Lost Landmark: Library Hall
About 1770, Thomas Anderson erected a frame building on the lot where the Newton Post Office now stands. His son-in-law, James Conover, built an addition to the west in 1806, occupying the new part as a dwelling and converting the older portion to a store. Azariah Drake resided here about 1810 when he first came to Newton from Andover. David Ryerson rented it while he was building his residence on High Street and his son George M. Ryerson was born here. Charles Rhodes opened the first drug store at this location in 1837. It was successively run by Charles Halsted. Jonathan Shafer, Shafer Brothers and George M. Ryerson.

On November 16, 1866, Alfred L. Dennis, of Newark, offered a donation of $25,000 to his native town for the erection of a Town Hall and Public Library, on condition that the citizens of Newton contribute $5,000 to the same object. Martin Ryerson, George H. Nelden, Franklin Smith and Thomas Anderson incorporated the Newton Library Association on April 2, 1867. It took until October 15, 1870, to sell 201 shares of stock at $25 each and raise the needed sum of money. Although a lot near the Presbyterian Church was originally purchased for $2,500, public opinion eventually secured a change and the old Drug Store Lot on Main Street was acquired in March 1871. Carpenter Robert Baughn bought and dismantled the old drugstore on the property in August 1871. At that time, George M. Ryerson moved his stock to the Sheriff Smith building on Spring Street.

Architect J. V. Nichols designed the Library Building, which was built by contractors Robert Baughan and Andrew Price for $18,500. Messrs. J. A. Bancroft & Company, of Philadelphia, manufactured and installed the seating. James L. Smith, of Newton, fabricated the stage and orchestra furniture. John C. Williams, of Newton, made the furniture for the Reading Room. John W. Lane and Charles Crook installed the steam heater and gas fixtures. The U. S. Reflector Company produced the reflectors in the Hall and Reading Room. The building was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1872. The original Board of Directors included: Alfred L. Dennis, Joseph Coult, Samuel Johnson, George M. Ryerson, Thomas Ryerson, Theodore Morford, Jonathan F. Shafer, John McCarter and Franklin Smith with Col. Robert Hamilton as president, Daniel S. Anderson , vice-president, Henry C. Kelsey, secretary and treasurer, and Rev. Myron Barrett as librarian.

The offices and printing plant of the New Jersey Herald shared the first floor with the Post Office. The Newton Library Association occupied two rooms on the second floor, with a catalogue of 2,500 volumes. Reverend Myron Barrett was the first librarian. A public hall in the third story accommodated 500 people.

Carpenters extensively renovated the Newton Library in August 1896, placing new floors in the second and third stories. George A. Walker remodeled the opera hall, building a gallery across the west side with a rail and banisters, installing a floor inclined toward the stage and sixty opera seats. The new stage measured 23 feet wide and 22 feet deep. A gilded sign advertising the Newton Opera House was placed over the second-story front windows.

The trustees of the Newton Library met on February 18, 1903, to review plans for a two-story extension to the rear of the building, 20 by 22 feet, to accommodate an engine for the printing plant of the New Jersey Herald. Ground was broken in March 1903. A third room was also added to the Library.

The State Library Commission installed the Dewey Decimal system, a standard card catalog and a Browne charging system in 1907. Miss Elizabeth Case became librarian in 1916 and served for many years. In September 1920, carpenter and contractor Reuben Lambert began work on a planned enlargement of postal facilities in the Opera House building. Warren E. Dennis, son of the founder, donated a new fiction section in 1924. Dr. Frederick C. Dennis, of New York, a world-famous surgeon and nephew of Alfred L. Dennis, gave his private library of 300 volumes as a Fiftieth Anniversary gift. The library thus swelled to 10,500 volumes, occupying shelves in four rooms, and serving 700 borrowers. In October 1935, the Newton Library Association was bequeathed $163,832 for the Dennis Library from the estate of the late Dr. Frederick S. Dennis.

Having outgrown its quarters, the Newton Library Association purchased the Adams' property at the corner of Main and Elm Streets.

The new Dennis Library building is an example of Georgian Revival architecture. It was built by contractor William I. Houghton. Frank I. Farrell, president of the Newton Library Association, laid the cornerstone on September 30, 1939. The vestibule includes bronze memorial tablets honoring Alfred L. Dennis and Dr. Frederick S. Dennis. The foyer features a winding staircase and is flanked by high arches leading into the children’s reading room on the right and the adults’ reading room on the left. A doorway at the rear leads into the stock rooms. Ivory painted woodwork, light buff walls, pilasters and indirect lighting were used in the interior decoration. The radiators were concealed under the windows. Mrs. Robert H. Snook presented a three-sided desk, magazine rack, newspaper rack, atlas stand and dictionary stands, and bulletin board. The basement contained a large storage room and another large room (22 by 38 feet) with six windows, intended for a meeting room, it having an entrance on Elm Street.

At the top of the foyer staircase, a large reference room on the right was furnished with mahogany tables and easy chairs. The Memorial Room to the left of the stairway displayed a portrait of Alfred Dennis above the fireplace and Dr. Dennis' private library of leather-bound books. Mrs. James Christie Bell, daughter of the original donor, gave linen drapes of a neutral tone.

The Post Office purchased the old Library Hall and Post Office on Main Street in 1940 and conceived plans for a new post office building on the site. The project was indefinitely postponed when funding for the Public Buildings Administration was diverted to emergency defense programs. A Newton delegation traveled to Washington, D. C., and successfully petitioned the Post Office Department for progress on a new facility. Doctor Martin Snook, of the Newton Planning Board, sent the architects photographs of the Sussex County Court House and the Dennis Library in the hope that they would “follow a colonial design in planning the new post office building.” Most unfortunately, the old Library Hall was demolished in 1958 and a one-story building erected in its place. A broken-scroll pediment was applied over the entrance to achieve the desired “colonial” effect.

Copyright 2000 Kevin W. Wright. All rights reserved.

1. Engraving, circa 1873, showing the new Library Hall. Note the advertising sign of the New Jersey Herald.

2. The Newton Opera House and Post Office, postcard circa 1905

3. The Dennis Library on Main Street, postcard circa 1945.