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The Reynolds Family, part 4: The Library

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Reynolds Library

A postcard showing the Reynolds Library at 150 Spring Street in the Third Ward. It was the former home of Mortimer F. Reynolds. Courtesy of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.

On December 19, 1878, Abelard Reynolds “fell into the placid sleep that knows no waking” (they just don’t write obituaries like that anymore!). He was 93. His wife, the former Lydia Strong, died in 1886 one month before her 102nd birthday. Their youngest child Mortimer would not have the longevity of his parents but he would devote his remaining years to saving the Athenaeum’s library as a lasting tribute to the family name.
Mortimer Reynolds was born on December 2, 1814, a year after his father moved the family from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. As an adult, Mortimer made the dubious assertion that he was the first white child born within the One Hundred Acre Tract.

On January 12, 1841, Reynolds married Mary Eliza Hart, daughter of Rochester pioneer Roswell Hart. Unable to have children, they adopted a daughter, Minnie Belle. Mrs. Reynolds was known throughout life for her charitable works. In 1879, she died of heart disease at the age of 59, less than eight months after her father-in-law’s death.

Mortimer made a fortune in the paint and linseed oil business and was quite generous with his money. He provided $5,000 to build a YMCA at the corner of St. Paul Blvd. and Main Street, and gave $25,000 to build a chemistry laboratory for the University of Rochester on Prince Street as a memorial to his late brother William.

William had died in 1872 and, with Abelard severely impaired by a stroke, Mortimer sold his business to take over management of the Arcade and Corinthian Hall. When the Athenaeum fell on hard times and a sheriff was ordered to sell the library’s books to settle outstanding debts, Mortimer and George S. Riley, bought the collection for $3,350. For ten years, the books remained in storage as the two owners considered ways to create a permanent fund that would support a library. Riley wanted to revive the Athenaeum but Reynolds was determined to create an institution that would perpetuate the family name.

In 1882, Mortimer bought out Riley’s interest and began clearing space in the Arcade for the new “Reynolds Library.” Its charter stipulated that the rooms and property of the new library “shall not, nor any part thereof, be subject to taxation….” A local newspaper, the Union and Advertiser, vehemently campaigned against this provision, which would give a tax exemption to the entire Arcade, a private enterprise ever since its founding decades earlier. A heated debate erupted in the local press—the Democrat and Chronicle supported the measure—and the fight went all the way to Albany’s legislature.

In February 1884, the trustees settled for taxation that was “applicable equally” to other New York State libraries and, in January 1886, the Reynolds Library opened to the public in the venerable Arcade. It would not stay there for long.

Mortimer Fabricus Reynolds died on June 13, 1892 at the age of 79. In his will, he left both the Arcade and his home at 150 Spring Street to the library. In 1895, after extensive alterations had been done to the mansion, the Third Ward became the home of the Reynolds Library.

Over the next twenty years, Rochester created its own library system including a downtown facility in the old Kimball factory building. Then, in 1932, the city received money from the estate of Morton Rundell and began planning a new library that would be built on South Avenue.

Meanwhile, the Reynolds Library was financially challenged once again. When the Arcade, which supported the library, was ruled a firetrap, the one hundred-year-old structure was torn down and replaced by a new heavily mortgaged building. At the height of The Depression, the new Arcade had difficulty attracting renters to fill it. Trustees for the library worked out a merger that turned over the Reynolds collection to the new Rundell Library with the understanding that it would be designated as the “Reynolds Reference Library.” In the late 1940s, many libraries began to realize the educational potential of films and the Reynolds name was transferred to a newly created audio-visual department.

Today the central library has a newer building on the east side of South Avenue across from the old Rundell Library. The next time you check out a book at the first floor counter, turn around and you’ll see the Reynolds Media Center; a family name and a historic library still remembered.