The Morristown/Morris Township Library is preparing to celebrate the centennial of the Willis Wing, its oldest section. This building is the latest in a series of libraries that began in Morristown in 1792. This is the story of one of them.
By Peggy Carroll
It was called the Morristown Library and Lyceum.
Downstairs was the library, with a beginning collection of some 4,000 volumes, and classrooms for the Morris Academy, a private boys school.
Upstairs was the Lyceum– a large auditorium, capable of seating 1000 people, which was a theater, concert and lecture hall and at times, and the venue for large society parties for the elite in Morristown’s Gilded Age.
One of the most delicious events, in several senses of the word, was thrown by Morristown’s resident celebrity, illustrator Thomas Nast. (More about that later.)
It was here where Theodore Roosevelt, not yet a hero of San Juan Hill, came to lecture.
Where Mark Twain, according to a biographer, came to Morristown to visit his friend Thomas Nast for Thanksgiving and gave a talk the night before.
Where audiences came to hear celebrities of the day, like Joseph Lincoln (novelist and poet), Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of the children’s classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and Dr. Henry Ward Beecher (clergyman, abolitionist and, oh yes, accused adulterer– though it is doubtful if he spoke about that).
It was here were some of the world’s most admired musicians – like Fritz Kreisler, the renowned Austrian violinist; Ignacy Paderewski, the famed Polish pianist; and Alma Gluck, a well-known soprano, performed.
For those who favored lighter fare, there were barbershop groups like the Passtime Club (which earned a very significant $225 for a Thursday night show).
And on the stage was the well-known actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. And the touring professional actors of the American Company. And famous beauties like actress Lillian Russell and actress and singer Lily Langtry.
There were dramas that still are known, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and operettas still performed, like Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. And comedies. Lillian Kennedy – whom reviewers called a “sprightly little actress,” starred in in a play called She Couldn’t Marry Three, written by her brother.
Like today’s over-the-top ads, promotions hailed many performers as the very best to be had: A dancer named Alice Harper was billed as the “greatest dancer” in the country, and a vocalist named Emma Thursby was known as the “greatest living concert singer.”
As the Romans put it: Sic transit gloria.
There were even animal acts, inspired by Barnum and Bailey, transported from outside tents to the inside stage. The Lyceum could accommodate them. And there were divas from the world of opera. It could accommodate them too.
Like today’s performing arts centers (think of Morristown’s Mayo and Newark’s NJ PAC), the Lyceum could book celebrity speakers and troupes of professional performers through talent agencies, some geared to their needs.
The cost of a ticket: $0.35, $0.50 and $0.75. In today’s dollars: $14, $20 and $30.
There also were free events, like political meetings (both Democrat and Republican), and somber debates on whether the country should allow immigration (so what else is new?) and whether the government should regulate the telegraph (invented here).
Lectures were given on the dangers of drink (hosted by the Ladies Temperance Union) and on the sad working conditions of coal miners. In 1916, there was discussion of the massacre of Armenians – a controversy even then.
All was not solemn or serious. On occasion, platforms were placed over the auditorium seats and the Lyceum would become a ballroom. This also was where Morristown’s residents got their first peek at the new and fascinating entertainment called motion pictures. The first silents were shown the Lyceum as early as 1899.
The building itself was memorable: A large stone structure, 75 feet wide and 100 long, topped by ornamental spires and a peaked red roof.
It stood on the north side of South Street, across from what is now Community Place, about where the Church of the Redeemer and the Provesi restaurant are now. One matron of the time declared it “terribly ugly.” Then she added: “But it has class.”
A NATIONAL MOVEMENT
The Morristown Lyceum was the local offspring of a nationwide movement. Lyceums – or their cousins, the Chautauqua circuit – were everywhere. The word itself comes from ancient Athens, an abbreviation of Lykeion or Lycaeum, a temple dedicated to Apollo Lyceus, best known for the peripatetic school of philosophy founded there by Aristotle in 334 BC.
