It’s hard to imagine 213 High Street, the sandstone building that now houses the Patricelli ’92 Theater, being used for a purpose other than performance. But from 1868, when the structure was erected, until 1928, when Olin Library was completed, the building was a center of academic life at Wesleyan.
Joseph Cummings, the University’s fifth president, called for the construction of a new library in 1858. He had recently discerned that the school’s original library, located on the first floor of South College and built to hold a mere 900 books, no longer provided sufficient space for Wesleyan’s rapidly expanding collection of volumes.
In 1865, Boston philanthropist Isaac Rich offered Cummings $25,000 to fund the project. Rich gave his donation under only one condition: Wesleyan alumni had to raise money to match it.
Although Rich himself was not a Wesleyan alumnus, his donation was not entirely out of the blue. He was devoted to the school due to an interaction he had with Willbur Fisk, Wesleyan’s first president, during childhood.
According to “Wesleyan’s First Century: With an Account of the Centennial Celebration,” a history of the University written in 1932, a young Fisk approached Rich, a fish peddler at the time, and invited him to accompany him at church. Rich was so moved by the gesture that he still remembered the moment long after he and Fisk lost touch.
“He still revered the name of Willbur Fisk, read Holdich’s biography of him, and hung a copy of his portrait in his home,” the history reads.
Later in his adulthood, Rich acquired sizeable wealth. Eager to link his name to Fisk’s work, he began donating large sums of money to Wesleyan.
Cummings hoped to begin building in 1865 when Rich made his offer, but, according to a report he wrote to an unidentified recipient called “Jt Bd,” he faced more obstacles than he’d anticipated. The University struggled not only to raise the rest of the funds required to build the library, but also to choose its design. Cummings and his colleagues studied the architecture of libraries at other colleges, including Harvard and Yale, but found it difficult to decide on a plan.
“Greater difficulty was found here than had been anticipated,” Cummings wrote in his 1865 report. “Correspondence developed the fact that there were few Library buildings that gave satisfaction and some that cost a large sum of money and were built under most favorable circumstances were pronounced failures.”
At the 1866 Commencement Dinner, Cummings announced that, with the additional $25,000 nearly raised, the school would begin construction on the Rich Library. C.C. North, a Wesleyan alumnus and major donor to the project, had already created building plans “with a gentlemanly courtesy and generosity so characteristic of him,” according to an account of the dinner. Soon, the alumni gift accumulated to $27,600, and Rich donated an additional $15,000 so the building could be designed more elaborately.
The Rich Library was built in the Gothic Revival style despite Cummings’ disapproval, which he expressed in a 1869 letter to Cornell librarian Willard Fisk.
“In the construction of a library the style should be simple and constructed to afford the most available room,” Cummings wrote. “It should not be Gothic.”
Measuring 101 by 56 feet and made of Portland brownstone, the building was completed in 1868 and was dedicated on July 15 during commencement services.
The library’s interior consisted of one large room with a center aisle that had two stories of bookshelves opening onto it. The center aisle held worktables, a card catalog, and several plaster busts. At the front entrance of the library was a spiral staircase that reached the upper level of books. Along its railing hung portraits of past Wesleyan presidents. In the corners of the building were offices and “preparing rooms” allotted to the librarians, and in the basement was a fireproof room that held especially valuable books.
In his letter to Fisk, Cummings indicated a strong preference for portable bookshelves supported by pins, urging that holes be made in the shelves’ dividers for extra support.
“I think this arrangement far better than notched pieces used to hold up shelves,” he wrote. “They often injure the binding of the books.”
Cummings also emphasized the importance of a proper ventilation system, advice that was clearly heeded in the construction of the Rich Library. The building featured air flues that extended from the main floor to the attic and furred walls.
“As a further precaution against moisture we have, in the first story of alcoves, furred out from the plastering two inches and on these strops nailed the backs of the side shelves,” Cummings wrote.
Years later, Wesleyan’s book collection had outgrown Rich Library, and the Olin Library building was commissioned. Following Olin’s completion in 1928, Rich Hall was used as a classroom, though the administration expressed some dissatisfaction with the waste of such a unique space.
In 1930, the class of 1892 raised funds to renovate the structure into a theater. The building, with its distinct history, was known thereafter as “Little Theatre ’92.”