The Strange Tale of the Beautiful Library and the Town That Never Asked for It 1

Henry H. Gardiner, nicknamed The Human Fly (he claimed Grover Cleveland gave him the diminutive title), drew the largest crowds ever seen in every city he visited. From 1905 until the mid-1920s, he was a hamming-it-up showman who scaled more than 700 buildings without any equipment, sometimes in a suit and dress shoes but often dressed in white so the throngs below could pick him out.

He scaled state capitols, newspaper headquarters, and triumphal arches. And on Aug. 11, 1920, crowds gathered to watch him scale an elegant copper-clad onion dome—in a small town in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

“Why here?” is the question anybody visiting from afar that day likely would have asked. But they wouldn’t have been directing it at Gardiner. Traveling showmen went to towns big and small and he was there to raise money for the American Legion.

No, it would have been directed at the building he was scaling—a baroque and showy limestone temple that somehow was the town library of little Winchester, Virginia, population 6,883. The Handley Regional Library rises up at an intersection in the historical center of town. There is a central octagonal building entered via a classical three-arched facade topped by the fetching onion dome. Wings extend out on either side, which, if detached, would belong more to a Belle Epoque mansion. The building’s presence in Winchester perplexes and intrigues visitors to this day, which makes it a fine candidate for this month’s selection in our series The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries.

It all started with a dispute over some chickens and pigs for sale in front of a luxury hotel in Scranton, Pennsylvania—for the man whose money built this jewel box of a building had never lived in Winchester, nor did he have any family ties there.

His name was Judge John Handley—a land speculator and developer who emigrated from Ireland to Scranton in 1854. The judge was weirdly obsessed with Virginia culture. I say weirdly because he was an Irish immigrant living in the North who owned life-size portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In fact, according to a book put together on the library’s history, he “was looked upon as a rebel spy, and at one time was in danger of being lynched.” Perhaps, the authors speculated, it was because he was making his living at that time helping men avoid service.

Handley did visit Winchester over the years as close friends owned lots of land there—he even invested in the town. Meanwhile, his hometown of Scranton went to war with him when he was the only person on his block who refused to pay for asphalt repaving. So, the city moved against him by allowing produce and livestock sellers to do their business anywhere that was still cobblestone, i.e., the patch in front of his hotel.

Handley, his friends later told the newspaper, promised the city would be sorry it ever let chickens and pigs be sold in front of his hotel.

The judge had his revenge served cold—it came when he died in 1895 and his massive estate went to the town of Winchester (he had no heirs). Scranton and some relatives sued over it and lost. Part of his bequest to the town was specific—$250,000 that would be held in a trust until it reached $500,000 and then used for a grand library “for free use of the people… forever thereafter.” Handley was even one-upping Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropic Johnny Appleseed of America’s public libraries. Before he would agree to donate money for a local library, Carnegie required that towns guarantee they would also devote revenues toward a library’s future. Handley didn’t bother with matching grants. He bequeathed his money with no strings attached.

Richard T. Nowitz/Getty

Walking inside today, one first enters the domed octagonal building—reading rooms are on your left and right and circulation desk straight ahead. While not as flamboyant as the exterior, the rooms are still a few notches above a typical town library.

But when construction was completed on the library in 1909 there were no books, no staff, and no opening date. Editorials flowed into the town paper demanding it investigate as 1910 passed into 1911, 1912, and 1913 with no opening.

For while Handley left the town money for his library, he gave tremendous leeway to the trustees of his funds. Without getting too into the tale-killing details, the group not only dawdled until 1903 to make a move on actual plans, but decided that a library costing $500,000 would be too grand (imagine!) and instead decided for one around $100,000.

The winning bid came from J. Stewart Barney, a native Virginian who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and was a partner in the firm Barney & Chapman, the firm responsible for the Emmet Building, a country house for financier Pembroke Jones, the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, Holy Trinity Church on New York’s Upper East Side, and the Thomas Indian School. With the exception of a lengthening of the dome so it could be seen from the street, the building on the exterior is much as Barney designed it. (Inside his plans called for a much more ornate decoration than was implemented.)

Once the library was completed, the public ridicule over its strange state began. Some wrote letters telling the paper to “get your reporters busy” investigating it and multiple cartoons ran in the Evening Star mocking the empty library building. But it still wasn’t until 1913 that it finally opened to much fanfare. (However, not all of the city’s citizens could take part in its new wonder—Black people were not allowed to use the library for nearly 50 years.) In fact, the library reflected many of the biases of its era. Despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of the books checked out were fiction, it stocked more nonfiction believing it to be better for one’s character.

Over the ensuing decades, additions were made and interior overhauls completed—luckily none of them marred the original exterior. But the collections of the library also grew—autographed copies of books by Willa Cather (a Winchester native), the Hotchkiss maps (he was Lee’s cartographer during the Civil War), paintings from J. Stewart Barney, and china belonging to George Washington’s brother.

All of which is to say if you find yourself in the storied Shenandoah Valley, you would be hard pressed to find a town with as much charm and history as Winchester, and its library is the dashing cherry on top.