In the early morning hours of February 22, 1914, The Morristown Library and Lyceum, located on the east side of South Street, burned to the ground. The fire was discovered by a milkman making his morning rounds who notified the fire department. But by mid-morning, all that remained of the library was the stone facade and a portion of the side walls. A blizzard the following day hindered any salvage and virtually all of the collection was lost, including 15th century manuscripts, rare books, and a complete run of the Palladium of Liberty, Morristown's first newspaper.
After the fire destroyed the lyceum, the building was converted into an Armory. The Morristown Infantry Battalion first occupied the building in 1917. The tower in the Reference Room contains a huge golden eagle which was originally over the entrance of the Morristown Armory. The building was again destroyed by fire in 1920, and only the eagle was undamaged.
The property on the corner of South Street and Miller Road was purchased in 1916. This was a neighborhood of homes and churches: St. Peter's Episcopal Church, directly across Miller Road from the new library property, had just been completed. Theodore Vail, President of AT&T, had just purchased property across South Street to build his $100,000 marble mansion; and two lots away was the 18th century James Wood house, where Lafayette spent the night of July 14, 1825, in the house as the guest of James Wood, while in Morristown for a reception held in his honor. The neighborhood was both quiet and elegant, and a new library was to be a fitting addition that would enhance the community.
In 1915, Grinnell Willis, a wealthy textile merchant, donated $56,000 to build the new library. If not for Willis, who had lived in Morristown since 1889, the present Morristown Library building might not exist. Willis was a graduate of Harvard who grew up in a household where entertaining the literary celebrities of the day was commonplace and an appreciation of fine books and poetry expected -- Grinnell was the son of the poet Nathaniel Parker Willis, co-editor of the literary magazine New York Mirror and editor of the Home Journal (which became Town and Country Magazine), grandson of a prominent Boston clergyman who founded and edited the Youth's Companion, and great-grandson of an apprentice to Benjamin Franklin -- so his desire to rebuild and support the town's library is easy to understand.
The Willis Wing
The original 1917 Willis wing of the Morristown Library is a Collegiate Gothic building built of massive blocks of granite to match St. Peter's Church, located directly across Miller Road. The body of the building is constructed of rough granite. The original entrance to the Morristown Library was a Gothic arch through the central tower. The central tower is flanked by two symmetrical wings. Each wing has three sets of triple windows which were designed to provide abundant light.
The interior walls of the 1917 wing are finished with plaster and the walls above the stacks are decorated with plaster moldings and figures. The decorative plaster-work was painted a pale chocolate brown. This color scheme was chosen in accord with the Gothic tradition. Because of the devastating Library and Lyceum fire it was a requirement that the new library be absolutely fireproof. The floors are concrete with steel supports, and the stairs are Vermont marble. The roof is constructed of concrete supported by steel beams, topped with slate. (The building's sturdy construction helped it to withstand the force of the May 4, 2010 explosion that severely damaged the first floor and basement.)
Edward L. Tilton was the architect selected to design the new library, at an estimated cost of $50,000. The Trustees and the community requested a design that would front on Miller Road, not South Street, and be in harmony with the recently completed St. Peter's Episcopal Church. With this in mind we can see today that the library's central tower was designed not to compete with the tower on St. Peter's Church.
Edward Lippincott Tilton, 1862 - 1933, studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1887-1890. Returning to New York City in 1890, Tilton worked at McKim, Mead & White for one year and then set up his own partnership with William A. Boring. The firm of Boring & Tilton designed more than sixty libraries. They were the first private architectural firm to receive an award from the U.S. Treasury Department under the Tarnsey Act, won for their design for the Immigration Station at Ellis Island. And they won many other awards during their tenure, including two gold medals at the Paris Exposition. William Boring retired in 1916, but Tilton continued his architectural practice with Alfred Morton Githens. Tilton & Githens specialized in libraries and educational buildings.
Tilton designed more than 100 library buildings during his career. Some of his more notable buildings are the Whelch Library, Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore; the Currier Art Gallery, Manchester, NH; Queens Borough Branch Library, Astoria; the Wilmington Public Library, Delaware, for which the AIA awarded him the annual gold medal for excellence in a public work.
The cornerstone was set in August 1916, with great fanfare and public celebration. And in December 1917 the library opened its doors to patrons. The collection contained 8,000 volumes, a figure that jumped to more than 43,500 volumes in just over 20 years.
In 1925, Grinnell Willis married Katherine Tappert, the children’s' librarian, and in 1929 he donated the money needed to build the Children's Room. Willis, by now in his 80s, saw the completion of the Children's Room but died just a few months later. In his will he left yet another gift to the library, an endowment of $200,000 to help meet future needs. For many years the library operated on income from the endowment left by Mr. Willis, gifts, and public support. By referendum in 1965 the joint Free Public library of Morristown and Morris Township was established.