A Gift of Knowledge

"That strength which the lion symbolizes was prayerfully hoped for, for its future."
Daily Northwestern, 1912

The bronze lions so proudly poised at the original Washington Avenue entrance of the Oshkosh Public Library have been a symbol of strength and hope for the institution since 1912. Colonel John Hicks, publisher of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern and long-time member of the Library board, commissioned the sculptures from Gaetano Trentanove of Italy.

Carved in stone on the wall behind them are the names "Sawyer" and "Harris" as they have so affectionately been known since a public naming contest held in 1977. What most people do not know, however, is that the names were actually carved on the wall back in 1900, not in recognition of the lions that were installed twelve years later but in honor of the founding donors of the building.

Every thriving metropolis should have a public library. On May 29, 1895, the citizens of Oshkosh decided by referendum that the community deserves free access to the world of literature, and ten months later the library opened in a room in City Hall. These accommodations were to be temporary, though, for through a combination of private and public funds, plans for the construction of a more fitting, permanent building were crafted.

When Abbie Danforth Harris died in June 1895, it was discovered that she had willed her entire estate of $75,000 ($2.1 million today) to the city of Oshkosh for the construction and operation of the Oshkosh Public Library. She was preceded in death five years earlier by her husband, Marshall Harris, a prominent lumberman in Oshkosh.

Conditions in the will required the city to build the public library on the Marshall family's homestead on the northeast corner of Washington and Jefferson and maintain it for public library purposes. Its conditions further required that the city raise sufficient funds to match the bequest within three years of her death. To meet these conditions, former U.S. Senator Philetus Sawyer donated $25,000 and the Oshkosh City Council voted to bond for $50,000 to secure the $75,000 bequest. With the proceeds from the sale of the bonds and the contribution from Senator Sawyer, the city met the requirements on June 22, 1898. The Barber house was also purchased for $9,000 so the public library could extend from Mt. Vernon Street to Jefferson on Washington.

Plans submitted by well-known Oshkosh architect William Waters were selected for the building. Waters had envisioned the decorative lion sculptures at the entrance in his original design but his initial efforts to include them in the project budget were not successful. Ground breaking occurred in early 1899 and the cornerstone was dedicated in May. The massive doors of the new free public library opened on Labor Day, September 3, 1900.

The main floor of the Neo-classical style Waters building is raised, with broad steps leading visitors from the street level to a portico flanked by six Ionic columns. Upon entering the central interior room patrons were taken by the beautiful dome set forty-six feet above the floor. The room was flanked by reading rooms, alcoves and offices that have served a number of different functions over the years. In early 1901, a special area for children took over the west room.

The second floor was initially reserved for a lecture room and future expansion of library services. Space on the second floor was also dedicated for a museum, which opened in 1905. The museum remained there until 1924 when it moved to the former home of Edgar P. Sawyer on Algoma Boulevard, the building it still occupies. The Children's Room took occupancy of the second floor in 1923.

An expansion of library services brought about a major change in 1951. In order to provide space for a meeting room adjacent to the second floor Children's Room, flooring was installed across the rotunda gallery opening and a ceiling was added that closed off the dome. Due to overcrowding and growth of the collection, an L-shaped public space was added to the west and north sides of the Waters building in 1967. A separate section was built on the east side to house a bookmobile and van garage, outreach services and a boiler room.

Alberta Kimball, co-founder and retired leader of the Miles Kimball Company, provided a gift of $5 million in 1992 for a major expansion and renovation project, requiring the city to provide a matching bond issue. The 1900 Waters building was revealed when the roof, walls and mezzanine level of the 1967 addition were removed. The new U-shaped structure embraces the original Waters building, restoring the rotunda and dome area.

The new and restored library opened in October 1994. To further preserve the 1900 Waters building, the entrance was moved to the north side off Jefferson Street. A 1998 conservation project was undertaken to repair and preserve the lion sculptures, and "Sawyer" and "Harris" were once again put in position to resume their role as Guardians of the Library.

Sources: Oshkosh Public Library website and from the "Architecture and Art of the Oshkosh Public Library: A History and Guide" written by Joan Mueller

Karla Szekeres