By William Morgan
The village of North Easton in Bristol County, Massachusetts is a bit of serendipity amidst the bland landscape between I-95 and Route 24, south of Route 128. This area is a seemingly endless tribute to the sort of mindless planning that traded New England’s patrimony for more box stores, strip malls, and fast food.
A place of rocky outcrops, pig iron, and fast moving streams, North Easton was blessed by one family that built mills, made huge profits, and generously gave back to the town. Oliver Ames started making iron shovels here in 1803. By the end of the Civil War, the Ames Shovel and Tool Company was making 60 percent of all the world’s shovels, many of which were being used to build transcontinental railroads and the New York subway.
The Ames family supplied the commonwealth with a governor, a congressman, civic leaders, and the richest man in New England, Frederick Lothrop Ames. During their heyday, the Ames family commissioned five buildings by the leading Boston architect, Henry Hobson Richardson: two houses, a railroad station, a town hall, and a library. (They also employed America’s foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to create settings for these monuments.)
Richardson’s death at 48 cut short this extraordinary career — there would be too few vigorous, stonier-than-stone landmarks, such as Trinity Church, which dominates Boston’s Copley Square, and the Allegheny Courthouse in Pittsburgh. His work challenged the overly decorative design aesthetic of High Victorianism with simple but powerful massing, rational programs, and limited color schemes, greatly influencing Modern architecture.
Medieval forms inspired his dramatic Richardson Romanesque style, but his deference to the past has been overemphasized. He had absorbed universal lessons and applied them in the service of a coming-of-age America.
Among the master’s most satisfying works are the series of town libraries that he designed for several Massachusetts towns, such as Woburn, Quincy, and North Easton.
Aside from considerations of style or size, Richardson’s buildings were designed with irrefutable logic. Is there anyone who has trouble finding the entrance of the North Easton Library? The tower, like a giant keystone demarcates the buildings functions, all easily perceived by even the most untrained eye: the stacks (with high windows to one side), a reading room on the other side, with the entrance and administrative functions in between.
The grand but remarkably intimate reading room, features a fireplace carved by Stanford White, an architect and decorator famous in his own right, and who had served an apprenticeship with Richardson. The bronze bas-relief over the mantel (a portrait of Oliver Ames, who willed the library to North Easton) is the work of another incomparable artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, arguably our greatest sculptor, as his depictions of Abraham Lincoln and Col. Robert Gould Shaw attest. The gathering of such incredible talent at the library is a manifestation of the renaissance in architecture and the allied arts in late 19th-century Boston.
The main room of the library, with its tiers of books, is a magnificent space. Richardson loved wood as much as stone (he designed the library’s furniture), and here the ceiling evokes a medieval church nave or an upside down ship’s hull. While the Ames Library recalls hoary European book repositories, its accessibility and practicality make it a testament to the Yankee belief in knowledge for all its citizenry.
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