Monday, August 31, 2009

Lunatics, Orphans, and Patrons: History of the Hudson Public Library

Breathing in Dust, Breathing out History

Books inhabit almost every place, space, and crevice in society. Though some may not believe this or are willing to disengage from any discussion on the role of books in favor of the catatonic drool-fest over Kindlebots and electronic text drones, the fact is, books are everywhere. What I've discovered to be one of the more interesting rituals in my searches for books in curious, different, and all-out odd places is the history of those very places, and if
time and resources permit, the relationship between the book (or books) and the place itself. So it was no stretch of the imagination to find a wealth of stories, history, and curiosity at this location I last visited in August. The Hudson Area Public Library is one of the most interesting (and certainly unique) libraries I've come across. The building itself was constructed ca. 1816 on the slopes of the city of Hudson, a once thriving river port town, which for a short period of its long history it was a locus of North American whaling. That's correct: whaling--the kind you might find among the not-so-slender pages of Melville's great novel Moby Dick, especially in the first chapters, where there are descriptions of men in boarding houses. This is the sort of place you might encounter a fellow boarder or, what was Melville's expression?--odd bedfellows! Ah, yes, well, just imagine transporting yourself back into a place like this, and you'll see what I mean.

The building above, as you may see, is characteristically old Hudson Valley Dutch style, but some of the fixtures, such as the front doors, are more "period modern" to the days of the building's construction. Every time I've entered into this library, I've stared in amazement at the front doors of the building, because they are so massive and ornate, almost of the Empire era of decorating and design. It is very possible that these doors are newer than the original construction of the building, and some design scholar will correct me on this. For now, let us continue with our tour of this magnificent structure and all of the associated stories that come with it. So, for starters, it was some decade or so after its construction that it was used for the housing of what were once called "the mad," or even less flattering "lunatics." In fact, the structure had been home to the now defunct "Hudson Lunatic Asylum," run by Dr. Samuel White.

In a 1917 publication entitled The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United State and Canada (Vol. 4), by Henry M. Hurd (Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins) et al., there is a fine short biography of Dr. White on pp. 527-8. It reads:

"Dr. Samuel White was born in Connecticut on February 23, 1777. He commenced his professional career in Hudson, NY, in 1797. Owing to the occurrence of insanity in his own family, he was led to pay much attention to mental disorders, an in 1830 he established a private institution at Hudson, which he successfully conducted. In 1840 he was elected president of the New York Medical Society, and delivered an address on insanity which presented on of the best synopses of our knowledge of insanity, especially of its treatment, which has ever been published. His health began to fail shortly after the meeting of the Association, and he died at Hudson, February 10, 1845. He was tall and slender, his countenance grave and dignified. With iron gray hair and a sober, calm and thoughtful expression, he gave the impression of a man of earnest character, and of thoughtful, studious habits. Within a limited sphere he discharged the various duties of a long and active professional life with ability and in a truly Christian spirit." (Image of Dr. S. White from "The Mentally Ill in America--A History of Their Care and Treatment from Colonial Times" by Albert Deutsch, p. 192 image page).

By mere association, I realize that Dr. White was a contemporary of Thomas Cole, whom we wrote about in our last article, and who died all but two years apart from Dr. White. It is interesting that, seventy-plus years after his death, he was not only described biographically by where he came from and what he did, but what he looked like and how he acted and comported himself! "...a sober, calm, and thoughtful expression" indeed!

Most historical accounts of psychiatric and medical history report positively on Dr. Samuel White and his Asylum. In fact, there is great praise given to him and his techniques of dealing with "the mad." And it may have worked in the olden days of nascent American therapies. In Hudson alone, the Asylum housed many an individual, from those without occupation to some of the celebrated poets and musicians of the day. But no matter who they were, Dr. White plied his trade and craft, tending to the betterment of the withering mind and spirit.

[See: about more of the history of the building; and "Social Aspect of the Treatment of the Insane" by Jacob Alter Goldberg, pp. 162-3, praising the work of Dr. White].

Today, on the outside, on the streets of Hudson, the structure looks like a very old building. But once you enter into the halls of the now-library, you will discover the multiple layers of history hidden within.

