As published in the Record Journal Sunday June 23, 2013
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD - As a visitor enters the town’s former public library at 60 N. Main St., marble pillars, stained-glass windows, ornamental molding and aged wood floors welcome the eye.
“It just has a uniqueness about it that is special,” Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said. “To my eye, it’s a beautiful building.”
To the average passerby, its beauty, or existence, may not be apparent due to the drooping cut-leaf European beech tree that was planted in the property’s front yard very early in the 1900s. According to local businessman Joe Gouveia, who purchased the building for $800,000 earlier this year, a tree expert said it’s one of the largest cutleaf beeches ever reported in the state. The outside of the building, which is located between the Wells Fargo Bank and the Simpson Court plaza, also doesn’t stick out, with battered-gray stone and worn window frames.
Gouveia, however, said he hopes to make the location well-known and appreciated once again. Though it’s not grand on the outside, there’s plenty to offer on the inside, and Gouveia has considered turning part of the building into a wine bar. Plans remain uncertain, he said, and depend on zoning approval from the town. Parking, as with any location downtown, is an issue, he said, but the location has more parking spots than any of the businesses in the Simpson Court plaza next door. With more than 13,000 square feet of space available in the building, there is a ton of potential, Gouveia said. That’s why he said he’s still taking suggestions from the public.
As of now, he envisions a small wine bar on the first floor, possibly accompanied by an art gallery. Upstairs, there’s a large room with a stage. Gouveia said he can see the space being used as a community room, where local acts could perform. The building is larger than it seems from the outside. There are two massive rooms with high ceilings and staircases on the first floor. Some larger spaces were partitioned into smaller rooms when the library closed in 1982 and became home to an insurance company. Gouveia said he plans to knock down some of those walls to open up space.
“Once you open these walls, things take on a life of their own,” he said.
There is storage, along with another large, open room in the basement, formerly the children’s library. Gouveia said he’s also considering a gift shop for his vineyard at the location, since he currently has nothing downtown.
Any restaurant or bar business he might start wouldn’t be out to compete with nearby bars, he said. It’s a location that Gouveia said would be perfect before or after dinner. He said that any business at the site would not be open past 11 p.m.
“We’re not looking for the rowdy crowd,” he said.
Still, when it comes to the future of the building, Gouveia said “there’s nothing written in stone.”
A leaky roof needs to be repaired,and the heating and cooling system needs updating, he said. The building has been unused for the past four or five years, said Gouveia, who bought it from Frederick Ulbrich, the owner of Ulbrich Steel in Wallingford. Gouveia said Ulbrich paid $44,000 in heating costs in each of the last two years.
Gouveia said he has taken on many expensive endeavors, such as the vineyard he opened on Whirlwind Hill Road, but the rehabilitation of the old library will be by far the costliest project he has undertaken.
“I don’t put a budget on projects anymore,” he said. “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”
Gouveia also wants to do the building justice in light of its sentimental value. “This is where I’ve spent many, many hours,” he said.
When Gouveia was younger, he cleaned and maintained the building for 18 years.
“There are a lot of memories here,” he said.
Gouveia attributes his current success to the lessons he learned at the old library. Years ago, he said, the trucking company he worked for closed down. Unemployed, Gouveia said he spent hours at the library reading books about business. His English was poor and he wasn’t business savvy at the time, he said. The librarians were always willing to help him with new words. With knowledge obtained at the library, Gouveia later opened a coffee shop on Center Street — his first business endeavor.
A man named Charlie McCabe used to clean the old library, Gouveia said. When McCabe was away for a few weeks, Gouveia cleaned it and performed maintenance for McCabe at no charge. A short time later, McCabe came into Gouveia’s coffee shop and told him he no longer wanted the job. Gouveia decided to take over because he was struggling to make ends meet.
Gouveia said his best memory of the old library was when his daughter Amanda would come with him to help clean. At the time, it was no longer a library, but the home of a small insurance company. As with any young child, he said, she would quickly become bored of cleaning. So Gouveia said he started bringing books, and she would read them downstairs in the former children’s library. What’s special about this memory, he said, is that Amanda initially went to school as a business major. Now, he said, she’s going back to school to become a librarian.
The building will someday be his legacy, Gouveia said, and that of his daughters; Alli and Amanda. The building is under their names, he said.
“I hope we will own the building for many, many years to come,” Gouveia said. Of the location, he said, “There’s something that kind of draws you in.”
“It would be a shame not to bring this back to its original beauty,” he added.
“It’s a great building,” said local history buff Jerry Farrell Jr., president of the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust. “There is a ton of character on both the outside and inside.”
According to a brief history published on the Wallingford Public Library’s website, the site of the building was owned by Samuel Simpson, a wealthy local industrialist. Simpson’s daughter, M. Ette Simpson, predeceased her father, “and in 1894 he bequeathed in her memory land at 60 N. Main St. along with $25,000 for a building and $20,000 for an endowment fund,” according to the library’s history. The same history says that Margaret Tibbits, great-granddaughter of Samuel Simpson, laid the cornerstone of the building on Sept. 21, 1899. Eighty-three years later, on Sept. 12, 1982, the same Margaret Tibbits, by then Mrs. Herschel Taber, laid the cornerstone for the present library at 200 N. Main St.
According to its website, library membership prior to 1958 was only open to women, but in 1958, when the name was legally changed to the Wallingford Public Library Association, membership was opened to men, as well.
An addition was built onto the entrance of the library in 1931, and the entire building was renovated in 1962.
Gouveia said he has an early picture of the library, from about 1914, that shows the cutleaf beech tree as just a sapling. There are rumors in town that the tree might come down, Gouveia said. Those rumors are not true.
“Not at least while I own the place,” he said.
The tree is an integral part of the building’s character, Gouveia said. It’s also rare, because it has two different varieties of beech leaves. A close inspection reveals the difference in the leaves; one is rounded and wider, while the other is skinnier and jagged.
“The tree will never come down,” Gouveia said.
Gouveia admitted that purchasing the building was not the best business decision. It would have been easier to renovate the dilapidated former American Legion building on North Main Street because he could have just gutted it and started anew. Gouveia did attempt to purchase the American Legion building for similar purposes, but the deal fell through. The old library presents a different challenge, he said, because almost everything inside is worth keeping intact.
But it’s not a desire for financial success the drives this new endeavor, Gouveia said.
“I’m doing it for the town,” he said. “It’s going to be something the town can be proud of.”
Photos by Dave Zajac – courtesy of the Record-Journal
Top: Joe Gouveia stands on the first floor of the former public library on North Main Street in Wallingford.
Middle: Gouveia, the building’s owner, walks past the cut-leaf European beech tree on the property that dates to the beginning of the 20th century.
Below: This empty space in the building’s basement once was the site of the children’s library.