It all goes back to Irving Grinnell.
Born in 1839 into a prosperous New York City family, he retired young to lead the life of a gentleman of leisure on his estate, Netherwood, located in what is now Bowdoin Park. Grinnell took a Victorian philanthropist’s interest in Wappingers Falls, aided and abetted by his friend, the assistant minister and later minister of Zion Church, Henry Yates Satterlee. Satterlee, who came to Wappingers in 1865, left the area in 1881 and went on to become the bishop of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in 1896.
During his time in Wappingers he was instrumental in several “village improvement” projects, one of which was the establishment of a library. In 1867, the two men established a Circulating Library and Reading Room at the corner of Market & East Main Streets. They charged a dollar a year for membership, and hired a local widow, Elizabeth Howarth, to take care of the books and clean the rooms. By 1880 the library was outgrowing its space and was in perpetual need of funds.
A building fund was started, but it didn’t take off until 1884 when Grinnell held a Lawn Party and a Union Fair was held at Zion Church, both in aid of the library. The lot at the corner of East Main and Spring Streets was purchased in 1886; construction began and was completed in 1887. Grinnell hired a New York City architect, Henry M. Congdon, AIA, and supplied a list of architectural features he wanted to include. The tower is modeled after one he saw in St. Battenberg, Switzerland, and the way the second story overhangs the first recalls buildings he liked in Chester, England. Grinnell Library was chartered as an association library in 1888, making it the sixth oldest in the state.
The library was in what is now the upstairs reading room, with an entrance by way of the winding staircase in the turret. The main room below it was rented, first to a jewelry store and later (after 1926) to a clothing store. The store’s door was in the middle, still marked by the stone arch. At the western end of the building, a second entrance led to a rental apartment upstairs, and the offices of the local newspaper, the Wappingers Chronicle, downstairs. The Chronicle also rented the basement for their printing plant. The building was lit by gas until 1912, when it was electrified. A photograph taken before a hot-water heating system was installed in 1923 shows a wood-burning stove piped into the eastern chimney.
Grinnell died in 1921 and his will created an endowment fund for the library.
In 1923 the collection was re-catalogued and classified. A representative came from the state Board of Education and analyzed the collection, removing about 2000 books on the grounds that they were out of date, in bad shape, or “containing no literary merit.” One of the apartments, which had fallen vacant, was converted into a children’s room and furnished by the Reese family.
In 1924 the library became a “Free Library” under state law.
The library was a hundred years old in 1967, and to celebrate, the library took over the remainder of the building and installed carpeting and air conditioning as well as bookshelves and other furniture. At this point the Clapp Paintings were collected, restored, and hung throughout the building. The upstairs reading room was named in honor of Margaret Mesier Reese and the room we now use for a storytelling room was refurbished by the Kiwanis Club for use as a meeting room. What is now the director’s office was a “Music and Arts Room.”
In the next decade, the library expanded again when the Aldrich addition was built. This comprised what are now the children’s room upstairs, the reference room downstairs, and the community meeting room in the basement, more than doubling the previous floor space.
With the coming of computers, it was necessary to rearrange again, shoe-horning the public computers into the reference area — which makes sense since increasingly the Internet is a research source — and the computer classroom into the children’s room.
Grinnell Library’s last remodel was completed in 2008. This project included the expansion and replacement of the circulation desk as well as the installation of a new and more energy efficient interior entrance. In 2009, the Storytime room was renovated to provide a welcoming environment for the many children and their families that attend our weekly storytimes. In 2011 the Turret was transformed from the original spiral staircase, which was not safe for public usage, to a functional and user friendly reading room.
On July 18, 2012, Governor Cuomo of New York State passed legislation allowing Grinnell Library Association to become Grinnell Public Library District. A vote by the community, held in the library on April 3, 2013, allowed this piece of legislation to pass and elected a new Board of Trustees. A new charter was formed creating the Grinnell Public Library District on November 19, 2013.