As we look forward to an expansion and renovation at the Main Library, it’s an opportune time to look back at the Library’s origin story. Entering the front doors, you can see a plaque commemorating founder and principal benefactor, Mr. William Munroe. Passed by patrons countless times a year, Munroe and his story are largely known only to librarians, trustees and volunteers.
William Munroe was born in Concord in 1806, just around the corner from the Main Library at 70 Monument Square in the building that currently houses the Rectory for Holy Family Church. The son of William and Martha Munroe, William was the eldest of nine children. William Sr. was a skilled cabinet maker and pencilmaker (in the manner of his fellow Concordian, Henry David Thoreau). The Munroes had deep roots in the community—Jedediah Munroe, William’s great grandfather, was killed in Concord on the morning of April 19, 1775, during the first skirmish of the Revolutionary War.
William Jr. was raised in Concord and was educated to attend college, but instead entered the dry-goods business when he was only 15 years old. William worked in Boston as a clerk and then as a buyer. He moved to New York City, where he suffered a catastrophic setback, losing everything in a fire in 1835. Not yet 30 years of age, he regrouped and decamped to London where he was based from 1835 until the early 1850s. In London, William served as the overseas buyer for a Boston import/export firm, and this is how he made his fortune. He became a wealthy man, remained a bachelor and had no children.
Just prior to the Civil War, William retired from professional life. He returned to Boston, living primarily in the Back Bay on Boylston Street. However, he returned to his family home, on the corner of Main Street and Academy Lane, every summer. It was at this time in his life that the idea of the Library took shape.
He purchased the real estate for the Library and arranged for the widening of Main Street to accommodate the Library building as well as for the movement of neighboring houses when Main Street was enlarged. He conceived a unique approach to maintain and oversee the Library and negotiated with officials from the Town of Concord, Middlesex County, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to create a public/private partnership that still operates today.
On Wednesday, Oct. 1, 1873, the Library was dedicated in a formal ceremony at the Town House. Everyone in Concord was invited. The Library was decorated with autumn leaves and flowers; the Concord Band played, and an invocation was offered by the Trinitarian Church minister. William presented the keys of the Library to his friend, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar. A bust of Hoar, who became the first president of the Library Corporation, holds a place of honor in the Library’s rotunda. To top it all off, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered the keynote address.
William lived to see the Library open, but he died three years later, in March 1877. He provided for the Library in his estate plan in a number of different ways, and his passion for the Library and what it represented to him—learning and culture—comes through strongly in his will and codicil (which is available for viewing in the Special Collections).
For perspective on his foresight, consider that the Boston Public Library opened its first building at 55 Boylston St. in 1858. The Concord Library opened in 1873. In 1870, Boston’s population was just over 250,000—the population of the Concord was 2,412. In the context of his time, the gift of a free Library to the residents of Concord was nothing short of extraordinary.
To help meet the demand for more space and services and to sustain Munroe’s legacy, the Library Corporation launched a public campaign in October. All residents are invited to support the Library’s renovation and expansion project. Serendipitously, this project fulfills Munroe’s early vision of incorporating the house at 151 Main St., as demand for space grew. See renderings of Munroe’s conception of including the Main Street house, and learn more about how you can help realize his vision in 2020, at https://cfplcorp.org.