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TEMPLES OF WISDOM
How Millions Got Smart Without the Internet

getaway-chicago logo Intrigued by their discovery of the Oregon (Illinois) Public Library and its Carnegie connection, the Getaway Guys went looking for more examples of Andrew Carnegie’s early 20th century benevolence.

carnegie1aBuilt in 1901, Oregon’s Public Library (along with other U.S. libraries) was funded by money from Carnegie Steel. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) had struck it rich. While cognizant of New York’s Carnegie Hall (1891), few people remember his contributions to reading as well as other causes. Born in Scotland, by age 13 Carnegie was a bobbin boy in an Allegheny, Pennsylvania textile factory. With innate mathematical and mechanical skills he got out of textiles and through telegraphy secured employment with the carnegie2aPennsylvania Railroad. Successful at the PRR, he invested in iron bridge building and later steel. In 1901 J.P. Morgan bought Carnegie Steel Works for half a billion dollars, and before 1919 Carnegie gave away hundreds of millions. In addition to Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Art Museum (Pittsburgh, 1895), Carnegie-Mellon University (Pittsburgh, 1900), the Hague Peace Palace (Holland, 1903), Carnegie contributed to the building of 2,509 public libraries in the English speaking world. In Illinois alone there were 106.

carnegie3acarnegie4aBefore 1900 Carnegie endowed about six high profile library facilities, but these were controversial because of their personal connection with their benefactor. His steel mills weren’t pleasant places to work and their management wasn’t benevolent. Like other period industries, labor unrest (sometimes violent) was suppressed with lethal force. Simply put, Carnegie didn’t have a sterling labor relations record and consequently he had bad press. To deflect it, he established the Carnegie Corporation, a forerunner of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The Corporation maintained a direct dialogue with communities about their library needs and plans, shifting the onus of ill gotten gains to those willing to take his money.

carnegie5aCarnegie money built libraries, but in the process also established guidelines for library design (easy public access with efficient, effective administration by professional librarians). Prior library designs had been the purview of architects with ideas derived from elitist European examples (relying on book paging and not open stacks). In the late 19th century H.H. Richardson (American) used his signature Romanesque style to design several prominent libraries. With somber interiors of monastic quietude tucked into intimate, but unobservable nooks and crannies, Richardson's approach left something to be desired. Librarians could not monitor activities or spend time retrieving inaccessible books. Americans wanted “freedom” and accessibility. Consequently most Carnegie libraries were designed symmetrically with a centralized floor plan and circulation desk. Many Carnegie libraries looked like Greco-Roman temples therefore. For early 20th century communities with aspirations of greatness what better sign of sophistication than a diminutive temple of learning?

carnegie6aFunds for applicant communities were based on a simple formula; $2.00 per resident to be matched locally. Land, books, staff and architect fees were not included and an ability to meet these expenses had to be demonstrated. The procedure was relatively easy: an appeal letter from a municipality was reviewed by Carnegie Corporation board members. The Corporation did not provide plans and it was loathe to share information about previously funded projects, because it wanted evidence of local responsibility. Sans plans, communities were free to choose an architectural style, resulting in an interesting mixture.

carnegie7aIn addition to Oregon, the Guys visited Paw Paw, Michigan, Crown Point, Indiana, Gilman, Onarga, Streator, LaSalle, Marsailles, Aurora, Geneva, Polo and Sycamore (all Illinois), and Janesville, Wisconsin. They discovered that most of these have strong classical influences, but there are exceptions. Janesville is probably the most classical, while the Geneva Carnegie is a low limestone edifice reminiscent of Geneva’s early 1830’s-40’s frontier architecture. With its distinctive turret, the Sycamore Carnegie has a Queen Anne feel. Photographs of the demolished Wilmette Carnegie suggest an Arts and Crafts influence, while the Oregon Carnegie looks like a prosperous carnegie8aMidwest farm house. Practically all Carnegie libraries were built after Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition where carnegie9aClassicism set a standard for municipal buildings. Possession of a Carnegie signaled a cultural turning point in the community. It initiated equal participation of librarian, architect and politician to build a prominent building (externally and internally functional) to meet reader needs. Especially important was the development of children’s programs and those for immigrants; a virtual “people’s” university.

carnegie11aAccording to Carnegie Libraries Across America (1997) by Theodore Jones, 22 Illinois Carnegies of the 106 built have been razed (and 14 years later no doubt others). Some are abandoned (Gilman), some replaced (Wilmette), others used alternatively (Janesville) while some have expanded (Sycamore), but many struggle to meet demands in original structures (Oregon). Contrary to some public official’s beliefs, the Internet isn’t the sole information provider in modern America.

The Getaway Guys don’t think the average traveler or vacationer will be seeking Carnegie libraries, but if traveling through hamlets on America’s byways, be on the look out for these and other Temples of Wisdom. (An excellent reference is Abigail A. Van Slyck's Free to All (University of Chicago Press, 1995.) July 2011

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