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Traveling Texas: Christmas at the Armstrong Browning Library on Baylor's campus

Posted at 3:57 PM, Dec 22, 2021
and last updated 2022-10-26 13:39:11-04

WACO, Texas — Central Texas is home to several impressive libraries, but the world-class Armstrong Browning Library and Museum on Baylor’s campus stands out.

This month it celebrates its 70th anniversary.

Christmas time is always special at the magnificent Armstrong Browning Library. It houses the world’s largest collection devoted to the lives of Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You can get a glimpse into their everyday lives in the library.

“How do I love thee, let me count the ways,” quotes Borderud.

Executive Director Jennifer Borderud says this beautiful building was the vision of long-time English department chair Dr. A.J. Armstrong. It was needed to house the university’s growing collection of browning memorabilia.

In the late 1940s, Baylor President Pat Neff gave dr. Armstrong 100 thousand dollars if he could match it.

“Dr. Armstrong far exceeded those expectations. And did raise enough money, and it was about $1.7 million when this building was completed.”

We begin our visit in the awe-inspiring McLean Foyer of Meditation -- with its 40-foot ceilings and recessed dome covered in 23-karat gold leaf – it looks like velvet.

“The workmen created that velvety-like appearance by pressing the gold leaf into the plaster with their thumbs while it was still wet,” Borderud said. “So, what looks like fabric from down here is actually thousands of little thumbprints.”

Striking cathedral windows flanked by Italian marble give a feeling of sunrise or sunset as the shades of glass go from amber to lavender. The library boasts what’s believed to be the largest collection of secular stained-glass windows.

“We have 62 stained glass windows that you are able to see throughout the building, most of which illustrate either Robert or Elizabeth’s poetry,” Borderud said.

A unique item is the bronze cast of the poets’ hands commissioned in 1853.

“what's interesting about this particular sculpture is that we can tell how small the Brownings’ were, and Elizabeth’s hand is the one there on top.”

It’s indicative of their love story, which began when Elizabeth Barrett’s distant cousin john Kenyon played matchmaker.

“He encouraged Robert Browning to write Elizabeth a letter of introduction… that began a correspondence between the two poets. They eventually met in person and then eventually decided to marry.” Borderud said. “Elizabeth actually wrote 44 love sonnets for Robert Browning during their courtship. But it wasn't until three years after they were married that she finally decided to show them to him.”

Her famous sonnets from the Portuguese may have been composed on this table when she lived at 50 Wimpole Street.

“I also really enjoy the Elizabeth Barrett browning salon on the third floor, which is meant to look like a 19th-century living room. And it also contains a desk that belonged to Elizabeth prior to her marriage to Robert browning.” Borderud said. “And so, we like to think that maybe she wrote some of her love letters to Robert browning while sitting at that desk.”

Browning scholars come here from all over the world – walking through massive bronze doors at the entrance, each side weighs three-quarters of a ton, depicting scenes from the Brownings’ poetry.

You’ll see a theme of bells and pomegranates.

“We think that to browning the bells represented the music of poetry, and the pomegranates with their many seeds represented the many, many forms of meaning that you can find in poetry.”

And you can enjoy priceless artwork and furniture in the Hankamer Treasure Room, some of it belonging to the Brownings’.

“Even though the Browning's were from England, they lived in Italy the 15 years that they were married. And that's the reason for a lot of the Italian influence that you'll see throughout the building,” Borderud said.

Dr. Armstrong’s vision – not only devoted to the life of the Brownings’, but also to creating an inspirational place on campus – all comes together in the gorgeous Armstrong browning library and museum.

The library is open Monday through Saturday 9 am-5 pm.