Every child has a favorite place and it’s not school.
Mine was the Southworth Library in Dartmouth. It was a magical place for a child — strange, stone and very old.
The Children’s Room had its own entrance down a flight of steps and into the basement. Adult books were upstairs but this was our place. This was where I discovered A Wrinkle in Time and every one of the Thornton Burgess Old Mother West Wind books. Even on the most miserable summer day, it was deliciously cool in our out-of-the-way place.
Years later as an adult, I wrote a very long National Register nomination for Southworth Library. The library was replaced by the 1969 behemoth on Dartmouth Street and the old Southworth was for many years the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust office.
The Town of Dartmouth is now deciding its future. A new nonprofit group, Save Old Southworth Dartmouth Cultural Center, has proposed an arts center for the building. They just have to convince the town government that an 1890 gift to the people of Dartmouth should continue to belong to the people.
Southworth is one of the finest public buildings in the entire Greater New Bedford area. It actually predates the Millicent Library in Fairhaven. There are very few Richardson Romanesque buildings here. It was designed without charge by Dartmouth resident Robert H. Slack — more about him later.
In 1889, John Haywood Southworth, a former Dartmouth boy who made very, very good, wanted to give back to the town. He decided on a library.
On July 26, 1889 the Evening Standard Times ran a full description of the new library including a rendering of a floor plan. "The building stands on high ground at the intersection of two streets facing the South and East, the entrance being through the porch on the east side.
The semi-circular end, in which is situated the reading room, is toward the South and its windows command a view of the mouth of the Apponegansett.”
The newspaper went on, "The exterior of the building is of rough pasture stone with natural color and moss on them. The door and window trimmings, heads and arches are of brick and the sills and belt of rough faced granite.”
The Library's centerpiece was the reading room with a large open fireplace "with an arched opening, built of pressed and molded brick with a tiled hearth."
Robert H. Slack inserted another decorative touch "with top lights of colored glass." Redwood and birch were used throughout the interior. It was a truly glorious building.
It was completed and dedicated on February 1, 1890. On February 3, the Daily Mercury described the ceremony.
The primary dedication speaker was Hosea Knowlton, the prosecutor in the Lizzie Borden trial. He said, “It would be difficult to conceive of any way in which more lasting good, more true enjoyment, or more beneficial results could have been reached."
Mr. Southworth at 72 was in ill health and could not attend. He died a year later. The Springfield Republican described him as one of the most important members of the community.
The paper noted that the gem of his gifts was the Southworth Library.
In addition to the funds to construct the library, Mr. Southworth gave 2,500 books chosen by the Carlton Publishing Company in New York.
Among the collection were copies of Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice In Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, Little Women and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Southworth Library was the single most important gift ever given to the Town of Dartmouth.
Back to Robert H. Slack.
When you begin looking for his buildings, they are everywhere, from the 1876 Peabody Museum wing at Harvard to Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River. In New Bedford, his buildings include St Mary’s Home, and the 1894 addition to the Bristol County House of Correction on Ash Street. His masterpiece New Bedford building was and remains Pilgrim United Church. It was built and dedicated in 1891 as the Trinitarian Congregational Church. From its granite, brick and brownstone trim exterior to the Angel of the Resurrection Tiffany glass window and sanctuary ceiling echoing a whaling ship, the church is perfect.
A benefactor who never forgot his town and an architect of genius gave his best to the Town of Dartmouth. As a cultural center, the Southworth Library will continue.