Of course, this fine old radiator is one of the accoutrements of the structure, which I found to be utterly noteworthy. There is, presumably, nothing here that has to do with books, save for the fact that they reside all around this building and in the same room as this heater. But because of its curiosity factor, I had to include it to give you an idea of how old this place looks on certain parts of the interior. And I'm sure, this heater warmed at least one reader in many long years of its existence.

The history room is, well, the local history room. As far as I understand, it is the repository for all things local, rare, unique, and special to the Hudson area. It was closed when I visited this fine day, but I had a chance to glance into the nicely furnished room. I will certainly have to make it back to this place another time, as it really seemed to glow with a spirit of historical worth and importance. The history room itself seemed spacious and full of cabinets, shelves, and other containers overflowing with aging documents, letters, and the fruits of human progress from decades and centuries gone by.

Now even though I am supposedly writing about books, I am also writing about their places and spaces--what surrounds them, and what those places mean both historically and socially. And perhaps in other ways. So, if one conjectures that I am going way off topic by displaying photographs of rogue electric switch hardware from the 1940s, I understand where you're coming from. But bare with me. Here, as you can see is, in fact, a very old light switch. It is the light switch, older than most of you reading this blog, which is located on the very top floor of the library, on the staircase leading to the attic (which you will see in a forthcoming photo). It is old, clearly. And yet, it is still functional. It led to rooms, which today I am still unclear what purpose they served, but were hidden away from the rest of the present library, away from most of the books, save for a few dumped haphazardly in the rafters, away from the patrons rummaging quietly some forty feet below on the main floor. And here I was, exploring this hidden world, far above. Looking for some other histories.

Indeed, there were some histories here. Something I wasn't really expecting. For most of us, this would seem like some fitful episode out of the Wizard of Oz. For these ash encrusted women's shoes make you feel like you are in some silver screen montage. I looked down at them, moved them around and picked them up. They were old, very old, and grimy. The person giving me the tour of the library told me that she was told a somewhat apocryphal tale: that in many old Dutch buildings, shoes were put up in the rafters for some folklorish purpose. I found an interesting website, which talks about this. The website is called "Old Houses Ritual Objects," and can be found at the following link: Nonetheless, this is an interesting point: apparently shoes were put in rafters or in between walls to ward off witches and the like. Yet, in this case, these shoes look like they belong to a witch! We'll never know, my pretties!

And yet the story continues. Here are some of the rafters themselves. I took this picture, because it shows, if ever slightly, both the woodwork of the connecting beams of the roof and the antique nails that were used to construct the roof. It is surely amazing how well these 200 year old segments of wood have held up to the centuries of wear and tear.

Here too is yet another example. You may be able to see the nails more clearly, coming out so sternly from the top of the lintel. And of course, the stonework is something rightly admired by both masons and Dutch stone aficionados. These buildings were made to stand the tests of time.

Among the many lives of this building, it once served as a bomb shelter. Yes, that's right, I said a bomb shelter. You may be doubtful in this statement, as was I until I actually saw dozens, if not scores of survival canisters from the Department of Defense. You will see in some other photos below, which I have posted, that there were many of these survival canisters literally strewn about the upper levels of the library, not just in the attic. There also appears to be a slight variation in the types of canisters that are located here and there and everywhere in the building: some are solid metal, while others are made of cardboard. But as you see, these metal containers were used to hold drinking water. What is most striking about this role of "bomb shelter," which the building played in those lovely McCarthy-era days, is how logistically odd it must have been: a bomb shelter, to shield young people from an atomic bomb, in an old Dutch stone building? Really? Not to mention the oddity of how they would not just survive a blast here, but how they would then get the necessary survival materials from an attic, like some now-irradiated drinking water, exposed to the atomic winter after the 200 year old planks were blown off by the A-bomb's blast..., good thinkin'!

But there is another life to this bibliotavern, bibliolibrary, bibliomadhouse, bibliobombshelter: it was an orphanage. At the left, I discovered up in the attic not one, but at least two pairs of crutches, which date back more than half a century. Who knows what unlucky chap or child had to use these for walking. They look like the most uncomfortable utensils I've ever come across that might assist a person to accommodate their bipedalism. I would have to take these to a specialist in antique hospital artifacts to get an accurate date, but my guess is that these are vintage early to mid twentieth century. I somehow doubt that the madmen of the early 19th century and Dr. White's care were using these and that they were still lying around. But who knows! We might construct a whole story around these forgotten things, like the handlers of old books: was it a poet, a politician, or a prognosticator? Were they famous? Did they ever accomplish something to be found in the annals of human consumption? Ah, it is left to the diaries of fiction, I'm afraid.

