Friday, June 1, 2012
Walter Henry Pomeroy and the Vanished Library: A Love Story of the Gilded Age.
By Kate Corbett Pollack
Research by Patricia Whipple
Walter Henry Pomeroy was born in Yarmouth, Cumberland County, Maine, on July 16, 1834, to Frederick Augustus Pomeroy and Priscilla Noyes. As a young man, he moved to New York and began his career as a teacher. In 1869, he obtained a passport so he could travel abroad, perhaps to satiate his interest in foreign languages. It is hard to know everything about Walter, as he was not a famous man, but he was well-liked and respected, and known among many in literary, artistic and scholarly circles of the time. He certainly was a highly intelligent person, with a background in classical education. Walter’s travels to Europe served to further his interest in art, history, literature, philosophy and other fields of study. A letter written to The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts in 1893, by Myron B. Benton says:
Mr. Pomeroy was a man of fine culture. There are few in whom the pursuit of literature meant so much; or, in matters of taste, whose scale, so to speak, marked so fine gradations…Mr. Pomeroy was a man of most genial manners. Especially those whose feet were in the same flowery paths-it might be far in the rearward-found a welcome of free cordiality. There was in his presence an unintermittent flow of humor, highly individual, often exuberant and fantastic…[i]
Walter Henry Pomeroy’s wife, Laura Skeel, was written about in much the same way. They were married in 1871, at Irvington-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, New York. The two must have been quite a sparkling couple, as their wit, intelligence and wide-ranging interests and unique personalities came together. Laura was an artist, who for many years kept a salon on 86th street in New York. She is most famous for her bust of Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, which she created while living in Poughkeepsie, New York. It was during her first marriage to Dr. Ernest F. Hoffman. (The bust can still be seen at Vassar). The couple was divorced. Laura and Walter had to wait until their forties to meet their perfect match-they were married when she was 42 and he 41. They settled into New York, sharing a house with Laura’s brother, Roswell, at 84 Irving Place, and his wife Anne. There Walter worked as a professor, and is listed as “professor of languages, at 903 6th avenue” in the 1880 census[ii].
Walter also worked as a tutor for the only son of the wealthy Baxter family of Rutland, Vermont, headed by General Horace Henry Baxter, who was a Vermont railroad magnate and Civil War veteran. The family had a home in New York, on 5th avenue. When General Baxter died in 1884, his widow, Mary Roberts, worked to establish a memorial library in his honor in Rutland. Walter Henry Pomeroy was chosen to find the books and Laura as a librarian. In 1889 Mrs. Baxter had a beautiful stone and granite Romanesque building constructed to house the collection. The library has been attributed to architect Leopold Eidlitz, who was designer of Temple Emanu-el on 65th street in New York, the elegant Buffalo Public Library, and many other famous structures. However, recent research has identified the creator as another Gilded Age Jewish architect, Arnold W. Brunner, designer of the 1897 Congregation Shearith Israel on Central Park West in New York, among other notable buildings in major U.S. cities[iii]. The Rutland Historical Society Quarterly describes the inside of the building: “Its interior consisted of elegant semicircular alcoves gracefully carved, a reading room, a librarian’s office for Mrs. Pomeroy…A winding staircase led to a tower, from which one had a splendid view of the fertile valley and lower Library avenue.”[iv] It was built across the street from the Baxter estate, a mansion typical to the Gilded Age.
In this era of the late 19th century, wealthy industrialists such as the Rockefellers, the Fricks, and Andrew Carnegie, who also built many libraries all over the United States, sought to give back to their communities in this way. Business leaders of this era amassed important works of art, which contributed to the collections in many American museums today. It was also a time of unprecedented wealth, which allowed these wealthy families to live like American royalty, as the family of General Baxter did. They had the money to buy priceless works of art from Europe and bring them to America, where they could afford to house them in magnificent mansions and private museums. However, this often meant needing to hire someone who was well educated, cultured, spoke other languages and knew what was valuable and important. Walter Henry Pomeroy fit the description, and already knew and worked for the family.
Walter was given unlimited funds to purchase the volumes for the library, which was built to contain about 20,000 books. He selected around 12,000 volumes, devoting years of his life to the project, from 1886 to his death in 1891, working alongside his wife. It is unknown whether Laura went with him, but Walter traveled in both America and Europe buying books. Laura organized his finds as the librarian, and had her own office in the library. The books chosen were to be used for reference, not checked out by the public, and were very rare and beautiful, as was the library itself. A description of the interior from 1895 states that:
The capacity of the library admits of about 20,000 volumes. These are compactly shelved in nine alcoves, which radiate from the octagonal sides toward an open centre, being closely packed on either side with volumes, which are classified in Art, Autobiography, Fiction, Drama, Folk-lore, History, Literature, Theology, Science, Travel, Shakespeare and the Classics, as well as a large range of Lexicons and Manuals of Reference. There are two spacious, well-lighted reading rooms, on the east and west ends, opening from a large central room, munificently furnished with carved oaken furniture; and carpeted with Persian rugs[v].
