Speaking Ill Of The Dead

Charles Gwathmey — the Modernist architect who died Monday — developed what the New York Times called “sometimes controversial public buildings.”

Few Westporters would disagree.

In the early 1980s Gwathmey Siegel & Associates was selected to design a new library.  The site — just across the Post Road from the 1908 building on the corner of Main Street — was controversial from the start.  Critics thought the location — on landfill that was once the town dump — was dangerous.  Methane buildup, they warned, would result in health hazards, explosions or worse.

Those fears never materialized.  But when the building opened in 1986, it faced other withering criticism.

The modern design was not in keeping with Jesup Green, some said.  It looked big and blocky when seen from across the river, others complained.

Inside, the high ceiling magnified every voice.  The collection immediately filled every shelf, with no room for expansion.  And — perhaps most remarkably — there were no real river views, looking out.  The dramatic site was wasted.

In 1995 another firm — Herbert S. Newman and Partners — designed an addition, renovating much of the existing space.  Construction grew more challenging when it was discovered the building had settled unevenly.  The library was closed — with books sent to storage — while minipiles were driven to bedrock.

The renovation of the less-than-decade-old library resulted in a 2-story stack wing for books, a new AV center, a fresh children’s library, more flexible space throughout, and quiet reading rooms overlooking the Saugatuck.

The nearly full page New York Times obituary rightly celebrated Charles Gwathmey’s many architectural triumphs.

Unfortunately, the Westport Public Library was not one of them.

(Thanks to library assistant director George Wagner for background information.)

The Westport Public Library, after the renovation to upgrade Gwathmey Siegel's original design.

The Westport Public Library, after the renovation to upgrade Gwathmey Siegel's original design.

3 responses to “Speaking Ill Of The Dead

  1. The proposed new library expansion plan is quite interesting. It will alter the character of the building yet again.

    Maxine Bleiweis, the libary’s director, is really a driving force for moving the library forward in so many ways.

  2. The first building was commonly referred to as THE RUSSIAN FISH FACTORY…

  3. Linda Gramatky Smith

    This is so funny! Yesterday I was speaking to a librarian at the new Darien Library (I’m giving a talk there to children and parents on Aug. 12th), and I was telling her about the fiasco of Gwathmey’s library design in Westport. I told her that every time a citizen questioned the plan(about design, lack of view, etc.) they were shushed because “this is a world class architect!”

    Well, I compare it to The Emperor Has No Clothes. No one for that first decade really was able to sound the alarm that this library was not suitable! But thankfully, when they did the 1995 renovation, amazing people led us, and as we all know, our library is so wonderful. And the expansion renovation to come will be even more wonderful. No longer do we blindly follow an architect with “status” but no common sense and vision.