FARMINGTON, Conn. — Forty-one miles away from Yale’s urban campus, on the banks of Pequabuck River, the staff of the University’s Lewis Walpole Library play croquet during their lunch breaks.
The library staff’s daily croquet games have their origins in a family tradition of Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis ’18, a former fellow of the Yale Corporation, and his wife, Annie Burr Lewis, whose family home became the Lewis Walpole Library in 1980.
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The library itself, an 18th-century white, wooden house, sits with three other structures on 14 acres of land surrounded by pastures, trees and a short white fence. Inside is one of the largest collections of memorabilia connected to the 18th century English nobleman, art historian, novelist and intellectual Horace Walpole.
With more than 30,000 prints and about 33,000 books and artifacts from Walpole’s mansion at Strawberry Hill, outside London, the library is a hub for studies both about Walpole himself and the 18th century in general, the library’s executive director Maggie Powell said. One third of the artifacts on display at the Yale Center for British Art’s current exhibit “Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill” are from the library’s collection.
The Lewises became fascinated by Walpole and began collecting Walpole memorabilia. Upon Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis’ death in 1979, the couple gave the collection and a donation to Yale. The University then established the Lewis Walpole Library in the couple’s home, merging the names of Lewis and Walpole.
Because the library is located outside Yale’s central campus, its is not surprising that many students are unaware of the library and fail to utilize its resources, said Ruth Yeazell, an English professor and the director of the library’s Board of Managers. To prevent distance from being an obstacle, library staff are creating an online database of the collection through the Orbis catalogue system. To date, Powell said, more than 6,000 entries from the library have been made accessible online.
And with its recent exhibit and other projects over the past nine years, the British Art Center is also collaborating with the library to bring the Walpole collection closer to campus.
“We love the chance to showcase how important the Wapole Library is to the larger world of scholarship and to the life of the University,” British Art Center Director Amy Meyers said. “And we are able to bring their treasures to campus all the time.”
Still, Powell said she thinks being located far from campus also carries benefits for post-doctoral students, faculty and visitors who do research at the library.
“There’s not a lot of distractions here besides nature,” Powell said. “It’s not like downtown New Haven — here you can concentrate.”
Like the Lewis family, the site of the library also has historical significance. For 10,000 years, Powell said, the site played host to Native American gatherings, making it one of Connecticut’s oldest archaeological sites. The Lewis property also served as Yale’s first field school for archaeology in Connecticut, said Paul Grant-Costa GRD ’08, the executive editor of the Yale Indian Papers Project — a project that works with the library to compile academic resources on American Indians in New England.
Grant-Costa said the connection to Native Americans is especially important for him; the Indian Papers Project may be emblematic of the future of the library, he said, as it expands its collection beyond just British artifacts and into the 18th-century in general.
“Not only are we looking at the artifacts, but the building itself is an artifact,” Grant-Costa said. “It’s like having a cigar box filled with artifacts and finding out that George Washington owned the cigar box.”
During renovations at the library, completed in 2007, the architects took pains to ensure that even the floors invoked 18th century England, Powell explained. The wood flooring was crafted out of logs recovered from a ship bound for England that had sunk in the St. Lawrence River before the turn of the 19th century and was preserved over the centuries at the river’s depths.
The renovations have played a key role in making the library a high-caliber research environment available to researchers, Powell said.
“It’s part of this evolution from a private library and private collection into a true part of Yale,” she said.
Highlights of these renovations include a newly constructed reading room, a restoration lab and office space. The architects designed these new spaces to include details reminiscent of Walpole’s gothic-style mansion in Strawberry Hill.
The Lewis Walpole Library hosts a birthday party for Horace Walpole in September and a lawn party in the spring with tea, scones and finger sandwiches.
All materials in the library are non-circulating, and visitors must make appointments to view the collections.