Centennial Celebration Coming

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A hundred years ago, in May 1924, a library opened in Providence, designed and constructed with no expense spared. Knight Memorial Library was situated on the large Knight urban estate, in a neighborhood of spacious Victorian homes and carriage houses, on Elmwood Avenue. This Saturday, May 11, the library will celebrate its centennial with a full schedule of fun, music, food and spectacle, beginning at 5:30 and running until it is dark enough to light up the building in a grand manner.

On the front lawn of the library, 275 Elmwood Avenue, before the formal program, the day will begin with an annual neighborhood event, the Plant Swap, from 10:00 to 2:00, organized to beautify local homes and public spaces. The main events will start at 5:30: a free concert by EhShawnee, the award-winning Dominican-American salsa singer. Born in Santo Domingo, she came to the US with her family, settling in Providence. More music will be provided by DJ TrackStar, best known for his prolific mixtape work and as the tour DJ for Run the Jewels.

The Providence Drum Troupe’s musicians, acrobats, life-size alien puppets, hoopers, and dancers, will create their funky beats with positive and interactive energy. In addition, the Rhode Island Kung Fu Club, a martial arts/cultural group, will perform the lion dance.

There will be a bounce house for kids and food trucks for all. The highlight of “Light up the Knight” comes when community leaders and staff will be part of unveiling the exterior lighting of the facade of the historic building permanently.

Providence Drum Troupe

Robert Knight, the largest cotton manufacturer in the world

When Knight Memorial opened a hundred years ago, Providence was poised between the industrial economy that boomed from mid-nineteenth-century into a more precarious twentieth-century economy. The wealth that paid for Knight Memorial came from the enterprising Knight brothers, Benjamin and Robert who bought into textile production at mid-century and eventually owned more than twenty mill villages with thousands of employees. The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, published in 1920, approximates the state’s total industrial output valued at nearly $300,000,000, over half of which was textiles, and most of that in wool and cotton goods, the business of the Knights.

The Knights’ success lives on today in the Fruit of the Loom brand, now owned by Berkshire Hathaway. The iconic image is usually attributed to the daughter of one of Robert Knight’s friends. She had apparently attached the image of painted fruit to the cotton goods she favored in her father’s store. Indeed, those goods sold faster. Knight began using the image to identify his products, replacing poorly printed markings on bolts of cloth in the 1850s. Robert secured a patent in 1871.

In the years before Robert died in 1912, he was the largest cotton manufacturer in the world. Both brothers died before WWI, after which textile mills moved to the South precipitously. Less than a decade later, in 1920 the Knight textile mills were sold for $20,000,000. At that point, the four children of Robert Knight and his wife Josephine chose to memorialize their parents with a state-of-the-art library.

The library was designed by Edward L. Tilton, an architect who had worked as a draftsman in the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the architects responsible for the Boston Public Library. Tilton is noted for using Beaux Arts design both in Knight Memorial and other libraries he designed nationwide. Neoclassical influence is seen throughout the interior, especially in the plaster replication around the ceiling of the Parthenon frieze. Colorful stained glass images of iconic classical and medieval writers and thinkers honor the ancient as well as Judeo-Christian foundations of Western culture.

At the time the library was built, however, Rhode Island, and especially Providence, were already centers of immigration from across the globe, in what was considered the “melting pot” of America. Little to none of the original iconography in the library heralded Americans. In the early twentieth century, American letters were just beginning to dare to see their writing equal to the European canon. In one collection of cultural essays published in 1920, Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans, the noted critic Van Wyck Brooks characterized American writing in the nineteenth century (which would have included such writers as Emerson, Thoreau, Stowe, Fuller and the long-lost Melville) as having “a singular impotence of its creative spirit.” The library iconography affirms culture as broadly (and uniquely) Western culture.

Knight Memorial Library when it was serviced by the Elmwood Avenue trolley, which would have carried workers to jobs in nearby Gorham Manufacturing or any Providence resident to Roger Williams Park.

Women of Elmwood made it happen

At the same time, the building addresses the future in its founding and attention to children. Here history spotlights the energies of women more than their industrialist husbands. The library was planned as the permanent home for the Elmwood Library Association, which had established a library in a space above a fire station in the Elmwood neighborhood. The library was established in the meetings of women concerned about providing for children’s education.

Mrs. Frederick (Emma) Shaw, married to a prosperous businessman, used her social contacts to organize a broader circle of women to support the library project. When the library outgrew its temporary spot, Emma Shaw, along with the wife of Webster Knight, Sarah Lippitt Knight, were among those who welcomed the very best library possible for the children of the neighborhood. These women of Elmwood were typical of generations who found influence outside of political office before they could vote by lobbying for the public good and influencing philanthropists directly. The library included a large, engaging children’s room, which included a fireplace decorated with tiles of characters from children’s books.

Mrs. Frederick (Emma) Shaw’s home on Melrose Street in Elmwood. She served the library until 1941.

Throughout this centennial year, the nine libraries in The Community Libraries of Providence have reminded all patrons of Knight Memorial Library’s historic celebration. At Knight Memorial itself, Library Manager Michelle Freeman has rolled out two new signature series that she hopes to continue beyond the centennial. In February, the auditorium was changed into The Knight Club for an evening performance of live music, spoken poetry, and open mike for the audience. The Knight Club made an impact. Freeman reflected that “The poetry/spoken work event was just fantastic…I was especially proud of the way the library auditorium was transformed. . .a glitzy and engaging environment. . .The poets openly and lyrically expressed their feelings and emotions to an intrigued audience of community members who were excited about having an event such as this around the corner from them in their library.”

The success of this event was followed by a Gospel Concert. Jazz and blues guitarist Paul Williams returned after being part of the initial The Knight Club event to perform with his quartet in a cozy corner on the main floor surrounded by walls of books. More recently, The Knight Club hosted a Langston Hughes Youth Poetry Event, featuring young readers from local schools, as well as readings from the packed-room audience.

A second series, ABC at Knight, features informal gatherings between community leaders and the public about Art, Books, and the Conversations that follow. To date, ABC has hosted Angie Ankoma, Vice-President of the Rhode Island Foundation and Executive Director of the Equity Leadership Initiative, and Juan Pichardo, the library’s City Councilman. Both series, ABC at Knight and The Knight Club, are booked to continue. After the Centennial year, the next big step for Knight Memorial is a major renovation of the building to preserve its celebrated history and ensure its dedicated service to its diverse and loyal community well into the future.

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who came to Providence from the South for graduate school. She has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University, having taught students from eighth grade to graduate school. She  is  active  in  the Friends of  Knight  Memorial  Library,  the  Community  Library  of  Providence,  and  lives in Elmwood.