The Lyceum movement began with an article in the American Journal of Education by Josiah Holbrook, proposing a plan for “Associations of Adults for Mutual Education.”
Holbrook became its major voice; he organized the first lyceum society in November 1826 at Millbury, Mass. Within a year, more than a dozen lyceums had sprung up. The movement was endorsed by a meeting of eminent Bostonians, presided over by Daniel Webster in 1828.
One of the movement’s strongest advocates was Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond fame.
The aim was to improve public schools and to foster adult education, especially for those who couldn’t attend high school or college. So initially, the concentration was on public forums, speakers and discussions about the issues and interests of the time. It was the great-grandfather of today’s adult schools.
Entertainment came later.
By 1915, the number of Lyceum groups was estimated at 12,000, spread throughout the country
There were those who said that a Lyceum was as American as baseball.
And though the movement later faded, succeeded by vaudeville, burlesque and the fascinating flickering screens of motion pictures, the name still is found on theaters (you’ll find one on Broadway today) and public auditoriums. And adult education remains very much here.
BOOKS AND BOOK BURNINGS
The Lyceum movement didn’t reach Morristown until after the Civil War.
Libraries arrived much earlier.
The first circulating library began in 1792 with 97 members and 96 books – not quite one per member. It was called the “Morris County Society for Promotion of Agriculture and Domestic Manufactures” and the dues were $1 a year.
Twenty years later, the Morris Library Association was formed and the two merged into a larger enterprise with 396 books. Members paid 50 cents a year.
The next library was established in 1848 and largely was for the benefit of apprentices in the various businesses who could borrow books ranging from Mother Goose to Shakespeare.
The came then Morris Institute, which bought up all the apprentices’ books and added to them. But the enterprise was not a success; it charged so much that few joined. The society dissolved and the books were placed in storage where half of them went up in flames – an all-too frequent fate in those days of gaslight and candles.
All plans to bring books to Morristown came to a halt with the outbreak of war. Then, at the end of 1865, nine of the town’s leading citizens sent out a letter inviting like-minded readers to gather to talk about setting up a new public library.
Among the founders was George Cobb, a school board member who donated land for the first town high school. (Its yearbook is named for him.).
The group incorporated as the Library and Lyceum, with shares selling for $25 each. There was, a local historian noted, no taxation.
It would be a mistake to think of this as the beginning of a free public library. It was public, yes, but not free. Those who purchased four shares got the use of four books at a time. Non-shareholders had to pay $3 a year to borrow books. It was not to become free until 1906.
The new company first had to find a place to put the books.
So it looked at the dilapidated wooden building owned by the Morris Academy, a respected but financially struggling private boys school. The school agreed to sell, for $6,000, on condition that its would have classrooms classrooms in any new building. That was in 1869.
The Library and Lyceum then razed the school, hired architect Col. George Post of New York and built its massive education, cultural and entertainment center for a reported $55,000.
The whole process took nine years, from sale to debut. The new building opened April 14, 1878.
This time, the library was a success. By 1879, its collection had mushroomed to 10,000 and its capital stock, which started at $50,000, had doubled.
The Lyceum began as a debating society called the “Young Men’s Lyceum.” (Its first president was a descendant of Paul Revere). It was launched in 1879 and its audience and its offerings soon multiplied.
FOR THE YOUNG LADIES
Young men were not the only ones to enjoy the Lyceum; so did the young ladies. Take the story of the debut of young Julia Nast, the daughter of the Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Nast.
In June 1888, the Nasts were planning a large party for between 400 and 600, depending on whose story you believe. It was too many for their Macculloch Avenue home, so they hired the Lyceum.
The Nasts sent out invitations declaring that the honored guests were members of the YMCA – in this case that stood for the Young Maidens Cooking Association. It was, one newspaper said, “an organization projected by Thomas Nast for the amelioration of a dyspeptic nation.”
