Former library trustee and local historian, Kay T. Verrilli, tells the full history of the Starr Library.
“In July of 1857, a plan for establishing a Reading Room and Library in the Village of Rhinebeck was commenced in a quiet manner by renting and fitting up two rooms to test the ‘experiment’.” The preceding is a quote from the Report and Catalogue of the Reading Hall and Circulating Library of 1858. The idea for the reading room was conceived by Mrs. Mary R. Miller, granddaughter of General Philip Schuyler of Albany.
The Report and Catalogue noted that 666 bound volumes, 150 pamphlets “of light reading” and 339 magazines had been donated from the private collections of members of the community. Names of prominent residents on the donor list included those of William B. Astor, Henry Delamater, Lewis Livingston, Dr. George Lorillard, Ambrose Wager and William Kelly.
After the experiment had operated successfully for two years, Mrs. Miller purchased two parcels of land on the west side of Montgomery Street and contracted to build, for a total cost of $15,000, what would become known as The Starr Institute. The building was named in memory of Mrs. Miller’s late husband. the Honorable William Starr Miller, a Congressman from New York, who had died in 1854.
The Starr Institute was first incorporated by an act of the Legislature of the State of New York in April of 1862. In May of 1862 Mrs. Miller deeded the building, its grounds and furnishings to the Board of Trustees of the Starr Institute. Its stated purpose was to “furnish facilities for the intellectual and moral improvement of the inhabitants of the town of Rhinebeck.” It would remain the home of Rhinebeck’s circulating library for the next one hundred and thirteen years.
In addition to two rooms devoted to books and a reading room, the new two-story building housed a 60′ by 40′ single story lecture hall and, in the basement, a dining room. On the north side of the entrance hall was the reading room. The corresponding room on the south side held the circulating collection of books, and behind that room, was another for the ladies to hold sewing circles and do missionary work. Upstairs a spacious 30′ by 50′ room overlooking the street held the Standard or Reference collection, where books were to be read but not borrowed.
Sixteen trustees of the Starr in 1862 included Mary R. Miller, Joshua S. Bowne, William Kelly, Freeborn Garrettson Sr., Lewis Livingston, N.W. Judson, Theophilus Gillender, Homer Gray, William R. Schell, Ambrose Wager, Henry M. Taylor, James A. A. Cowles, William B. Platt, Theophilus Nelson, MD, John N. Cramer and Andrew J. Heermance. It appears that this board, made up of prominent members of the community, met once annually, with an occasional special meeting. The Honorable William Kelly, owner of Ellerslie, was elected the first president of the Board of Trustees.
On the evening of January 13, 1874, twelve years after its opening, the community honored Mrs. Miller for her generosity in founding the Starr Institute. For that occasion, a seventy-seven page booklet was published which, in addition to a list of the library’s collection of books, included statistics on the growth of the library. In twelve years the total collection had increased from 1813 volumes to 3227 volumes. New names added to the list of book donors included those of Rutsen Suckley, Miss Mary Garretson, Louis Ehlers, William Bergh Kip, Julia Olin and E. D. Platt. .
Mrs. Miller continued to be the library’s major benefactor until her death in 1881. Her annual financial contribution varied according to the year’s deficit. Upon her death, her $20,000 bequest helped sustain the library beyond the years of her life.
In the ensuing years, presidents’ reports to the Board at annual meetings generally made note of improvements to the building, needed or completed, increases in library use, growth of the collections and the corporation’s limited financial resources.
In 1894, the Board of Trustees applied to the Board of Regents of the State of New York for a change of incorporation. Upon receipt of the new status, the Starr Institute became eligible for funds from the State.
In 1906, a portion of the building was leased to the Y.M.C.A. for its programs. Included in a remodeling to accommodate the needs of the association, was a 25’x50′ addition at the rear of the building for the construction of a swimming pool. The basement was enlarged, and bowling alleys and game rooms were added. The Y.M.C.A. terminated its lease in 1911, leaving all improvements with the Starr Institute.
