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How Andrew Carnegie Built the Architecture of American Literacy

The philanthropist covered the U.S. in libraries between 1893 and 1919. How many survive—and the forms they've taken—points to what kind of structures make a city center.

Earlier this month, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., ditched its plans to move into the Carnegie library in Mt. Vernon Square. The last of several meetings with the city's Historic Preservation Review Board had yielded another round of modifications to the museum's plans to adapt the building. But the Spy Museum had run out of time.

"We loved the opportunity that was put forth to make a home in a historic part of the city," says Jason Werden, communications manager at the International Spy Museum. "It was a lot to juggle, but it was something that was going well for a long time."

D.C.'s Spy Museum had hoped to erect an addition, one designed by the Philadelphia architecture firm MGA Partners with the landscape firm OLIN, that would surround the existing 1903 Carnegie library on three sides. The plan would've seen the building joined by two glass pavilions on its east and west ends, along with glass walkways around its north face, while adding even more space below grade.

The proposed addition to the Carnegie Library, seen from the south. (Historic Preservation Review Board)

The plan proved to be too much for District preservationists. Yet modern glass pavilions and basement tunneling are not necessarily out of the ordinary for a Carnegie library today. Across the nation, the libraries that Andrew Carnegie built have been transformed and reused as historical museums, city halls, art centers, and even bars and restaurants, sometimes by dramatic means.

It is a testament to Carnegie's philanthropic investment in cities—the largest in U.S. history—that so many of these buildings are still in use. Yet no one can say exactly how many are standing now. Despite the important roles the libraries continue to play in towns and cities, our understanding of these buildings as a piece of civic infrastructure is far from cohesive.

* * *

A $1 Billion Program for Invisible Infrastructure

"It can be really hard to tell whether a library is a Carnegie library," says Abigail A. Van Slyck, author of Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture, 1890–1920 and dean at Connecticut College. "You essentially have to have a document. Or they have to have named it 'the Carnegie library.' Or put it in the cornerstone."

Between 1893 and 1919—a three-decade run that librarians refer to as the Golden Age of the American public library system—Carnegie paid to build 1,689 libraries in the U.S. These seeded the DNA for nearly every American library built before the end of World War II. That may explain in part why there is no central accounting for Carnegie's libraries, which were built without any oversight from a formal program or foundation: Even libraries that aren't historical Carnegie libraries share their aesthetic philosophy.

"As far as I'm aware, the last person to conduct an inventory of Carnegie libraries was Theodore Jones, back in 1997," says Ron Sexton, librarian for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Almost 20 years later, Jones's book, Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy, still offers the best estimate to a question that may not have an exact answer.

According to the figures assembled by Jones (adjusted here for inflation), Carnegie spent as much as $1.3 billion on public libraries in the U.S.—a gift unmatched before or since. Some 70 percent of these buildings were built in small towns. The grants sparked the national enthusiasm for libraries at the turn of the century, with the majority going to cities that now occupy the Rust Belt region (in addition to always-fashionable California).  

"It was an expectation in communities across the country—if you didn’t have a library, somehow you were not supporting culture," says Wayne Wiegand, professor emeritus of library studies at Florida State University and author of a forthcoming history of public libraries, tentatively titled Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library. "Without Carnegie, we’d still have public libraries, but they’d be different and probably fewer in number."

Close to 800 of Carnegie's library buildings are still in use as public libraries, according to Carnegie Libraries Across America, while another 350 have been given new purposes as office buildings and cultural centers. More than 275 have been razed or destroyed—some inadvertently, as in the case of botched renovations performed as Works Progress Administration projects.

"These are buildings that really revolutionized the American public library experience," Van Slyck says. "Carnegie put his money behind a revolutionary approach to what kind of services librarians offered."

Both widely felt and largely invisible, the legacy of the Carnegie library system may not be measured best by architecture or even information studies, but by the buildings' enormous impact on civic life, especially for women and children.