Notable editions of the collection included:
Romance of Paris et Vienne, Caxton 1485
Pope Pius the Sixth Latin Bible printed in Basle, 1551
Le Costume Historique, in color, Paris
Cicero’s Epistolae ad Familiares cum Hubertine clerics Comments, printed 1483[vi]
Walter also included rare early works on American history, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. He selected books that represented fine examples of the different stages of book binding and printing in European and American history. Some books were chosen simply because of a rare style of binding. Many books were embossed with gold, covered in leather, with parchment pages. The finest examples were kept under glass, and all could be viewed by the public during library hours.
But what happened to this marvelous collection of nearly 12,000 volumes? Mrs. Baxter left no provision in her will stipulating what should be done with the collection. The Rutland Historical Society reports in its 1993 Quarterly of a letter written to them in 1958 by Walter Henry Pomeroy’s niece, Gertrude Pomeroy, asking them where the books went. They were unable to trace them. The library was purchased by the Anshei Shalom congregation in 1927 for $12,000, and became the Rutland Jewish Center, which remains in use today. The Baxter estate was demolished in 1945.
Henry died in 1891, and was buried in Rutland. After Mrs. Baxter’s 1896 death, the books can no longer be traced. For a 31-year period, in between Mrs. Baxter’s passing and the purchase of the library by the congregation, there was time for almost anything to happen to the books.
After Walter died, Laura Skeel Pomeroy went back to New York and set up her 86th street salon, where she became known as “The Dear Old Lady of 86th Street” -or at least was memorialized as such by American poet Shaemas O’Sheel in his 1911 obituary of her. There she kept company with a fascinating and diverse group of artists, musicians, actors, singers, and people of all religious backgrounds, sitting back amongst the buzz and hum of the salon, happy to be surrounded by such interesting company. She even was friends with Lord Tennyson. According to Shaemas, Laura often spoke of Walter, who she was so in love with, and so perfectly suited for:
“Her little parlors were lined with books, they had belonged to one of whom she often spoke, never sadly, never sentimentally, always with the slightest lowering of her voice, with an indefinable undertone that struck deeply, beautifully to the heart…There is often enough a repulsion in old age which persists thru all effort at reverence; but not so here. I used to often think of what young womanhood, what young loverhood had been hers; and I thought how terrible the loss of the man she spoke of so often, so tenderly, must have been; yet how truly great that love must have been, since she could make, in these widowed years, a great beautiful thing of her lonely life…”
Surrounded by Walter’s books, Laura lived her later years on 86th street until old age caused her to move to an apartment in the Bronx, where she spent her last days leading up to her death at age 78, on August 23, 1911. She was buried in Rutland, alongside Walter. The couple had no children.
What became of the rarest and most valuable books in the Baxter Memorial Library? Did Laura have some of them at her studio, or were those books from Walter’s personal collection? Even so, her studio would not have been big enough to house such a collection, and a bibliophile like Walter was bound to have his own small library, which his devoted wife would have likely kept. Where could 12,000 volumes have gone, leaving no record? Did Hugh Baxter, the Baxter’s son, sell them off? Perhaps there is someone out there who can shed some light on this mystery. For now, the secret has died with Laura Skeel Pomeroy-over 100 years ago.
Further sources for this story:
Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2007.
A Catalogue of the Books in the H. H. Baxter Memorial Library of Rutland, VT.. Rutland, Rutland County, Vermont:, 1892.
Maine. Cumberland County. Ward 6. Portland. 1850 U.S. Census. Microfilm publication M432_252. Washington: National Archives
Onondaga County Public Library System. City of Portland [Maine] births 1712-1892. Online [http://catalog.onlib.org/]. Accessed 12 Jun 2009
Links to images and more information on subjects in the article:
Images of the Library:
Leopold Eidlitz, architect:
Laura Skeel’s Matthew Vassar bust, which has been incorporated into a full statue:
[i] The Critic A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts Vol. XIX (New Series) Vol. XXII January-June 1893, The Critic Company, New York, 1893.
[ii] New York. New York County. New York City. 1880 U. S. Census. Microfilm Publication T9_870. Washington: National Archives
[iii] Holliday, Kathryn E. Leopold Eidlitz: Architecture and Idealism in the Gilded Age. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008.
[iv] Rutland Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XXIII No. 3, 1993
[v] First Biennial Report of the Board of Library Commissioners of Vermont. 1895-96. P. 66
[vi] A Catalogue of the Books in the H.H. Baxter Memorial Library of Rutland, VT., 1892.