In 1937, when a brief history of the library was written by then president, William Kelly Brown, it showed that in seventy-five years, only six presidents, five secretaries and three treasurers had served the library.
Through the years, in addition to being a library, the Starr Institute served as Rhinebeck’s community center. Basketball was played in the auditorium, which doubled as a gymnasium. The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts came for meetings until the winter cold turned them away. Movies were shown in the auditorium, as were concerts and plays, and service organizations held their meetings in the upstairs rooms. During the war years, the Red Cross met there to make bandages and gather care packages for the men in service. The amenities installed during the Y.M.C.A. years continued to draw the youth of the village for evenings of sport. It was not until more ample facilities were provided at the town’s educational plants that the youth were pulled in other directions.
In 1959 the Starr was among the first to join the newly formed Mid-Hudson Library System, giving greater opportunities for the borrowing of books and the advantages of libraries learning how each other operate.
The Trustees were meeting quarterly by 1964, and in the next year a decision to limit the number of three-year terms to two consecutive ones was added to the by-laws. 1964 also saw the re-activation of The Friends of the Starr Library, the organization formed to support the activities of the library by raising funds for its needs. The Friends first book sale, an event that was to become annual, was held on the sidewalk that year, and $84.00 was realized.
By 1968 it was obvious that the community and use of the Starr building had outgrown that which the current space could provide. A 1972 study indicates that the building was not adequately serving the community. The collections had grown too large for the main floor rooms. Parking was a problem. The building needed major improvements in order to continue as a library. Discussions were underway to decide whether to try to modernize the facilities at the old building or secure and build on a new site . Before the end of that year the decision was made, and in 1974 a major fund-raising campaign for a new library building was underway. Added to the initial vision was the desire to have community recreation facilities close to the village center.
Subsequently, fourteen acres on Rhinecliff Road were purchased from a much larger parcel bequeathed to the local hospital by the will of Caroline Wells. To be known as the Rhinebeck Community Center, plans were laid out for twelve plus acres to be turned over to the Town and Village for recreational purposes and two acres were set aside for a new library.
Benefited by the bequest of a Mr. Thomas Thompson of Boston, the Town and Village Boards and a generous community, the new Starr Library building at 66 West Market Street opened its doors to the public in June of 1979. Three thousand square feet on the front ground level were to provide up-to-date facilities and greatly increased opportunities for reading enjoyment. Two years later two community rooms and storage for the Rhinebeck Historical Society were completed on the lower level of the building. The new building was recognized as one of the finest facilities in the Mid-Hudson Library System.
1993-94-95 were big years for the Starr Library. Many changes occurred.
A celebratory gathering took place to acknowledge the discharge of the mortgage.
Automation was the phenomenon on everyone’s mind, – the need to go “on line” or be left behind in a changing world.
Foster’s Coach House and the Lions Club “treated” the community to one thousand dinners with the entire proceeds from a modest cost going to the library’s automation fund.
The Town generously turned over a portion of revenue it had received from providing parking for the second Woodstock festival.
For purposes relating to the development of the recreation/library complex in the seventies, the library had become part of the Community Recreation/ Starr Center, and in so doing had somewhat lost its identity as The Starr Library.
In order to consolidate its operations and investments, the Board applied for and received permission to revert to its original name, The Starr Institute, dba The Starr Library.
The building enjoyed a complete remodeling of the main level, paid for in large part by the Friends of the Library. The remodeling was a stopgap improvement to better utilize exiting space, the first phase of a needed expansion that had been identified in board meetings as early as1986. The building that was built to serve the community for twenty years had long ago outgrown its available space.
In 1998 the Board commissioned a “needs assessment” study to look at the Library’s space requirements for the next 20 years and to give recommendations regarding the services, which should be provided. Using this study as a beginning, the Board decided in 2001 to renovate the existing structure and to add a new wing.
During the next three years, a capital campaign raised about $1.9 million from private and public donations. Once again, the Thomas Thompson Trust was a major donor without which the new facility could not be built. In the spring of 2005, construction began on a new 4,000 square addition on the north side of the building and the renovation of the existing 1975 structure.