Yesteryear Archives: Wilbur Cross Building Started Out As University's First Dedicated Library

For nearly four decades, the Wilbur Cross Building served as the University of Connecticut's main library - the academic heart of the university, where tens of thousands of students searched its storage stacks, studied in its oak-walled reading rooms, and sought assistance from library staff.

When the building opened in 1939, it was the first time the University's library collections were housed in a single structure built specifically for that purpose.

From 1881 to 1890, the library was located in Old Whitney Hall, a three-story building that had been a home for Connecticut orphans of the Civil War. From 1890 to 1929, it was in the Old Main building. And then for a decade, the library was on the top floor of the Charles L. Beach Building. Construction of the 110,000-square-foot Wilbur Cross Library began in 1938 and was completed in May 1939, at a cost of $424,472. It was part of a then-unprecedented bond issue of nearly $3 million approved by the Connecticut General Assembly for the construction of new buildings on the campus of what was then called Connecticut State College. The College became the University of Connecticut the same month the Library was completed.

Chief among its features was a central area with seven-level stacks and a capacity for seven tons of volumes, and two reading room wings with 30-foot high ceilings. It also had air-conditioning, one of the first campus buildings with environmental controls to protect its collections from fluctuating temperatures and humidity.

When the building opened in 1939, it had its distinctive cupola and gold-leaf dome, but no name. That changed in April of 1942, when the Board of Trustees voted to name the facility in honor of Wilbur Cross, a four-term governor and a native of the Gurleyville section of Mansfield. It was during Cross's tenure as governor that bond issues were approved in 1937 and 1939 for construction on campus.

A formal dedication of the Cross library building was held on May 17, 1942, in conjunction with the dedication of several other new campus buildings. At its opening, the Wilbur Cross Library had approximately 62,000 volumes in its collections.

Shortly before the dedication, the Connecticut Campus ran an editorial on the naming of the library:

"It is significant to note that the name of Dr. Cross was not chosen for our library because he was chief executive of this state or because he was a great political leader, but rather because he is so eminent as a literary figure.

"Dr. Cross's works in the field of literature cover nearly half a column in Who's Who in America. His political works take but a sentence or two. He served 46 years as author, historian, biographer, and teacher before taking his place in the governor's chair.

"There is no literary figure in the state that is so revered and, considering his birthplace, Gurleyville, so ideally qualified to bestow his name to that building which is the true heart of the University."

As the University grew, so did its library collections and services, and in 1964, an addition to the Wilbur Cross Library was dedicated. The addition included space for 250,000 volumes and offices for 60 staff members.

Library collections grew rapidly during the administration of President Homer D. Babbidge. At the start of his presidency in 1962, there were approximately 400,000 volumes. In 1971, the library added its one-millionth volume.

Wilbur Crosss Library under construction in 1938


South Reading Room in 1940

That growth also led to the need for a new library building, opened in 1978 and dedicated as the Homer Babbidge Library in 1984.

Most recently the historic Wilbur Cross Building has undergone remodeling and renovation as a result of the UConn 2000 infrastructure program. Today its serves as a one-stop service center for most student business needs, including: the Registrar; Bursar; Residential Life; Financial Aid; as well as the Center for Students with Disabilities, and other services.

No longer a library, the Wilbur Cross Building remains a signature building on the Storrs campus and continues to provide essential services to students.

Mark J. Roy