
the war, Tracy unfortunately had to liquidate his assets and lost his
fortune. He died at the early age of 45. When you are at the library
ask to see his portrait in the Directors' Room.
Before its transition to a public library in 1865, the Tracy mansion,
in addition to a residence, was used as a hotel, a "bowling saloon"
and a dentist office. When you visit our handsomely renovated and expanded
library and are enjoying a newspaper in the reading room, note the original
woodwork with Georgian detail that adorns the room.
Presidents, senators, heroes and traitors have visited the Tracy Mansion,
your library since the 19th Century. For 235 years it has graced State
Street and for 140 years it has served the community as its public library.
Next time you check out a book or a DVD or use a 21st Century Internet
computer, take time to roam the Tracy Mansion and appreciate its history.
Dorothy LaFrance is the head librarian at the Newburyport Public Library.