This Place in History: Fletcher Free Library

Vermont Historical Society

BURLINGTON, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History’ we’re in Burlington with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“We’re going to be talking about the Fletcher Free Library. It’s got a great history of philanthropy and architecture. We’re going to go talk with Mary Danko, the Library Director, to get us started on this story,” began Perkins.

In 1873, mother-daughter duo Mary L. and Mary M. Fletcher gifted the City of Burlington $20,000 for the founding of the library.

“This is called the Fletcher Free Library. What does that ‘free’ mean?” asked Perkins.

“A long time ago, libraries were often by subscription and you had to pay. So, that was a way to designate that you don’t have to pay any subscription fee. It’s mostly funded by either taxpayer money or philanthropy within the area. You can come in and have access to any material for free,” explained Danko.

The library was initially located in the old City Hall, but outgrew that spot by 1901.

“In the early 1900s, somebody appealed to [Andrew] Carnegie who was building libraries at the time to build one in Vermont. The Fletcher Free Library was the first one to be built here,” said Danko.

Having been built on the site of the Burlington Ravine, however, just 70 years later the building sustained significant structural damage. After much debate and threat of demolition, the building was saved.

“Citizens got together and started putting it on historic registrations. So they started with a Burlington historic designation, then Vermont, then all the way to a national historic designation, which enabled them to get grants and other kinds of money to help support it and get it back to where it needed to be,” said Danko.

From stained glass to ornate fireplaces to a vault housing the original City of Burlington Charter, the Carnegie section of the library contains many treasures.

“We’ve invited Devin Colman, the State Architectural Historian, to talk about this Carnegie Library program and what’s unique about this building and others in the state,” said Perkins.

“They’re named for Andrew Carnegie who was a famous 19th Century industrialist, one of these titans of industry. His life story is one of rags to riches. He came to the U.S. as an immigrant as a child, from Scotland,” began Colman.

“He worked his way up and became eventually the richest man in the country. He had this motto for life where he thought you should spend the first third of your life educating yourself and learning as much as you can; spend the second third earning as much money as you could; and the final third doing public good. He saw libraries as really essential to that first phase of learning and public education,” added Colman.

Beginning in the late 19th century, [Carnegie] began funding libraries with the tally quickly growing to more than 1,600 libraries across the United States and abroad.

“There are four in Vermont: The Fletcher Free Library here in Burlington, one in Fair Haven, one in Morristown and one in Rockingham. Then, there’s an academic library, which would be the fifth one, at Norwich University,” said Colman.

The libraries are all unique to the individual communities they serve.

“They used typically regional or local architects so that the design of the library tends to fit in with the context of the surrounding community. That said, they do have a look to them in that they’re all monumental. These are buildings that are meant to make a statement. They’re meant to be temples of learning, landmarks within a community, open to the public and part of the civic core. Fletcher Free Library is right here downtown where anyone can access it,” concluded Colman.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more information on the Fletcher Free Library, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

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