Saturday, March 1, 2014

Back to the Library, One More Time

The Fairhope Library is a source of conflict for others, as this email I received from a friend who grew up in Fairhope and experienced it much as other children of the 1950s did reveals:

Thank you for memorializing the Marie Howland/Anna Braune library (as I fondly regard it). It was dear to my memory, and to my sister's memory as well. I regret there wasn't a better photo available. It doesn't show what a lovely place it became after the huge oaks and magnolias grew up around it -- and it still is lovely, thanks to the University of South Alabama, which now occupies and preserves it.

What makes a library? The collection. That means books. Walking into the new one, I was shocked to see a cathedral ceiling in the place where the upstairs stacks should be. The waste of space and money made me heartsick. It seems to have been so costly that the City is unable to keep it open full-time. (This is not the fault of the supervisors or staff; they make every effort to assist their patrons and make the ambiance welcoming and warm. The reference staff deserves special praise for their thorough investigations of the smallest inquiry.)

However, at the entrance I slipped and almost fell on the inclined slate walkway to the front entrance. It's slippery when wet, and I'm careful to avoid it now. I admit to being happy that a room for lectures and films was included, but I remain deeply troubled by other expenditures, omissions, and the cost of future upkeep. The slate walkway is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and it illustrates, along with that ceiling, the fact that concern with a grand outward appearance is antithetical to real human needs.

And wasn't the absence of that kind of concern one of the main things that made Fairhope so valuable to us as children, and so treasured by us in memory?

This last paragraph is the really tricky part to explain to those who didn’t grow up in Fairhope in the same time frame. It was before parents were afraid to allow their children to go outside alone, before the day when lawsuits were commonplace, before esthetics required ostentation. A simple, functional structure had its own elegance, and bigger wasn’t necessarily better. In Fairhope, with its egalitarian heritage, ornament was eschewed and the result was a village with a personality all its own, reflected in architecture of plain, solid buildings with the coherent design theme of purpose-without-pretense.

It was not a typical small town, and it isn’t now—but the upscale glamor it now exudes is jarring to those of us who thrived in the comfort of Fairhope’s eccentricity and complexity in past years. The world has changed and what we took for granted is only a memory now. This is life in 21st century America—it’s just that some of us have more trouble accepting it than others. On that note, I am getting on an airplane back to New Paltz, having made contact with many old friends and having made a few new ones, all of us trying to reconcile our thoughts about Fairhope with the reality of the place as it is today.


  1. Stephen of SalemMarch 1, 2014 at 7:23 AM

    Very nice. There's a lot to be said for plain and solid.

  2. Kinda like Disney World, isn't it.

  3. It will depress you terribly if I tell you the truth about building design versus use, but it is part of what I do for a living. Most architects don't EVER think of the practical aspects of their buildings being OCCUPIED down the road. Maintenance? Forget it. The most stupid oversights they repeat again and again.

  4. I don't think I would hold my breath waiting to see the NEW library, if I ever returned to Fair Hope. Sounds like the characters behind this structure had an edifice complex. The Hamilton Library has lots of computers as well, but also books, books, and more books. No cathedral ceiling, but a very nice children's section, a few lecture rooms, and a room where they show free movies a couple of times a week. No popcorn.

    Pretentiousness be damned.