* * *

Six Templates for Building a Better Library

A letter addressed to Andrew Carnegie from the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was typical of an application for a Carnegie library grant. Dated November 18, 1901, the letter reads:

In and by a resolution heretofore unanimously adopted by the Common Council of the City of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the undersigned were appointed a committee to prepare and present to you, in behalf of the City of Eau Claire and its inhabitants, a request that you give to said City the sum of fifty thousand dollars, or such additional sum or portion thereof, as, in your bounty and good judgment, you deem would be commensurate with the needs and requirements of this City and its inhabitants, to build and construct a suitable building to be devoted to the purpose of maintaining a free library in this City for all future time, to be known as the “Carnegie Library.”

What follows in the letter is part Census form, part tourism brochure, extolling the noble history of Eau Claire while detailing its population, geography, and amenities. The application was enough to earn a $40,000 grant for the construction of the Eau Claire Carnegie Library—$1.1 million in 2014 dollars. (Today, the building serves as city hall.)  

When Carnegie first steeled himself to give away his accumulated wealth, he didn't dither over how. His beneficiaries would get a library, providing the kind of access that he had enjoyed as a youth (and to which he attributed the gains that made him the richest man on the planet by the turn of the century). Carnegie had never set foot in Fairfield, Iowa, when he built a library there in 1893, a Romanesque Revival building (and today a museum) that launched his philanthropic project in earnest.

The former Carnegie library in Bradford, Pennsylvania, is now a restaurant called Beefeaters.

After a few slow years, Carnegie picked up speed in 1898. Pittsburgh, Texas, and Carnegie, Pennsylvania, were among the first cities to earn library grants that year, the first of what Carnegie dubbed his "wholesale" period. The hundreds of libraries that followed reached every state but Alaska, Delaware, and Rhode Island. (Texas' first Carnegie library burned down in 1939; the eponymous Pennsylvania town's Andrew Carnegie Free Library is the only library that received permission to use his full name.)

"What Carnegie did was stimulated the desire for libraries in communities across the country," Wiegand says. "Just by giving local communities those grants for constructing buildings, he generated a desire among others to do the same thing."

It wasn't obvious to every community that they should take Carnegie's money. Some communities rankled over his requirements that the town demonstrate a plan for permanently funding library operations. Others simply refused on principle. The Evening Post Louisville recommended that Louisville, Kentucky, shoot down a grant offer from Carnegie, on grounds that will sound familiar from present-day arguments over infrastructure spending. (Louisville in fact built 9 Carnegie libraries between 1900 and 1908.)

(Nov. 6, 1899, The New York Times)

Many more communities took Carnegie up on his offer of free money. Across America, he is remembered today for the classical buildings that still grace downtown. Yet architecture was never Carnegie's priority. Up until the Carnegie library system came into being, architects and librarians battled over what libraries should look like; Carnegie sided with the librarians.

"Architecture was to be avoided. Architecture was what was going to make the library expensive," Van Slyck says. "It was what was going to squander the Carnegie money. It would be much better just to get a building, a good one that was efficient that would allow people to access books really readily."

Carnegie and his partner in the library endeavor, his secretary James Bertram, fielded questions from communities about how they should practically go about building a library. Between 1903 and 1911, Bertram reviewed architectural plans for Carnegie libraries, according to Van Slyck, largely with the goal of scaling back overreach. Many towns contracted with a handful of architects who had experience executing Carnegie and Bertram's directives. But in 1911, Bertram developed a pamphlet, one informed by years of consultation with top librarians, that he and Carnegie would send to the communities they gave grants.

"Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings" would continue to guide library construction in the U.S. well after after the last Carnegie library was funded. (That last library, in American Fork, Utah, has since been demolished.) The final version of Bertram's "Notes" detailed six layout templates, with recommendations based on the size of the building and plot—but no instructions for designing them. "The walls don’t even have depth shown," Van Slyck says.

James Bertram, "Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings," 1911 (Library of Congress)
James Bertram, "Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings," 1911 (Library of Congress)

"That’s why the Carnegie libraries looked so similar. Many of these communities followed these [plans]," Wiegand says. "Built into every one of these six designs was a community center or an auditorium. The library profession has lost sight of the fact that from the beginning, Carnegie intended those buildings to be community centers, and indeed they were."

