History of Starr

Starr Library - 1908

From 1862 until 1975,

the Starr Institute was housed in the heart of the Village in a building on Montgomery Street of the same name. In 1975 the library was moved to its present location on a hill at the western edge of the Village, where a new two-story library building was erected on a parcel now owned by the library. In 2005, the library was enlarged with a one-story east-facing addition that serves as the main entrance. The two buildings combined cover approximately 11,000 square feet and about what is now the entrance to the Thompson-Mazzarella Park.

July 1857 History of Starr
April 1862 History of Starr
January 1874 History of Starr
1893 History of Starr
1894 History of Starr
1897 History of Starr
1899 History of Starr
1901 History of Starr
1906 History of Starr
1937 History of Starr
1972 History of Starr
1940 History of Starr
1945 History of Starr
1955 History of Starr
1959 History of Starr

The Story of The Starr from founding to 1995

“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 rooms1 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 Hon. 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-foot single story lecture hall and, in the basement, a dining room. On the north side of the entrance hall was the reading room waiting for shelving and additional books to be added later. The corresponding room on the south side held the circulating collection of books, 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 met once annually, with an occasional special meeting. The Honorable William Kelly, owner of Ellerslie2, was elected the first president of the Board of Trustees.

On the evening of January 13, 1874, twelve years after its opening, the Trustees and 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.  As part of the tribute to Mrs. Miller, an original song was written for the occasion. The last of seven verses reads:

 This Institute, so fine, so rare,

Old Rhinebeck can not, will not spare.

The gift, so noble, useful, fair,

We will accept and keep with care.

Long may it flourish–Rhinebeck’s pride–

                                                Dispensing good on every side.

                                                While all give thanks in grateful measure

                                                To the generous Donor for this treasure.


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: 

1893 – the president’s report to the Board included compliments for the recent improvements to the building; division of the upper room into two rooms, with the south room for the Standard (or Reference) library and the north room for rental use. Three hundred copies of the catalogue of the circulating book collection were printed.

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.

1895 – George N. Miller, Levi Parsons Morton, John Jacob Astor, Robert Suckley, Jacob Ruppert, A. Finck, Douglas Merritt, Ernest Crosby and William Carroll collectively pledged $875 to the Institute for the purpose of providing scenery, chairs and improvements, which included the enlargement of the lecture hall and stage.

1897 – one hundred eighty folding chairs were purchased for the hall, and the tin roof received a coat of paint.

1899 – due to a portion of the ceiling in the auditorium falling, a new steel ceiling was installed at the cost of $200.

1901 – long-awaited electric power came into the Starr Institute with lighting through some one hundred lamps. A dimmer switch controlling the forty lamps in the auditorium was installed at the cost of $18.00.

In 1906 a portion of the building was leased to the W.M.C.A. for its programs. Included in a remodeling to accommodate the needs of the association, was a 25’ x 50’ 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. Reportedly, due to lack of support, the tenancy of the W.M.C.A. terminated 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. William Kelly served as president until his death in 1871, when William R. Schell was elected for the next thirteen years. Virgil C. Traver became president in1887 and held that office until 1906. Dr. C. S. Van Etten followed, 1906-1914, and Dr. George N. Miller 1914-1935. The secretaries were Theopholis Gillender, George Esselstyn, Benson R. Frost and Benjamin Tremper. R. Raymond Rikert, who had joined the board in 1900 and was still a member in 1937, had been acting secretary in 1918 and 1922. Mr. Brown’s report noted that the office of treasurer had always been filled by members of the Judson family, N. W. H. Judson 1862-1886, John D. Judson 1886-1913 and William H. Judson 1913 to the present.

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, under the supervision of Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey Wager, were held in the auditorium, as were concerts and plays. 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 1972 the swimming pool, after years of disrepair and neglect, was removed, but for many years, still visible were the marks on the outside wall of the building, indicating what the depth of the water had been at one end of the pool. 

In 1940 the Trustees signed a ten-year agreement with Philip Eisenberg to lease the hall for the purpose of showing first run movies on a regular schedule. For an annual fee of $1,000, Mr. Eisenberg was to be able to open The Starr Theatre, as it became known, as many nights as he wished during the summer, but was curtailed to five nights a week from October to April in order to allow use of amenities of the lower level to the community for two days a week. Improvements were made to the auditorium, which included new seats, the elevation of the floor for better viewing and a new separate entrance on the south side of the building.

In 1945 a third piece of property bordering on Back Street (Garden Street) was purchased, and in1956 the last parcel of land, also on Back Street, was purchased from John Sandford and added to the property completing a rectangle of 225’ x 40’.

In 1955 Mr. Eisenberg renewed his lease for a period of twenty years. By that time activities in the lower level of the building had ceased and there was no restriction for the number of days the theater could be in operation. Both leases were signed for the library by William Kelly Brown, who, after twenty years, was still serving as president of the board.

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-activation3 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. One hundred and two years after its beginning, the library circulated 8,008 books in 1964. Ten years later, 2,893 were circulated in a two-month period, and in 1978 the numbers had jumped to average 2,920 per month. July and August of 2002 each recorded just under 5,000.

In 1972 following the demolition of the swimming pool and the departure of the Starr Theatre business, the Trustees leased the theater to the not-for-profit organization, Upstate Films, Inc., whose purpose is to bring to the community movies that “promote an understanding of the structure of visual language as a medium of education as well as a source of entertainment.”


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. Many fund-raising activities took place in order to pay for the set up and the service. Foster’s Coach Tavern 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 Center, and in so doing had somewhat lost its identity as The Starr Library. The Board applied for and received permission to revert to its original name, The Starr Institute, doing business as The Starr Library.

The library 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 as 1986.

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