A Lasting Combination
Since 1982 the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park have been a resource - and a refuge - in the heart of downtown. As the organization celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Jim Hummel looks at the special partnership the library and park, both privately held but open to the community, have with the community.
On one of the prettiest afternoons of the summer, more than a dozen children gather under a sprawling magnolia tree for a program called Art in the Park.
The setting: Wilcox Park in the heart of downtown Westerly, a 15-acre oasis that is hosting this, and dozens of other programs and community events over the course of the summer.
At the southern edge of the park is Westerly Library, founded - in 1892. Together, the library and the park have been a focal point - and a resource - for Westerly and surrounding communities for more than a century.
26:21 I was in awe, I got lost…
The library’s executive director - Brigitte Hopkins - had the same reaction many do when she first visited several years ago for a job interview: a sense of amazement.
25:45 I feel that way every day I come in from the parking lot, I have to walk through the park and I always kind of stop. Half the time I take a picture. I have the same picture.
What many don’t know is the library and park are privately held: only 25 percent of the operating budget comes from the town of Westerly and neighboring Stonington, Connecticut. The rest: from an endowment, grants and donations.
27:42 Most libraries are municipal libraries, some have private portions to them, so they maybe have associations attached. But they’re not completely private, we’re fairly unique in Rhode Island :57
33:51 You know you think library and a park, they’re so different but they’re not really. They’re intellectual spaces, they’re spaces where people can think and get ideas and learn, learn about nature, learn about themselves: 34:06
It began in the late 1800s when Stephen Wilcox, a local business owner and inventor, stepped in after the town had unsuccessfully been trying to erect a Civil War monument.
30:17 What Stephen Wilcox did was call a public meeting and said I have purchased property and I will also provide monies toward a Civil War memorial and public library only to be matched by the citizens of the community. And they raised the money in record time: 17
That community support was a precursor of what was to come over the next 125 years. What you see today - in the library and throughout the park - is the result of that generosity. The main building has undergone a series of additions and renovations that create unique spaces inside - from reading areas and a computer room, to an art gallery with rotating exhibits upstairs, and a teen room that was formerly a book storage area - plus a third-floor terrace room with an outside deck.
A view of the park is never very far away.
45:05 I always found the library to be almost like a refuge.
Dennis Algiere grew up in Westerly and was a regular at the library from an early age. He is now a state senator, works downtown and lives across the street from the library.
45:11 As I grew older I enjoyed it more and oftentimes would come here to escape work, escape reality sometimes and just immerse yourself in a book, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, a biography, local history and just escape: 27
Algiere chaired this year’s 125th anniversary celebration and gala, held under a huge tent on a crystal clear evening in July, right in the heart of the park. He also chaired a major renovation of the building back in 2010.
47:20 The focus was to tweak the building a bit, because of the delivery of services and also to restore some areas.:26
47:52 We do take pride in maintaining the aesthetic value of the building - it’s a beautiful building, it’s very unique to the community and it lends itself well to the diversity of architecture we have.
A 1929 fountain at the southern entrance to Wilcox Park lines up perfectly with Town Hall across the street. Across the park, a second fountain anchors a pond built a century ago.
Another thing many visitors might not know: the town’s high school was located at the southern end of the park until the late 1930s and there have been attempts over the years to encroach on the land.
50:31 Back in, I think it was the ‘60s and ‘70s there was talk about putting parking spaces and parking lots in this park, putting roads through the park. That was not allowed- thank goodness - they maintained it and that’s again because of the board of trustees and those that maintain the park, and those involved in town government that do not want to disturb the original intent, is to maintain a Victoria, strolling park in our community. It’s beautiful.:53
The number of programs and events in the library and park have increased significantly since Hopkins took over as director two years ago. We saw numerous children’s programs, the folk festival, and preparations for a Shakespeare in the Park series in August.
36:43 It’s great that we can provide a venue, or host programs, because we have the space so we can connect these programs or events and our community members: 55
Nats with Alan Peck at folk Festival.
Alan Peck, the park’s superintendent, welcomed hundreds of people to a Folk Festival performance on the first Saturday in July. It’s the second year of the festival and organizers handled all of the logistics, while Wilcox Park provided the setting for hundreds of families to enjoy a day of music on the grass.
47:56 I’m trying to bring out the best of what we have here, because we have such incredible collection of both the trees and the historical monements:05
Peck has two seasonal employees and another full-timer to help him keep the 15 acres looking like this. Just removing mill weed from the pond in June was a major project.
Peck, who is a licensed arborist, says the park contains 9 champion trees - meaning they are the largest of their species in the state. And Wilcox Park has the 4th-largest collection of champion trees anywhere in Rhode Island.
The park also boasts this 350-year-old white oak near the pond; a massive tree that could live to be more than 600 years old.
Everywhere you look, there is history: including this century-old bandstand, where we saw a musical group playing one day. The gazebo-like bandstand just underwent a major renovation and hosts scores of weddings every year.
Just over the hill is the park cottage, also a century old, where caretakers used to live, with a prime view of the pond.
Back at the library, visitors who come in the front door will see a calendar of events to the left, changing from week-to-week - and a huge plaque to the right that is a testament to the community’s support.
48:47 We’ve been very fortunate to have people in our community and region that donate to the library, it is a private library and the park is private, open to the public, it’s a unique situation. We’re very fortunate to have people in the community who recognize that and donate, their time and their money.: 03
38:28 JH what makes this a little bit different from the other places you’ve worked? BH The community. I think it’s the community, the staff are great, but the community feeds our dedication and enthusiasm about working here. There’s such pride the community holds for the institutions you can feel it walking in. And because the community supports us we’re excited to be here: 03
52:08 JH What’s your hope for the next 5, 10, 15 years. DA We maintain the level of services, we continue to get the support from the people in the community and we continue adjust to the delivery of services because things are changing. Technology is forcing us to do certain things, but to understand how to deliver the services and making sure we keep the public happy with library and park.
In Westerly, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.