* * *

One Template for Building a Philosophy of Libraries

In Carnegie Libraries Across America, Jones despairs of the influence of modernism in new additions to Carnegie libraries. He cites one library in Minnesota—a Spanish Revival-style building with a modern-looking wing—as a particularly heinous corruption.

Now an office building, the addition to the Fergus Falls library is not so different in spirit from the International Spy Museum's scheme for the former Carnegie library in D.C. (It is a world away in quality.) As communities outgrew their Carnegie libraries, they took different approaches to adapting them. (Hundreds of towns simply razed them.) Since the Carnegie libraries were built along similar templates, many of the additions have taken the same shape as well.

The former Carnegie library in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. (Jordan McAlister/Flickr)

"One town had been very proud that they’d essentially built an addition that surrounded the original Carnegie library like a donut," Van Slyck says. Her work has sent her to a number of places for consultations about adapting Carnegie libraries. "They were very proud because they’d just raised enough money to put a roof on that would completely obscure the entire [Carnegie] building."

Library collections swelled as cities grew. The Carnegie libraries that stood for years in place of pride in those communities changed as a result. "What happened over time is that libraries did such good jobs of building collections that the collections tended to crowd out the auditorium or community center," Wiegand says.

Yet Bertram and Carnegie had factored adaptation into their plans for the Carnegie libraries from the start, Van Slyck says. Bertram's template recommended that the back side of the library be flat and featureless, barring a few windows, to accommodate future expansions. (That's why the Spy Museum addition is centered along the building's north face.)

Other library trends proved hard to predict. Sara Johnson at Architect (where I worked previously) details why D.C. decided it needed a new central library to replace its Carnegie library in Mt. Vernon Square in the first place. D.C. commissioned Booz Allen Hamilton to perform a study on the city's library needs. The firm's sober conclusions, which led the city to ditch its Beaux-Arts building, are far from what we accept as conventional wisdom today. "Today windows serve practically no useful purpose," the 1961 report concludes. "Windows are a special nuisance in a library."

Above all, stairs and accessibility have proved to be some of the most difficult obstacles to reusing Carnegie libraries. Staircase entrances were common to most if not all of the buildings. "When you entered, you climbed up. In many of the early [Carnegie libraries], there would be a dome overhead with a skylight," Van Slyck says. "You showed your worthiness by climbing to enlightenment."

Many innovations augured by the Carnegie libraries are still commonplace features of library design today. Merging collections with reading rooms, for example. Putting books in readers' hands by taking tall shelves with ladders out of the equation. Building shared reading rooms for men and women. Indeed, women cast some of their first votes in community decisions about pursuing a Carnegie library grant, years ahead of the 19th Amendment.

"One of the big changes it brought about is that children were welcomed into the library. You see the community—the local government—taking a larger role in providing services for children," Van Slyck says. "Carnegie libraries provided civic meeting rooms, for the most part in their basements, and it’s clear that those were very actively used. This was a moment when women’s clubs were really thriving, this was a moment in which Americans were banding together in voluntary organizations, and the library provided the space to let them do that."   

Those communal uses are coming around again, as library design is ever more oriented around services. (And natural daylight.) That's why some Carnegie libraries still serve their populations effectively, even more than a century after some were built, despite (or perhaps because of) the emergence of digital media.

"If you go to the main street in Osage, Iowa, you will see the vestiges of three public libraries," Wiegand says. "One is on a second floor of a building, before they got a Carnegie grant. Then there’s the one that they got with a Carnegie grant, which has now been turned into a city hall. Then there is a third, which is the newest, that’s much bigger than the Carnegie grant."

Osage may be unique in that all three of its buildings are located on Main Street. But at the heart of many cities, the Carnegie library—and perhaps its modern successor—are still often among the most important buildings downtown, civic or otherwise.  

"What you see," he says, "is a transition of public librarianship over a century and a half that demonstrates the community’s need for a public library—and how that changing need is manifest in the architecture."

Editor's note: "The Architecture of Literacy: The Carnegie Libraries of New York City" is also the title of a 1991 book by Mary Dierickx.

*Correction: This post originally said that the city of Louisville, Kentucky, rejected a Carnegie library grant. It has been corrected.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.