As the first mayor of Pawtucket, the industrialist Frederic C. Sayles, whose Oak Hill estate was on East Avenue, donated the land and building for this library as a memorial to his wife. An architecture firm that would become famous for its Neo-Gothic design in this early work employed Greek classicism. It is one of very few Greek-inspired buildings among the plethora of early-twentieth-century classical designs in Rhode Island. An extended, severely plain block of gray granite raised on a high base above the street is interrupted at the center by an Ionic portico and a portal, both based on the Erechtheion and reached by an impressive pyramid of steps. To either side are similarly concentrated groupings of three large windows, framed by pilasters and topped by handsome marble reliefs in a decorative adaptation of archaized Greek precedent. They depict the history of world civilization, oddly from right to left: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then Dante, King Arthur, and Shakespeare squeezed into a single panel, and, finally, the Nibelungenlied. They demonstrate why their creator, Lee Lawrie, would become the most popular architectural sculptor in America during the 1920s and 1930s, his most familiar work appearing on the skyscraper Nebraska state capitol and at Rockefeller Center in New York. A scintillant cresting of alternating palmettes and lion's heads, again elegantly detailed, unifies the top of the building ornamentally, as the austere base unifies it below. The way in which plain surfaces and carefully distributed, meticulously linear Greek ornament combine to enhance one another is worth attention.
Behind the portico, a square center space with more Ionic columns ranged around it and a coffered, clear-lighted ceiling once provided the focal point for reading tables and metal stacks, all exhibiting the same “Greek” restraint. Remodeling added a recessed wing to the south and placed the entrance there at ground level, providing at once accessibility for those who cannot climb, better control for the circulating collection, and much additional space for all library functions. To reach the “entrance hall,” however, one follows a tortuous route of unintegrated corridors and stairs before finally coming upon it all but empty, with an unhappy metal mezzanine inserted behind the columns. The mezzanine seems to offer little additional space for the damage it inflicts on the original interior. However, the modern bridging of classical interiors was something of a passion in the 1960s, when the collision of now with then, each true to itself, was very much at the center of architectural theory. Too bad that Pawtucket cannot take a cue from the Providence Public Library (
PR13), where precisely the same sort of 1950s–1960s “modern” renovation was reversed in the 1980s in order to restore the importance of the original entrance.