In mid-1917, philanthropist and financier, Alonzo Barton Hepburn approached the Town of Lisbon with a proposal to build a library for its residents. Mr. Hepburn was a locally born philanthropist and banker from Colton who gifted libraries to seven St. Lawrence County communities: Colton, Madrid, Lisbon, Hermon, Norfolk, Waddington, and Edwards.
The conditions of the gift were quite simple: Mr Hepburn would pay to erect a “substantial and credible Library building”, furnish and equip the Library, and provide a small endowment. In exchange, the Town of Lisbon would need to pass the proposition by a two-thirds majority of its residents, and agree to maintain the library through taxation or other means of “appropriate support”. Subsequent to the agreement, New York State library laws and regulations have changed, but the fundamental purpose of the Hepburn Library of Lisbon has remained the same as envisioned by A. Barton Hepburn one-hundred years ago.
In late 1917, the cornerstone of the library was laid in Lisbon as the third of the Hepburn libraries. However, Lisbon was the last of the seven libraries to be completed as it took three years to construct, finally opening on April 3, 1920. Mr. Hepburn’s philosophy was that the library would serve as a repository of books and other learning materials, yet also contain facilities for meetings and large gatherings. Although the library’s collection, programs, and services have grown and changed with the times, the library’s community aspect has remained much the same.
Although the Hepburn libraries share common features – all were constructed with first floor community rooms and second floor reading rooms, the Hepburn Library of Lisbon is architecturally unique among its peers. The library in Lisbon is the only building that mixes a Colonial Revival influence with Richardsonian and Tudor motifs. In addition, the yellow masonry chosen for the Lisbon Library is not only unique among the Hepburn libraries, but rarely seen in St. Lawrence County. Much speculation abounds with respect to the anomalies in Lisbon, but certainly the choice of a different architect was a major factor.
The Hepburn Library of Lisbon was designed by Samuel Williams of Ogdensburg, whereas the other six Hepburn libraries were designed by Erick Rossiter of New York City. Mr. Williams envisioned a first-floor entry with a single, stout Romanesque column rather than the monumental exterior staircase with imposing columns seen in other Hepburn facades. It is believed that Mr. Hepburn was quite pleased with Mr. Williams’ work on the Hepburn Hospital in Ogdensburg and wished to continue working with him on other projects, including the library in Lisbon.
In June 1918, the contract for constructing the library was given to the lowest bidder, J.D. Flack of Heuvelton, in the amount of $26,000. Mr. Flack’s bid undercut that of C.E. Castle of Ogdensburg, the builder of the Hepburn Libraries of Waddington, Hermon, Edwards, and Madrid. Unfortunately, Mr. Flack encountered trouble finding regular workers and, in late 1918, relied on the volunteer townsfolk of Lisbon to help ensure the library was covered by a roof before winter set in. In total, construction of the library took almost two years from start to finish.
Once completed, however, the library thrived. A large number of book donations were given by Jennie Purvis of NYC and the Ss. Philip & James Church Altar and Rosary Society of Lisbon. According to Librarian Esther Smith in her 1920 report to the state, the library possessed 2,585 items. Today, the library possesses over 19,500 physical items and over 6,000 downloadable e-books. In 1920, the library hosted the Fathers and Sons Banquet, a series of lectures on Americanization, a Red Cross sewing circle, a girls’ home project club, the Boy Scouts, a baby clinic, and many social functions. In 2017, the library’s community room continues to be busy with civic and social groups, arts and crafts programs, and private parties of up to 100 people.
St. Lawrence County is fortunate to have so many beautiful, historic libraries. If you have the opportunity to visit Lisbon, stop by the Hepburn Library and check us out – we are always happy to talk about the history of the library and give visitors a tour. Or, visit another of our county libraries for what is sure to be an adventure!
Special thanks to Pyperanne Bender, a ninth grade student at Lisbon Central School, who tirelessly researched the library’s archived files to earn her Silver Award as a Girl Scout Cadette in 2016. Pyper is a dedicated library volunteer who likes drawing and reading.
Additionally, special thanks to Matthew Shoen, a former Lisbon resident now working in Buffalo as an architectural historian. Matt worked for many months researching old newspaper articles and historic documents while writing and submitting a very detailed application to the National Historic Register on behalf of the library.