The completion of the Camden Public Library in 1928 was soon followed by the addition of a public outdoor garden amphitheatre in 1931 on its grounds and Harbor Park just across Atlantic Avenue. The library can trace its origins back to 1796, but it is the amphitheatre, designed by famed American landscape architect, Fletcher Steele, and how the library utilizes the unique space that has brought it national recognition. The traditional library building and the French Moderne amphitheatre associated with it allow patrons the ability to broaden their horizons in ways other libraries cannot. Both the library and amphitheatre were designated National Historic Landmarks in 2013.
The current Camden Public Library can trace its beginnings back to the Federal Society’s Library which began in 1796 with 200 books. It operated for over 30 years before it went defunct and its books were sold at auction. A new library, sponsored by the Ladies Library Association, opened in 1854 on Wood Street. It later moved to the second floor of the Camden National Bank building and was destroyed by a fire that razed most of the town’s business district in 1892.
In 1896, the people of Camden voted to establish a free public library and began to raise funds in order to create one. The fund-raising efforts struggled until Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the daughter of publishing titan, Cyrus Curtis, donated land and money for the library’s creation in 1916. The library was designed by Parker Morse Hooper and Charles Loring and construction began in August of 1927. It formally opened on June 11, 1928. Hooper and Loring designed a rectangular Georgian brick building with a pitched gable roof topped by a small cupola, semicircular steps that lead to the main entrance under a small portico, and large, 12 over 12 windows.
As for the additional grounds owned by the library, Bok sought and acquired the services of one of the preeminent landscape architects operating in the country at the time, Fletcher Steele. Steele was born in Rochester, New York in 1885 and was educated in landscape architecture at Harvard under Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. He apprenticed under Warren Manning and served with the American Red Cross in Europe during World War I. He later traveled to Europe to study where he was influenced by the French Moderne school, which would become Art Deco in America. Perhaps his most famous work is Naumkeag, the former country estate of New York lawyer, Joseph Hodges Choate, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he worked on the grounds for 30 years.
Steele, with funding from Bok, began working on the library’s ampitheatre in 1928 and finished in 1931. Modeled after a Renaissance Italian garden theater, Steele’s horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre features tiered field stone seating, wrought iron railing, gates, arches, and native shrubs and trees. Steele broke up the clean lines of his tiered seating with random boulders and the seemingly random placing of spruce, maple, white birch, elm, and hemlock trees. He also set the amphitheatre on a bent axis from the library so that the open end offers views of the Megunticook River and Camden Harbor beyond. The two are connected by a sweeping double staircase.
In the mid-1990s, the library sought to expand without detracting from the beauty of Steele’s amphitheatre. The answer was to expand under the library’s south lawn, now known as the library’s Centennial Wing. The expansion includes a garden pavilion skylight to permit natural light into the addition and a Children’s Reading Garden near the library’s new subterranean entrance. For decades, the library has used Steele’s amphitheatre as a public space for the community and it continues to do so. It hosts ballet, plays, live music, art exhibits, movies, and even yoga classes as well as weddings. Please call or visit their website for a schedule of events.