Debutante Julia, interviewed by the New York Sun, said that for several years, she and other young women – the group eventually numbered 35 – gathered at her home to learn how to cook. At the end of the lesson (no mention is made of the teacher), the maidens ate what they made.
“Our salads are always good,” Julia reported. “Our d–l-d (apparently the word ‘deviled’ was meant here) clams are just lovely. But the scalloped oysters are generally like sawdust, and the biscuits – the less said about them, the better.”
In the beginning, the eclairs melted and the cream cakes fell.
On the invitations was Nast’s sketch of a Kate Greenaway girl in a kitchen, frying a fish “ball.”
Some of the intended guests responded with sketches of their own, or in poetry. One, whose author is no identified in the history of the event, wrote:
Now comes the glad millennial,
All pain and sorrow bitter,
Shall vanish while our maidens fair,
Prepare the steak and fritters,
The prophets of the older time,
It seems, did not mislead us.
The long predicted hour has come
When angels are to fed us.
Not all the distinguished invitees could make it. Former President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant begged off and so did Nast’s friend Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain).
One gentleman pointed out in his RSVP that “George Washington has been a famous cook who won immortal renown in the interest of the cherry pie.” A young couple declined because, they said, they had recently become members of another YMCA – The Young Mothers’ Cradle Association.
A special train brought out-of-town guests, including notables such as Charles Dana of the New York Sun and “Marse” Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier Journal. Also on the train was the 22nd Regiment Band of New York.
The Lyceum was decked out with a large bouquet of kitchen utensils and garden produce hanging from the chandelier. Other decor included saucepans, strainers, spoons and quart measures. The YMCA maidens received in frilly Swiss muslin frocks, frivolous caps and aprons, with small fying pans as badges.
Alas, they never did cook for the party.
The famed restaurateurs from Delmonico came out from New York to serve the supper.
ANOTHER BOOK BURNING
The Library and Lyceum went hand-in-hand into the 20th century and beyond. The Lyceum attendance fell as less expensive entertainment, like the growing number of movie houses, came along and burlesque and vaudeville flourished.
Then, on Feb. 12, 1914, at 5:30 a.m., fire struck again. This time, it was not the lighting. The building had gone electric in 1887.
The blaze was blamed on negligence by a janitor who allowed sparks from the furnace to ignite near-by rolls of paper.
Gone with it were some 30,000 volumes – and everything else in the library.
A temporary library opened in the old YMCA building on South Street. With money from both insurance and the sale of the land on which the Library and Lyceum stood, the property at the corner of Miller Road and South Street was purchased with the intention of building a new library building.
Then a benefactor came on the scene. A retired textile merchant named Grinnell Willis approached the Library Trustees and offered to pay the entire cost of a new fireproof building. Note that word fireproof.
He was to be the link between the old library/lyceum and the new library building.
After the library fire, he and an associate had purchased the still-standing shell of the old building and turned it into an armory, which the Morristown Battalion occupied in 1917. On top of the building a large eagle flew — a symbol of the nation.
Again fire struck and the armory was destroyed in 1920. Only the eagle was undamaged. The eagle was then bequeathed to the Morristown Library to honor those who served in the First World War.
Willis gave the library $56,000. He then paid for a children’s room and added $200,000 for the library’s future. Then he gave the library the armory eagle. And then Willis, a widower, married the librarian, Katherine Tappert.
The library will be celebrating the building that Willis endowed throughout 2017. They call it, of course, the Willis Wing. You can visit the wing during the birthday events.
And you can see the Willis eagle. It flies there still.
Sources for this story:
- North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, Morristown & Morris Township Library
- “The Morristown Lyceum,” by Arthur Mierisch, in Garden State Legacy, September 2014
- “The Quiet Millionaires,” Marjorie Kaschwski, 1970
- “History of Morris County,” W.W. Munsell and Co., 1882
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