- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006


The Redwood Library and Athenaeum has stood as a proud vestige of old-world Newport for more than two and a half centuries, but a dramatic scare two years ago threatened the future of the country’s oldest lending library.

Library director Cheryl Helms rushed to the Redwood one November night to find a portion of the ceiling collapsed and thick chunks of plaster on the ground.

“All of us, our jaws just dropped because it looked like a bomb had gone off in the room,” Miss Helms said. “The air was thick with plaster dust, a ceiling had fallen, plaster was everywhere on the floors — and it was just shocking.”

The collapse laid bare the frailties of the building and gave urgency to an ongoing capital campaign aimed at renovating the library. The Redwood, a National Historic landmark that was founded in 1747, has raised $14 million to help its transition into the 21st century.

Now, little more than two years after the ceiling collapse, the Redwood has reopened.

History abounds in the Redwood, where contemporary copies of “The New Yorker” and “Vogue” share space with portraits of Andrew Jackson and George Washington. Bound history books from centuries past are shelved near an ornate chiming clock from the 1700s.

“This is Rhode Island’s first cultural institution, and it’s Rhode Island’s first library — not to mention, just a cool, beautiful place,” Miss Helms said.

As Miss Helms demonstrates the fruits of the renovation project, she walks through the basement into a labyrinth of modern-day machinery where a sprinkler system and climate-control system have been installed. Other changes include new wiring, new lighting, new ceilings, a 4,500-square-foot addition and a gallery of portraits where staff offices used to be.

The Redwood is the nation’s oldest lending library in continuous use, though it is not the first library in the country. The Library Company of Philadelphia was formed in 1731 and counts Benjamin Franklin as one of its founders. The library continues operating today, though it stopped circulating its collection decades ago, said Phil Lapsansky, chief of reference.

The Redwood Library opened in 1750 after Abraham Redwood, a wealthy Newport merchant, donated money to purchase a collection of books from London. Today, it holds more than 200,000 volumes, about two-thirds of which can be checked out. The library has roughly 1,400 individuals and families who are paid members and serves researchers and local residents alike.

The Redwood’s collection includes books on early Newport, biographies and painted portraits of Colonial-era figures, map books, old furniture and volumes of old poetry. Prized jewels include a Venetian Bible printed in the 1480s, a 16th-century Bible written in six languages and an iconic self-portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, the renowned Colonial artist, when he was 24 years old.

“You look around, and you see pictures that you’ve seen in books, and they’re hanging on the walls,” said Cindy Lunghofer, the president of the Rhode Island Library Association, who used to work in circulation at the Redwood.

The Redwood launched a capital campaign in the late 1990s to raise money for renovations and its endowment, Miss Helms said. The library initially planned to collect all the funds before launching the renovation project, but the ceiling collapse Nov. 19, 2003, made the work more urgent.

“When the ceiling fell, we understood we didn’t have that luxury, that the building was in way too much distress,” Miss Helms said.

Though the collapse was traumatic, the damage could have been much worse. The ceiling fell on a valuable table, which was enclosed in plexiglass. Luckily, it bounced outwards, not in, sparing the 18th-century wooden tea table from destruction. Some other furniture was damaged, but the library’s collection was largely spared.

Still, the incident required the building to close temporarily, and parts of the collection were sent to storage as workers repaired the library. The Redwood was able to continue operating out of a nearby building, where some of the collection was relocated.

The ceiling collapse was not the library’s first — or last — brush with potential disaster. British troops occupied the library during the Revolutionary War, and many of the books that disappeared then have not been recovered. More recently, some rare books taken to storage in Massachusetts were damaged when firefighters tried to douse a blaze in a neighboring building.

The Redwood has raised $14 million so far, receiving help from the National Endowment for the Humanities and regional trusts and foundations, but is still seeking $3 million more.

“This is a success story,” Miss Helms said. “We saved it before it was gone.”

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