Early Town Libraries (1700s – 1896)
In the mid-1700s, a “town library” was kept in a room of the Gay Manse located on North Main Street, which was the residence of Ebenezer Gay, minister of the Congregational Church.
In 1812, a subscription library was formed in a store in West Suffield. For an investment of $2.00, a subscriber could withdraw $1.50 worth of books at a time, to be returned within two months. The library had a total of 76 books and 43 subscribers.
In June 1884, interested citizens started the Suffield Library Association. Opened in January 1885, at the corner of Day Avenue and North Main Street, the library was open to the public on Monday and Saturday afternoons. The charge for a card entitling a holder to the privileges of the library was $1.00
In 1893, the Connecticut Legislature passed an act providing state aid to purchase books for towns who established free public libraries. Upon the petition of Edward A. Fuller and others, a special town meeting was held March 14, 1894, for the organization of a free public library in Suffield. A board of twelve directors was chosen who authorized the purchase of books not exceeding $200. Also included in this library were all the holdings from the Suffield Library Association which consisted of 1,200 books and papers.
The Kent Memorial Library on High Street (1897-1971)
In 1897, Sidney Albert Kent, a Suffield native and successful Chicago businessman, donated $35,000 to build a library as a memorial to his parents, Albert and Lucinda Kent. On November 1, 1899, the Kent Memorial Library was dedicated. Mr. Kent gave the library 6,872 carefully selected books, 32 magazines and newspapers and created a $25,000 endowment. The land, on High Street, upon which the library still stands, belonged to the Connecticut Literary Institute, now the Suffield Academy, which sold it to the town. The land was part of the allotment of land made in 1678 to Samuel Kent, an early settler of Suffield.
After its founding in 1940, the Suffield Historical Society chose the library to be the repository of its documents and photographs. The Kent Memorial Library’s historical collection is one of the richest in the state, and is a haven for researchers of early Connecticut and Suffield history.
The Platner Building (1972 – Present)
In 1966, the Suffield Annual Report states, “[the library] book collection of 22,689 has now caused the library shelves to burst at the seams.” A Building Study Committee was formed, consisting of Chairman Allan Fuller, Mary Anne Zak, Edward McDonough, Samuel Fuller and Librarian Elinor Burnham, who decided to purchase the site on 50 North Main Street for a new library and hire Warren Platner as the architect. Construction was completed in 1972. The total cost for the property, building construction, landscaping, shelving and furnishings was $974,037. It was paid for by the sale of the prior library to Suffield Academy for $50,000, half of the endowment fund, a federal grant, a capital fund drive, and $45,000 from the Friends of the Library. No taxpayer money was used for the purchase of the land or the construction of the building. However, the Town of Suffield spent $72,000 on furnishings for the new library.
In 1992, when the library was deemed too small for its growing collection, a long-term plan was developed to add more shelving and build an addition to the south side of the library. Shelving was added, but an addition was never built. Ultimately, an analysis indicated that a new, larger library should be built and the Platner building razed. Although the proposal for a new building passed twice in two town meetings, in 2008 and again in 2011, a referendum was called for in both cases which defeated the initial votes.
Library advocates regrouped and formed a new plan to revitalize and renovate the existing building, making it ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compatible. In 2011 and again in 2014, the staff moved into temporary quarters to renovate the library. In 2015, construction began on a new, more accessible entrance to the Kent Memorial Library with a significant contribution from Michael Zak in honor of his mother, Mary Anne Zak. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, donations to the Suffield Library Foundation, and Library Commission endowment funds also funded the project. Tecton Architects designed the new ADA entrance. By eliminating the hill along Bank Lane, patrons can enter the library at street level and have the option of taking the stairs or elevator to enter the library. The project also included additional parking. The architectural firm of Silver/Petrucelli and Associates took part in the renovation of the library by replacing the existing windows with energy efficient glass, adding a sprinkler system and updating the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical, and plumbing systems. Enterprise Builders coordinated the two projects.
Before the completion of the original project, the toxin PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) was discovered in large quantities which caused a major delay and more expenses. The toxin was successfully remediated and subsequent improvements were made to the historical room, the auditorium, the staff workroom and gallery and new furniture was bought. These were funded by the Town of Suffield, Michael Zak, the Library Commission endowment, the Suffield Library Foundation and the Friends of the Kent Memorial Library.
The culmination of all these efforts is a beautiful library. The building welcomes visitors with its warm colored woodwork and rooms filled with light from the inner garden courtyard. It is a mid-century masterpiece by Warren Platner, open once again.
Warren Platner, The Architect of the Kent Memorial Library (1919-2006)
The Kent Memorial Library is unique. It is the only free-standing public building designed by Warren Platner. Unknown to many, there is a twin to our library at Princeton University. It is a glass structure attached to Prospect House, a dining club for faculty and staff.
Warren Platner studied architecture at Cornell University, graduating in 1941. Early on, Platner worked with legendary architectural luminaries. The experience provided him with a wide range of architectural and design skills. From 1945 to 1950 he was employed by Raymond Loewy, known as the “The Man Who Shaped America.” Among Loewy’s designs were the Shell, Exxon and TWA logos, Coca-Cola vending machines and the Lucky Strike cigarette package. Platner also worked for I. M. Pei, nicknamed “The Master of Modern Architecture.” In 1955, Platner received the Rome Prize for Architecture, a highly competitive fellowship. During the early sixties, Platner worked with architect Eero Saarinen on the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport. After Saarinen’s death, Platner was partly responsible for completing the soaring St. Louis Gateway Arch. Before starting his own firm in New Haven in 1965, Platner worked with Kevin Roche who was later awarded the Pritzker Prize, equivalent to a Nobel Prize. Planter’s first solo project was the New York showroom for Georg Jensen, the high-end seller of Scandinavian furniture. Sometime after that, Platner designed the Kent Memorial Library which opened in 1972. After Suffield, he designed many interiors including Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center and the American Restaurant in Kansas City. Previously known for his understated, efficient office spaces, Planter’s spare style became giddy, flashy and opulent.
Platner focused on the Kent Memorial Library’s interior to create the perfect balance between the building structure and its interior.
”I tried to conceive what would be the best atmosphere, the best character for a small town public library building…Where would you like to go to look for books, perhaps sit down and read a book…The first thing we did with that concept was to think of it as a donut. If you add many individual, intimate spaces, small in scale around an opening…a garden court…then …as you enter the building, you could see across the court and see all the other spaces and you could understand the building.”
Platner spoke passionately about the library design in a 1981 interview. He also featured the library in his book Ten. As the dust jacket notes:
“These designs show …the making of desirable surroundings from mundane elements raised to the distinction of style…beautiful places …everyday buildings… [u]sing simple concepts, integrating nature, architecture and furnishings.”
Platner is best remembered for his furniture design. The sculptural bases were made of hundreds of rods, and for some chairs, required more than 1,000 welds. The Platner collection, considered mid-century masterpieces, has been in continuous production at Knoll International since its introduction. And that’s a good thing because Platner arm chairs and tables made an appearance in the James Bond movie, A Quantum of Solace and were consequently blown up. Other starring roles for the Platner Collection were in No Strings Attached and Marvel Comic’s Luke Cage, a Netflix series.
More research on Warren Platner can be done by studying the 164 boxes stored at Yale which document his career. The records include extensive documentation of major projects, such as Standard Brands, Kent Memorial Library….and others.