Turning Over an Old Leaf for New Pages

In June, a new addition to the Southworth Library in Dryden was dedicated at an outdoor ceremony attended by hundreds of area residents. Construction of the addition, named Lincoln Center, was financed with funds from the library’s sale of a manuscript handwritten by Abraham Lincoln. It was sold in 2009 at Christie’s auction house for $3 million. When the gavel went down, the auctioneer announced that it was the largest amount ever paid worldwide at auction for a manuscript.

What Lincoln said
It is a speech, and it was left to the library in 1928 in the will of Dryden Congressman John W. Dwight. He had been given the document in 1916 by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, in recognition of Dwight’s help in securing congressional funding for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Dwight’s father, Jeremiah Dwight, had also served in Congress, and had been the first president of the Southworth Library Association.

The manuscript is an address Lincoln made from the White House balcony to a rally of his supporters two days after his re-election in 1864. It contains a number of crossed-out words and phrases, and penned-in corrections. A Christie’s manuscript specialist noted that Lincoln used the same kind of writing tablet for this speech as he had used to write the Gettysburg address.

In his post-re-election address, Lincoln noted: “We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

The election, the president observed, “has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war – Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are.”

In conclusion, he said: “Let me close by asking three hearty cheers for our brave soldiers and seamen and their gallant and skilful commanders.”

To sell or not to sell?
Michael Lane, a Dryden attorney and secretary of the library’s board of trustees, said the board debated selling the manuscript for 10 years. “Honest to God,” he said. “It would come up every year, and we’d talk about it and talk about the alternatives. We finally decided if we were going to do it, 2009 was the right year because there was a lot of publicity about Lincoln.” (The year marked Lincoln’s 200th birthday.)

Coincidentally, Christie’s auction house in New York City contacted the board to ask if it wanted to sell the document. Christie’s planned a sale of Lincoln items on the president’s birthday, February 12. The board decided to proceed with the sale, and the manuscript became the highlight of the auction. Board president Mary Ellen Rumsey and board member John Bailey attended the sale. “The auction was absolutely amazing,” Rumsey said. “It went so fast. I think a minute was all it took. It was all kind of a blur.

“They already had a bid of $1.2 million when it started, and it just went up incrementally by hundreds of thousands,” added Rumsey. “When it got to $2.5 million, I really wanted it to hit $3 million. When it did I was really delighted.”

With Christie’s premium, the total amount of the sale was $3,442,500. The buyer remains anonymous.

The auction house presented Southworth Library with framed copies of the four-page manuscript, which hang in the new Lincoln Center today. In addition, the trustees commissioned Dryden sculptor Jacques Schickel to create a bronze plaque of the Mathew Brady photograph of Lincoln reading to his son, Tad. The majestic work hangs on the wall behind the Lincoln Center’s circulation desk.

Carved in stone
Slightly more than half of the proceeds from the sale were used to build the Southworth addition. The remainder has been set aside in an endowment to help fund library operations.

You could say the imposing new addition is a chip off the old block. That’s because library trustees actually took chips off of the sandstone façade of the original building, dedicated in 1894, and sent them to a quarry in Ohio to be certain that the new addition was built with exactly the same stone. Their efforts confirmed that the new sandstone came from the same quarry that provided the stone for the original building in 1893. The iconic four-room building with its looming clock tower was designed by noted Ithaca architect William Henry Miller.

The now spacious facility has improved access, greatly expanded book shelving, areas for reading, library-provided computers and a children’s section. The addition has prompted a significant increase in the public’s use of the library, according to the director, Diane Pamel. While 110 new borrowers took out library cards from January to June of this year, 120 people signed up for new cards in just one month following the opening of the new addition. “It’s wonderful… we’re really excited that people are enjoying the space,” she said.

Pamel, who also runs the library’s children programs, added: “Attendance at my preschool story time has increased by 50 percent. It’s just so much more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone.”


by Bill Wingell