Senior Center History

Historically Speaking 

By Jon Herrmann and Lucy Xu
Students at Newton North High School
Summer Interns, 2007

Stepping into the Senior Center building today, there are people playing cards, learning foreign languages and working on handicrafts.  Sixty-eight years ago, however, the scene was very different.

In December of 1939, on a cold winter night, an excited group of some 400 residents of Newton gathered in the newly constructed building at the corner of Walnut Street and Highland Avenue to witness the dedication of a new branch library in Newtonville. The new library was located where the Newton Club, a social organization, had been.

Mayor Edwin O. Childs presided over the ceremonies and a trio from the All Newton Music School provided music for the celebration. The guests listened as the 38-year-old Robert Frost read through his poem, “The Mending Wall.”

Lines from the poem were depicted in a stained glass medallion—designed and made by Newtonville resident Charles J. Connick—located on the north window of the library.  Across the room, on the south window, another stained glass medallion by Connick was dedicated to Emily Dickinson, also a poet from Massachusetts.
Frederic Melcher, who grew up in Newton and had become the editor of New York’s Publishers Weekly, gave the principal address.  Later, members of the Highland Glee Club performed before Reverend Randolph Merrill provided a prayer for the new library.  Before the ceremony was over, the librarian of the new library Miss Dorothy Peters received the keys to the library.

The town dedicated the library in John R. Prescott’s honor, naming it the John R. Prescott Library, because he was the largest contributor to the project.  Prescott had published “Some Newtonville Homes” and “The Story of Newton,” the latter of which told the history of Newton and included illustrations.  From that booklet, he donated all proceeds to the Newtonville Branch Library.

After over three years of intensive work in planning and raising necessary funds to open the $111,200 John R. Prescott Library, Newtonville residents were finally able to enjoy the Georgian style, red brick building, complete with granite steps.
Designed by the firm Robb & Little of Boston, who’s member E. Donald Robb was a resident of the city, the structure included a lantern-shaped cupola, two large reading rooms on the main floor and a spacious lobby that held the charging desk. Overlooking the main floor was a mezzanine.

A naturally lighted basement of Indiana Limestone with contrasting wood columns in white was the site of a large children’s room with a separate entrance. It also held an auditorium seating 125 people with a moveable stage and a screen for lantern pictures.

An article in Newton Graphic’s November 18, 1938 issue stated that the library “would be a valuable reference library for the 2600 students of the High Schools,” because the high school library was inadequate and the branch was only one block away.  To accommodate the students, the new library would be much larger than the other branch libraries.

Since the library’s opening and until its closing, the library housed painting, hobby and educational exhibits by local artists and collectors. 
In 1981 the Senior Drop-in Center from Star Market moved to the branch. The seniors could now take advantage of the resources at the branch as well as their own programs.

 However, in 1983, an arsonist set a fire that badly damaged the Newtonville Branch Library.  There was over $100,000 in damage, and every new book the library had received in the previous two years was burned.

After the library recovered, in May 1986 the branch exhibited “Shutter Shadow” photos by Larry Wynn.  The exhibit captured “unusual or eye catching subjects,” said its photographer.  Photos included portraits, Mack Trucks, automobiles and underwater objects.

In March 1988, the branch displayed abstract paintings and collages of Sean Mooney.  A year later, the library exhibited charcoal portraits by Charlotte Andry Layman.

Because of financial constraints, the city had to close some branches in the early 1990s including the Newtonville Branch Library. Consolidating its services into one place, the Council on Aging decided to house the Senior Center where the Newtonville Branch Library had been. 

The city renovated the building, and the new Senior Center officially opened October 24, 1993. What had been two large reading rooms on the main floor of the Newtonville Library became an activities room and a dining wing. What had previously been an auditorium and a children’s room transformed into an art studio, a health maintenance suit, a library and project rooms. To the back of the main floor and basement were added areas of storage, bathrooms, kitchen space and an elevator.

But while new renovations have changed the building, parts of the old still remain. Despite new businesses lining Newtonville Center or the hustle of new people coming in and out, structures in the Senior Center building, like the magnificent stained glass medallions on either side of the center, remain a testament to Newton’s past. 

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