A marvel in need of a miracle

  • The Wheeler Memorial Library in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 12/11/2022 7:41:41 PM
Modified: 12/11/2022 7:41:09 PM

Earlier this week, I visited the magnificent, but deteriorating and inaccessible Wheeler Memorial Library in Orange. It reminded me of Cuba, where architectural marvels from prosperous times are now patched and repaired by people who try their best to do the most with the least. Mr. Wheeler seemed to look down from his portrait with pride at the doings of the library — that evening the friends were meeting — but I could imagine a raised eyebrow of disapproval as he took in the cracked plaster on the water-stained wall.

Will the library find the money to repair the grandfather clock that has marked the hours for a century, or will it forever remain stuck at 10 o'clock, a casualty of budget triage? The walls and roof are leaking, the boiler is busted and the children's room, though as colorful and welcoming as possible, is in the damp basement with exposed pipes and a drop ceiling that tries to disguise the fact that this former utility room was not meant as a public space.

I can hardly think of a town in Massachusetts more in need of programs like free meals, animal visits and the traveling Smithsonian exhibit that couldn't happen for lack of space. The bathroom is a closet and young adults share a table in the public computer and reference room. Imagine if the teens of Orange had their own space in the library! You or I would be challenged to climb the stairs to visit the library with a bad knee or a broken leg, never mind if we used a walker or a wheelchair.

In the old days, philanthropists left their mark by building libraries — jewel box libraries like Shutesbury, North Amherst, and Williamsburg, and monumental libraries with grand staircases and columns like the Wheeler and the Field Memorial in Conway. Andrew Carnegie built 1,700 libraries! Is there another Wheeler, Field, or Carnegie who wants to leave a library legacy? The Musk, Gates, or King Library all have a nice ring to them. The library of Alexandria did not burn down in a fire but worse, it died a slow death of neglect. Orange is not a wealthy town and building costs have skyrocketed. Here's a hope, a wish, and a prayer for the collective will of the people, and possibly a miracle or two, to revive the venerable grandfather clock so that future generations can hear the heartbeat of the library, and to renovate, repair and bring the Wheeler into the 21st century.

Karen Traub



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