President of the Friends 1983-1984
The following is adapted from an article that was written in 1998 on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the founding of The North Castle Public Library.
The North Castle Public Library stands a little apart from the other structures in Armonk, situated on a small rise overlooking the village. It's an appropriate setting for an institution that represents the high expectations of its citizenry, whose pride in working together has accomplished wonders.
Forty years ago, Nation's Business called the North Castle Free Library, as it was then known, "more remarkable than Andrew Carnegie's. From one angle, it is the finest library in the United States for it was built by the courage and devotion and indefatigableness [sic] of a small group of women."
Conceived, constructed, stocked and staffed solely by volunteer and private funds until 1956, the North Castle Public Library has grown with the needs of the community, experiencing five expansions in its 60 years, all financed almost entirely by private funds.
In 1997, the Friends celebrated the completion of a handsome 186-seat "mini-theatre" with complete audio, video and stage facilities. Called Whippoorwill Hall, the $250,000 theater opened its doors with a classic film series, hosted by local screenwriter Ed Woodyard. In 1998, Whippoorwill Hall became the setting for a greatly expanded program of lectures, concerts and films.
In 1987, the Friends doubled the size of the existing structure by providing a $1.2 million wing. The Friends worked for four years in the early 1980s to meet their goal of $600,000 for the project, only to discover that costs had escalated in the interim. In 1985, municipal and state moneys were added to the private funds to start construction. It was the only use of public money for capital improvement or basic equipment in the library's history. The town later subsequently built the North White Plains Branch of the Library as part of the North White Plains Community Center on Clove Road.
In 1990, the Friends renovated the Children's Room, following architect George Early's imaginative plan. The Children's Room was dedicated in memory of two of the driving forces behind it, Ernest Weiss and Terilee Levene. The following year, the Green Acres Garden Club, which tends all the building's plants, enhanced the courtyard garden outside the Children's Room. In 1997, the children's section was enlarged in memory of Charles Michelman, a community leader, and the administrative offices were modernized. The fall of 1998 saw the Friends completely overhaul the Young Adult Room with new shelving, furniture, easy chairs, computers and printers.
The building's vital statistics, according to Library Director Cristina Ansnes, are 20,000 square feet, more than 53,000 books, almost 7,000 non-print items such as videos and CDs (and now more than 1,500 DVDs), plus on-line catalogue access to all the public and some academic libraries in the county.
The Library was conceived in 1936 by Julia Bennett, who during a prolonged illness disdained the romance novels available at the pharmacy. She enlisted the help of local teachers, Lucile Kittredge and Emily Golden, and a writer, Esther Hall. Rallying townspeople to their cause, the women opened the North Castle Free Library in 1938 in a small store at 21 Maple Avenue with 1600 books, all donated. By 1941, larger quarters were needed and the women realized they had to find big money.
The first of many generous private donations over the years came from a local resident Walter S. Gifford, then president of AT&T and later U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. He pledged $3,000 if the growing group of volunteers could match it. They not only succeeded, they raised $6,000, and in 1941, a 1,900-square-foot freestanding building was erected on the present site at 19 Whippoorwill Road East. The land, architectural plans, furnishings and landscaping were all contributed by Armonk citizens. By 1956, the Library's size dictated a professional director and for the first time, the town government began budgeting a salary. By 1960, the Library had become such a community resource that ownership of that institution, then valued at $100,000, was transferred to North Castle to receive tax support for its daily operations.
The Library's supporters regrouped and formally formed the Friends of the North Castle Public Library to continue to handle all fund-raising efforts, present cultural programs and generally increase the Library's effectiveness. In the early years, theatrical productions by the North Castle Players were a main source of funds for the Friends, but in 1961, Charles Elson, Lucille Bruno and Jean West decided to try an art exhibition as well, creating the Armonk Outdoor Art Show. Since then, the Art Show has grown in stature every autumn and has become a vital source of revenue for the Friends and of cultural enrichment for the Town. In 2001, it netted approximately $47,000.
Charles Elson, award-winning international stage designer and Yale University professor, took over the presidency of the Friends in 1961, serving twice as its president during 16 years on its Board, and 18 more years as either a member or president of the Library's Board of Trustees. The large reading room in the Library was named in his honor. Up until his death at age 90 in 1999, he remained a vital champion for the institution. Elson recalled some of the many people whose generous gifts launched the proud tradition of civic involvement: Richard Cohen, Henry Moger, Charles Paterno, the Ehrman, Hadley and Walter Weil families, Sam Steadman and Lester Cowen.
The Library has also drawn the support of other groups in town. The Calder Foundation, IBM and the Lions Club have made significant contributions. But there is no way to chronicle all the expertise, all the dedication, all the generosity of countless Armonk citizens who continue to give so freely.