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Lights, Camera, Action! Shhhhh it’s a Library!

For the week of Monday June 5, 2006

On June 7, 1904, the first performance at the Haskell Free Library and Opera house, which included the Columbian Minstrels and the production The Isle of Rock, ushered visitors into this new complex built between 1901-04 by architect James Ball of Stanstead, Quebec, and Gilbert Smith of Boston, Massachusetts. This building was a gift from philanthropists Martha Stewart Haskell, and her son Horace, to the people of Stanstead in Canada, and Derby Line, Vermont, U.S.A. to encourage cultural enrichment.

The Exterior of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House
© John Mahoney
Imagine sitting in the comfort of your seat watching a performance on a stage at an opera house or reading a book in the comfort of a reading room. Sounds normal; yet what if your seat was in the United States. and the performance was in Canada, or your book was on the shelf in Canada and you’re reading it in the United States? That is precisely what you will find at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House.

This building is an example of the resort and recreational Queen Anne Revival style that was prevalent in Canada from the 1880s leading up to the First World War. The library – complete with more than 20,000 books, a reading room, circulation desk and children’s room – occupies the main level of the building and loans books to local residents free of charge. The staff in the library are of both Canadian and American citizenship and the reading room is divided in half by a black line indicating Canadian and U.S. territory. However, one unique aspect of the library is the fact that a patron does not have to pass through customs to access either side of the building!

The Stage
© Don Whipple
The second floor houses the opera house typical of 19th-century theatre architecture and features a gallery, stage, dressing rooms and 400 seats. As well, the curtains, sets and props were designed and painted by Boston scenery painter Erwin LaMoss in 1902 and are his only known surviving works.

During the 1990s, the building underwent extensive renovations to abide by safety regulations in both countries while still retaining its original aura and design. Many difficulties existed with work crews unable to finish some jobs on either side of the property due to conflicting customs and immigration laws. Nevertheless, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House was designated a National Historic Site in 1985 and received a plaque in 1993.

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