Looking to make history more accessible in Haddonfield

Dana Dorman with the front page of The Inquirer from April 15, 1865. The main headline tells of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Historical Society of Haddonfield hopes that a new archives center will enhance preservation of, and public access to, the community's collective memory.

The society has amassed a remarkable collection of documents, records, and other ephemera left behind by people ordinary and extraordinary - farmers, business professionals, "needlecraft guild" members and the celebrated journalist I.F. Stone among them.

"The new facility will increase our storage capacity by about one-third," president Carol Smith says.

"Being able to look at the original artifact is so much more meaningful to most people. It engages them with the people who came before them and the legacy they left."

The proposed building will bring the society's impressive but far-flung collection - 300 years' worth of deeds, diaries, ledgers, letters, maps, oral histories, newspapers, photographs, and other printed materials - under a single, state-of-the-art roof.

Renderings of the two-story, 1,400-square-foot structure, designed by DCM Architecture & Engineering of Camden, suggest it will be a distinctive and handsome addition to the society's Kings Highway East campus.

"All we need now," Smith says wryly, "is money."

The project's estimated cost is $850,000; already, two grants totaling $31,000 have been secured to plan a fund-raising campaign - which makes it unlikely that one particular bit of history will repeat itself.

When the society was founded in 1914, a door-to-door effort to raise money to build it a home used what would today be called shaming.

Residents who had yet to contribute were publicly named "in a kind of daily flier," board member Doug Rauschenberger says.

Samples of those fliers are included in the 725 linear feet (roughly equivalent to a seven-story building) of materials that make up the society's collection.

About half of the holdings are stored in early 18th-century landmarks called Mickle House and Greenfield Hall, on the Society's campus. The remainder is housed off-site, mainly for better climate control.

The collection tripled in size during the tenure of Kathy Tassini, who was the society's librarian from 1986 until 2013, and who continues to serve on the board.

The growth "was incremental, although one huge donation that came in was the Moore-Tatem-Brigham collection," she recalls. "It included photographs of the old Moore mansion on Kings Highway, called the Moorings. It was on seven acres, and it was huge."

Materials also were brought in by descendants of the noted naturalist Samuel Nicholson Rhoads, as well as members of old-line borough families who trusted that the society would be a "good steward," in Rauschenberger's words.

"The new building is needed to ensure preservation of the collection," notes DCM's Eduardo Guzman, the lead architect on the project.

"Everyone in the community had to buy in," he says, calling the striking final design "a contemporary interpretation of a barn" that once stood on the site.

"We wanted it to be sensitive to the surroundings," Guzman adds.

Although the society is a private, nonprofit organization, its archive and library are not a clubhouse for a privileged few.

"We're open to the public, and we get lots of people coming in to research their family history," archivist and librarian Dana Dorman says.

"People come in to find out more about a house they just bought. Occasionally we get academic researchers. And lots of folks are interested in our photograph collection."

The archive also includes about 400 letters written to Haddonfield Memorial High School principal William Reynolds by former students serving in World War II. Some current Haddonfield students are studying the correspondence.

"My father wrote and mimeographed a letter a month to all of the former students who were in the service," says Bill Reynolds, 76, a retired Rutgers-Camden administrator who lives in Haddonfield.

"I couldn't be more delighted by the work going on to preserve these artifacts and the whole array of material the society has collected over the years."

And in ever-evolving Haddonfield, roiled in recent years by development proposals and teardowns, documenting history is a never-ending task.

"Stuff is still coming in," Tassini says. "We're collecting now for 100 years in the future."

kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq