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Home » ARTS AND CULTURE » VERMONT » The Most Famous Thing that Never Happened
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House
The Most Famous Thing that Never Happened

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, Derby Line, Vermont

By Deb Smith | April 19, 2012

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is delightfully unique in a myriad of ways, most notably for being a national treasure and the pride of two countries.

A magnificent neoclassical structure, “the Haskell,” as it is affectionately known, was built intentionally astride the U.S. - Canadian border in Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec at the turn of the 20th century.   It was donated by Canadian-born Martha Stewart Haskell in honor of her late American-born husband, Carlos, to celebrate the citizens and culture of the unique community along the border of northern Vermont and southern Quebec.

The Vermont Entrance

A library and opera house, the imposing yet welcoming entrance in Vermont, is a shining example of Victorian architecture.   Its rear facade is in Canada and it borrows from the Georgian tradition; no two sides are the same.

Local building materials such as granite from Stanstead, Quebec and rare native wood from Vermont were used in the Haskell’s construction together with items ordered by mail: exquisite mantles, mosaics, stained glass and pressed tin.   Superior craftsmanship led to the creation of a striking exterior and naturally elegant interior.

Prompted by the Haskell family’s desire to create a thriving, state-of-the-art educational center designed to advance cultural enrichment in their beloved border village, construction commenced in 1901 and was completed in 1904 and just in time! In 1908, construction on the border was prohibited when a “10 foot rule” was initiated which banished such humble items as doghouses, garden sheds, swing sets & jungle gyms, and even landscaping shrubs, from within a 10 foot radius of the “site line.”

The View from the Foyer looking from Vermont into Canada

By 1925, that radius was increased to 20 feet and remains in effect to this day.   The good news: the Haskell, a designated landmark in both the U.S. (National Registry of Historic Landmarks) and Canada (Heritage Building), is forever protected by a grandfather clause.

The library, on the first floor, is distinguished by well-lit stack rooms, fireplaces, sumptuous sofas and a spectacularly large but not unfriendly moose who keeps a watchful eye over the circulation desk.

The opera house is located on the second floor and is as dazzling today as it must have been on opening night, June 7, 1904.   It boasts phenomenal acoustics, a proscenium arch, plaster cherubs, murals, and scenery by celebrated Boston artist, Erwin LaMoss, as well as a drop curtain, props and stage machinery; all original, all impeccably preserved.

Evidence of the old coexisting gracefully with the new can be found in the charming juxtaposition of several theatre seats, each with a rack beneath for one’s hat... and a big bright blue handicapped sticker!

A visit to the Haskell is great fun for tourists, many of whom discover it by accident, as the Haskell is a real hidden gem.   A popular photo opportunity is in the library’s reading room where the international line cuts through at an angle, indicated by black masking tape on the gleaming hardwood floor, and American and Canadian flags harmoniously unfurled side by side as a perfect backdrop in the bay window beyond.

The Haskell is a modern American library bustling with local residents of all ages making effective use of all it has to offer including computer stations and over 20,000 books available in both French and English.   A higher percentage of patrons tend to draw from Quebec than from the U.S. simply because more libraries abound in the northeastern corner of Vermont than the surrounding Canadian countryside.

The Canada - US Boundary

Where else can one visit a library and opera house that literally is split in two by an international border? Peruse and check out books completely housed in one country (Canada) from a library in another? Or sit in the audience in one country (the U.S.) and watch a performance onstage in another?

And where else, if one takes care regarding where to park, is no passport required to gain entry into another country? Nowhere else in the world! Which is why “the most famous thing that never happened” came VERY close to happening.

In the early 1970s, the possibility of a Beatles reunion was capable of sparking most imaginations.   At the very least it was a universally happy daydream.   So, when a rumor began to circulate that, as the result of some sticky immigration issues, inquiries had been made regarding four British band-members arranging a meeting at the Haskell, elated excitement ensued and word spread like wildfire.

A Stamp Featuring the Beatles

At the time, John Lennon lived in New York City and was what was termed “line bound,” meaning that officials would not have gone looking to deport John, but if he did happen to exit the U.S., reentry would have been problematic.   George Harrison, on the other hand, was prohibited from entering the U.S. altogether.

The Haskell offered a perfect solution to their dilemma.   Here, John and George would be able to join up with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr without risk of breaking the law or creating any future legal entanglements.   Keep in mind this was being arranged as a “meeting,” not a concert.   But the fact that the Haskell has contained within it a 400-seat opera house fueled some very wishful thinking! Inevitably, it was not to be, nixed by prudent local law enforcement who conceded that the crowds such a meeting was sure to gather would reach unmanageable proportions.

Alas, no documentation exists of any of the preliminary discussions pertaining to this fabled reunion.   It is confirmed solely through oral history.   Albeit by several extremely reliable sources who each refer to it with the same nostalgic smile as the most famous thing that never happened!


The Haskell Free Library and Opera House

93 Caswell Avenue, Derby Line, Vermont and 1 Rue Church, Stanstead, Quebec

(802) 873-3022

The Haskell Website

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