THE Knight Memorial Library is getting much-needed renovations this spring, as the historic community library looks to maintain its footing as an architectural jewel in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence.
The library is part of the Providence Community Library network and was built in 1924, marking the last time any major renovation was made to its exterior and roof. The effort is made possible largely because of the Champlin Foundation, a philanthropic group in Providence, which granted the library $544,800 in December to do the work.
The funding comes as a welcomed sign to library director Jeffrey Cannell, who said it’s been painful to watch parts of the library deteriorate in recent years.
“This is a treasure and we’re the stewards right now,” Cannell said. “We don’t want to let it languish.”
The library has a storied history related to origin and architecture. Built as a memorial to their parents, the children of Robert Knight and Josephine Louisa commissioned the construction completed in 1924. Knight, a Rhode Island textile mill owner, helped found the Fruit of the Loom brand with his brother Benjamin Brayton Knight circa 1851. Today, the American clothing manufacturer – specializing in underwear – is a subsidiary of the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway.
The library was designed by Edward Lippincott Tilton, a New York architect who specialized in the design of libraries. He designed more than 100 libraries, including many commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, in the United States and Canada.
The Beaux-Arts style had significant sway on United States architecture during the first couple decades of the 20th century.
“It’s a beautiful building and some of the details in the interior are breathtaking,” Cannell said.
Despite its origins of grandeur, however, the Elmwood Avenue library, like others throughout the country, has faced mounting challenges in recent decades. The funding required to modernize and keep libraries from deteriorating has been difficult for many library directors to identify.
The Champlin Foundation money certainly helps, but the library will need much more to update the interior and take care of other parts of the property. The lack of funding has become such an issue, the property landed on the Providence Preservation Society’s well-known “Most Endangered Properties List.”
The list comprises the “architecturally and historically significant properties in Providence deemed in threat of deterioration, neglect or demolition,” according to the PPS website. It includes such major properties as the iconic Industrial Trust Building, known better as the “Superman Building,” which is the city’s tallest building. The art deco skyscraper currently sits empty in the middle of downtown Providence.
The endangered properties list also includes smaller, lesser-known properties such as the Gustave F. Mensing House, a two-and-a-half-story Queen Anne-Colonial Revival house at 216 Adelaide Ave., less than 1 mile south from the Knight Memorial Library.
The preservation society, a nonprofit, started in 1956 in a response to the proposed demolition of many 18th- and early 19th-century homes on College Hill. It has since grown to become a citywide advocate for preservation.
Brent Runyon, PPS executive director, said the Knight Memorial Library is on the list because of lack of funding. He said the Champlin award has helped, but said the library still belongs on the list because of how much more needs to go toward repairs.
“The award does help, but there’s still a larger gap needed to bring the building up to where it needs to be,” he said. “We think putting it on the list is a great opportunity to bring attention to this treasured community resource.”
The grandeur of Knight Memorial Library and other buildings like it remind residents of a time when Providence was growing and doing well, Runyon added. Not losing such a resource is important to the psyche of a community.
‘It’s important that we remember the architecture around us that inspires us.’
BRENT RUNYON, Providence Preservation Society executive director
“For Providence – like so many other industrial cities trying to find a new way – we think it’s important that we remember the architecture around us that inspires us,” Runyon said. “Hanging onto this building should be inspiring for the people who live and work around there.”
Cannell largely agrees.
“It only means good things for the neighborhood. It has a tangible effect on raising real estate values and making it a more desirable place to live,” he said. “It’s also a lifeline between the past and future. I’m sentimental about what libraries can do for people, but even for the people who don’t use them, they’re glad to have a library in their community.”
The library feels like it has enough funds to get the first part of the renovations completed and is working to identify possible future resources to do the rest. There’s also a question of updating the services the library provides. Cannell said they’re eying opportunities to bring in computers and trying to figure out how to make room for them.
“We’ll keep working to make good on both the services and ambience of the library that will be respectful to the past and helps us get to the future,” Cannell said.