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The Margaret Clapp Library is significant for the following reasons: its association with the development of a college campus devoted to women's education; its status as a library funded by the Carnegie grants program; its association with the architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, & Coolidge; and its representation of the Renaissance revival style, one of the popular classical styles used for libraries in the early twentieth century.
Although the trustees of the college had commissioned plans for a new library building as early as 1899, until 1905, when President Caroline Hazard started negotiations with the well-known benefactor Andrew Carnegie, the college had been unable to secure the necessary funds. In 1907 the $80,000 bequest of Captain John A. Beebe and additional funds from George A. Plimpton enabled the college to pursue a Carnegie challenge grant of $125,000 for the construction of the library. The committee overseeing the planning and construction of the library considered several sites, eventually choosing the same location that had been suggested by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in 1902, when he was hired by Hazard to advise the college in its first attempt to consider the campus plan as a whole.
Built in four stages, the Library is a well-integrated building with an early twentieth century main facade, a 1916 addition, and 1958 and 1975 wings (or ells) of sizeable proportions. The siting of the Library on the edge of Longfellow Woods adjacent to Rhododendron Hollow is an important aspect of its architecture, particularly in regard to the perception of the more recent additions.
The current plan of the Library has evolved through four construction phases. The 1909 Library was a T-shaped building including the main projecting central facade of the present day north elevation with the vertical piece of the T projecting to the south towards the Lake. The 1916 addition, the only part designed by an architect other than Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, completed the H-shape with a southern wing designed as a mirror image of the original main facade. In 1958, a west wing was completed and there was some interior remodeling. This wing extended nearly to Longfellow Pond, a landscape feature that is an integral part of the library surrounds. The 1975 addition of two major wings, one on the east and one on the west, and major interior reordering and designing of space, created a building that is more than double the size of the original 1909 and 1916 library. The wings are prominent from nearly all approaches. While clearly echoing the architecture of the earlier building, the additions remain distinctly modern.
The building materials are buff colored, Indiana limestone walls on a granite foundation. Ornamentation throughout is cut in stone. Ornate bronze doors are set into the recessed entrances on the north and south facades. Some marble has been used on the 1916 addition and on the interior. Memorial gifts account for some of the elaborate detail. The massive bronze doors at the main entrance were given by the Class of 1886 in memory of their honorary member Professor Eben Norton Horsford. The sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman created a symbolic scheme with male and female standing figures of representing Wisdom and Love, respectively. The two bronze statues situated in front of the recessed panels flanking the main entrance were donated by the Classes of 1887 and 1888. The Goddess of the Hearth graces the niche east of the bronze doors while the Goddess of Wisdom occupies the niche on the west side of the entrance.
The building was named after Margaret Clapp, the eighth president of the college, during a dedication ceremony in 1975, upon the completion of the final addition and on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the college