Attempts to have a library in Beach Haven had begun as early as the 1880’s with a gift of books for the town’s children by Dr. Edward Williams who, along with Charles Parry of the Parry House and the Baldwin Hotel, was a partner in the Baldwin Locomotive Works. The collection was kept in the home of Samuel Copperthwaite on Engleside Avenue, and eventually in one of the Sunday school rooms of the Kynett ME Church, which had been built in 1890. After the old Quaker Meeting House had been given to the town by Walter Pharo, the Reverend Alexander Corson of the Methodist Church undertook, with his bride, to make it into a viable library and by the time they left in 1908 it was well on its way.
In 1923 Mrs. Walter Pharo, in memory of her husband’s parents, Archelaus Ridgway Pharo and Louisa Willits Pharo - the founders of Beach Haven, and of her late husband Walter, presented the board of the library with a proposal to build, entirely at her own expense, a new library for the town two blocks away from the church on a corner lot owned by her at Third and Beach. It was accepted immediately. R. Brognard Okie, one of Philadelphia’s finest architects, was contacted by Mrs. Pharo. He chose as his model a Pennsylvania farm house - not an early lifesaving station as has often been said. Unlike the traditional farm house, however, it would be made entirely of brick and steel with several non-traditional features like three working fireplaces, a vaulted ceiling and an interior balcony encircling the first floor.
Tons of concrete were poured and steel girders of the new, two story structure were already up by the spring of 1924 on the SE corner of Beach Avenue at Third Street. Okie moved to Beach Haven and supervised every step of the construction, which was all done by the local builder Floyd Cranmer. Ten railcar loads of bricks were used to build the solid outer walls and it was soon evident that the town was to have the finest library on the coast of New Jersey.
As it neared completion in the late fall of 1924, the durable beauty of the new library at Third Street and Beach Avenue in Beach Haven was already drawing praise. To offset the whiteness of the walls, all the windows were hung with long shutters of pale green. A sweeping, multi-dormered, black roof added a grace seldom seen in a public building. Surrounded by a low, white picket fence and later, a well kept, green lawn it added an incomparable dignity to what, in that time period, was the town’s main street, Beach Avenue.
At the formal opening on the 29th of November, 1924 it was evident that no expense had been spared with the design of the first level either. The red bricks laid in a floor supported by great steel beams had come originally from England to Philadelphia as ship’s ballast, their value further enhanced by having been a part of that city’s historic St. John’s Church which, despite protests, had to be demolished in 1923 to make room for the massive west band supports of the new Benjamin Franklin Bridge across the Delaware.
From the main room on the first floor, the great vault of a cathedral ceiling rises fully forty feet diffusing reflected sunlight downward without a glare. To the left of the main room is a spacious alcove along the north wall. Today it houses the children’s collection but seventy years ago, a sign above the door read: “For Women Only.” It was a place for the ladies to browse for their favorite books and magazines. It opened out onto an airy, screened porch filled with comfortable wicker rockers for reading on summer afternoons. The other alcove on the opposite side of the building, now used as a library office, was the original children’s room.
There are two big, colonial style, working fireplaces on the first floor. One is in the main room and the other is behind it in the long back room on the ocean side of the library. Today this room houses the reference collection and its solid, ten foot table makes it useful as a meeting room. In the early years, it served a different function. It was the men’s reading room where male patrons could sit in large comfortable chairs to read magazines and newspapers. It was well lit by two tall French windows and it, too, opened out onto the screened porch on the north side.
The main reading room with its vaulted ceiling is encircled with a balcony reached by a spiral stone staircase using thick slabs of slate for steps. The balcony flooring is of oak as are all of the spindles in the railing. The walls upstairs are also lined with books. One great window on the west side rises ten feet to the ceiling. The rest are all set into dormers. On the east wall behind the upstairs balcony there is a door where one may step down into a well furnished little museum with high, beamed ceilings and a huge, stone fireplace. It is filled with old hotel registers, deeds, diaries, photographs and other relics of Beach Haven’s century and more of history.
The Beach Haven Free Public Library is a prime architectural treasure on Long Beach Island and a direct link to a colorful past that is the town’s most precious heritage. Mrs. Elizabeth Pharo’s gift to the town, more than 88 years old now, looks as new as the day it was built. The taxpayers who support it are proud of its status as the only independent library in Ocean County and have chosen to keep it that way.