In this same room, we see above, were some racks, which appeared to be used for some sort of storage. It was difficult to maneuver in this area, because there were beams coming from every which way, but I did my best to capture the intricacies of this place in the late morning and early afternoon. The second image is the view from the inside of the splendid cantaloupe half window. Inside it is covered with plastic to retain heat in winter, presumably, and to keep the vermin out, presumably the pigeons of Hudson.

What is this? What is this, you say? Yes, I have no idea. But I took a photo of it, because I was enthralled by its oddity. Books and their spaces? Books and oddity, no doubt! Yes, now look below:

When I first ascended the staircase into the attic, which you will see below, I came upon a pile of books and papers in a box that had deteriorated into a dirty mess of papery scraps. I went over to examine the poor paper products, these weak victims of neglect. I picked them up reluctantly, like sick patients, with the fear that I might catch some horrid "ebolic" virus or a skin parasite that might leave me permanently plagued with lesions. Most of these items were reports on education and health from the era of the orphanage. I let them be, to rot and moulder in this blistering hot attic, where nothing seemed to thrive but dirt, ash, and forgotten times.

Somewhere on the fourth floor, I think it was, we can see a multi-purpose room: a display of the various layers of history at work. This bathroom was once used for the orphanage. Just imagine the little bodies running to and fro under the scornful watch of a warden or overseer, getting deloused and rinsed with industrial soaps provided by the state. Of course, their empty eyes pining for attention and the love of a parent only garnered by a tenuous surrogate system and those who were merely performing their tasks and jobs to earn a living. Built then atop of the bathroom were shelves and other items associated with the bomb shelter: yes, that bomb shelter. You can see more of the survival canisters at left in the photo below.

The two images above are the same canister: the top one shows what's inside of them. Yes, toilet paper, of course. But a whole toilet seat? I know germs are communicable, but in times of world conflict and atom bombs? Would the germs be irradiated so that we could all share toilet seats? The real question though is whether or not these are equipped with proper comfort, so that in time of need, a person can read on the toilet?

Above is an image from one of the lower floors looking outside the front of the library. The view faces south. The image below is the first electrical system installed in the building. I was so struck by the antiquity of the design and its execution that I had to take a photo. I mean, let's face it, this is vintage Edison technology at its best! This is what made this building glow and allow orphans to read by phosphorescent luminescence!

The cabinets below are some of the old hardware and internal architecture, which are still clinging to the insides of this building. This is where one might have found the linens or medicines for the young orphans, or perhaps some other need of a long forgotten time, place, or person.

Finally, some books! Yes! Books!! Yippy! It is perhaps a shameful fact that I have not really included many images of books in this blog. I was so taken by the spaces and places which gave this location a name that I almost forgot the point. I did not take photos of the library proper inside. But I did take some shots of the ground floor area, where the bi-weekly book sale takes place. Hidden down a back staircase, near the old electric switchboard, antique cabinets, and a stern looking fireplace where roasted pork and thick slices of bread may have once been cooked for the "mad" of the Hudson Lunatic Asylum of Dr. White's days, there we finally found some books. Books, books, and more books. Piled high and indiscriminately, they lived a moderately solitary life away from the public and the widely circulated books on the other levels. It was dusty and dark in here. And quiet, like any good traditional library. Yet, I can't help but think that the true hero of this tale is the building, perhaps more than the books. Books define their worlds in their own ways, but so too do buildings and other historical artifacts. This building is like a warhorse, or an old aunt or uncle, who has lived through the constant trammels of peculiar histories.

So, whatever has transpired, at least you know what the inside of a 190-year-old attic looks like, what books are scattered about, and how effective survival canisters with toilet seats can be. Oh, yeah. And let's not forget about Glinda's dirty shoes.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This library sure has a unique history.
    I wonder why the canisters are still in the attic? They would be great in a military museum. The books and papers from the orphanage should / MUST be salvaged. Who knows what important information may be found in them. Could you contact the library and suggest that? Who cares if they are dirty. They can be cleaned up.
    Thanks for all your thoughts and GREAT blog!!