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Carnegie's legacy of libraries.

Though never a resident of the state, Andrew Carnegie greatly influenced the advancement of literacy in Michigan when his philanthropy enabled the construction of more than 60 public libraries here.

Inside the Woodward Avenue entry of the Detroit Public Library main branch is an important and often-missed inscription. Etched in the marble of the hallway's north wall are these words:

"In memory of Andrew Carnegie whose generous and timely aid hastened the completion of this building and enlarged the scope and function of the library."

When visiting the state's public buildings, Michiganians are more accustomed to seeing names from their automotive past--Ford, Dodge, and Fisher--and with good reason. Beginning in the 1920s, the state's automotive elite developed a well-known reputation for altruism.

The name of Andrew Carnegie, by contrast, connotes an even earlier era--that of the Gilded Age. The unexpected sight of the steel magnate's name gives a clue to what was one of the most prolific philanthropic efforts ever undertaken in America.

From 1883 until 1920 Carnegie underwrote the cost of hundreds of public libraries across the United States (and in some other countries). Grants were provided to small towns, large cities, and some of the earliest suburban areas. In total, the program endowed the construction of 1,688 buildings throughout the U.S., serving a total of 1,419 communities. Michigan--with 61 of these edifices--was a sizable beneficiary of Carnegie's generosity. Of these, 50 still stand and 26 still function as libraries. Their reach extends to all corners of the state, from Detroit in the southeast to Ironwood in the northwest.

Amazingly, Carnegie's library program (which never had an official title) represented only a fraction of his total philanthropic efforts. Additionally, he established and endowed more than 20 institutions dedicated mostly to education, including Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and others which do not bear his name, including the famous Peace Palace in The Hague. This was all in keeping with Carnegie's philosophy of how a well-purposed life should be lived and how surplus wealth should be dispersed.

Andrew Carnegie arrived in America at the age of 13. His father William, a skilled fabric weaver, moved his family from Dunfermline, Scotland to Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1848 as a severe depression took hold throughout Europe. Despite a lack of formal schooling, the younger Carnegie's intellectual curiosity proved insatiable, due at least in part to being exposed to works of great literature at an early age. While Carnegie worked a series of odd jobs as a teenager, a manager who owned a modest personal library allowed him access to his books. The young man took full advantage of the opportunity, and used it to develop the business acumen that made it possible to build an industrial empire in the steel business and amass a fortune so vast that when he retired in 1901--his net worth was estimated at $225 million, or about $6 billion today.

Yet, for all his success, Carnegie refused to be beholden to his riches. He believed passionately that wealth should not be squandered by the person who gathered it, but be reinvested into the community to aid the public good. In his famous essay "Wealth," he wrote:

"First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial result for the community--the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves."

Carnegie's reverence for knowledge, coupled with his personal philosophy of wealth, provided the motivating factors to begin his library program in 1883. It was at that time that the concepts of universal education and access to information began to take hold in America. This growing social trend dovetailed perfectly with Carnegie's way of thinking. As the 20th century dawned, knowledge was becoming democratized.

Yet the modern concept of a public library was still very much a work in progress. The first two recipients of Carnegie grants were the company towns of Allegheny and Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1886 and 1889, respectively. Their impressive libraries came equipped with luxuries unheard of in libraries even today: for example, swimming pools, art galleries, and billiard halls. These facilities, which could accurately be called community centers rather than simply libraries, reflected Carnegie's perception of what the proper role of an employer should be: one who not only pays his employees' wages, but who also enriches their lives in the greater community.

Carnegie handled many of the details of these early projects personally. Beginning in 1898, however, the program's growing popularity forced him to delegate day-to-day responsibilities to his personal secretary James Bertram. Bertram administered the program in accordance with Carnegie's simple but firm requirements. Each community was obliged to provide the building site, and to earmark an amount equal to 10 percent of the grant annually for the facility's operation and upkeep in perpetuity. The costs of the library's holdings, equipment, and furniture were also a local responsibility.

Architectural styles of the early Carnegie libraries varied considerably and included Tudor Revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, and even Prairie School examples. Often, these buildings incorporated sumptuous details, such as thick marble columns, domed cupolas, and impressive porticoes. Carnegie and Bertram frowned on these excesses insisting that the dollars be spent practically, in order to provide the maximum amount of shelf space. Eventually, Bertram insisted upon approving all building plans and, by 1910, most grants were dedicated to constructing the recognizable "Carnegie Classical." This design, with Greek Revival features, symbolized a reverence for knowledge often associated with the ancient world.

Bertram used a formula of $2 to $3 per resident in determining the amount of each grant. Over time, specific situations (for example, dealing with local mayors or library boards that had little financial expertise) required more complex policies and procedures. Grants typically ranged from $5,000 to $15,000. If an initial grant proved insufficient due to cost overruns, local leaders could apply for supplementary amounts which were sometimes accepted. Such was the case with at least one Michigan community. When Howell's grant of $10,000 fell short of funding the complete project, Bertram approved an additional $5,000 necessary to finish.

The Howell library still serves residents of the Livingston County community today. A 1990s restoration and expansion project included a 22,000-square-foot addition architecturally sympathetic to the original structure. Also involved was the removal of a drop ceiling installed during the 1960s, which hid the library's distinctive cupola.

In the library's archive are correspondences with Bertram (which document the firing of the original architect and contractor in a dispute over costs) and a 1919 personal note from Carnegie's wife Louise to Miss W. Winifred Brown, the librarian at the time.

Petoskey is another place where Carnegie's legacy lives. In 1909, the city dedicated its new library. A larger, more modern facility was opened in 2004 across Mitchell Street, but the original structure is still used as meeting space.

Petoskey also benefited from a double dose of philanthropy. In 1908, Lelia Johnson, a prominent local citizen who was aware of the Carnegie program requirement that local communities supply the building site, purchased the Mitchell Street site in memory of her deceased husband. Just two weeks later, Carnegie gave final approval of $12,500 for the building. The city subsequently decided to raise an additional $5,000 through taxes to allow for a more elaborate structure.

A story attributed to the Petoskey library states that Ernest Hemingway gave a series of lectures there in 1925, recounting his experiences during World War I. Though no ephemera confirming the event is known to exist, the Hemingway Society of Michigan is convinced of the story's truthfulness.

Another Carnegie library with a connection to a famous writer is located in Lapeer. This Georgian Revival structure was completed in 1921 and known as the Lapeer Public Library until 1981, when it was renamed in honor of Marguerite deAngeli: the acclaimed children's author/ illustrator and Lapeer native. The library is the custodian of an archive of materials on deAngeli, including original artwork, manuscripts, galley prints, and the Newbery Medal deAngeli won in 1950 for her work, "The Door in the Wall."

Among the state's larger cities, Detroit benefited the most from Carnegie's largesse, though not without considerable debate. Negotiations between the Detroit Library Commission and Carnegie began in 1903 and dragged on nearly a decade. Most everyone in the city agreed that the existing library, located downtown on the site of today's Skillman Branch, was taxed beyond capacity. In 1907, The Detroit News ran an editorial that echoed this need while reflecting deep civic pride:

"With nearly a quarter of a million books packed within a space intended for only 40,000 and with sanitary conditions which are frankly condemned, Detroit's public library has now reached a point where ... either Andrew Carnegie's offer to the city should be accepted, of the city itself should issue bonds to the extent of $450,000 for the erection of a new building.... At the present time, Detroit leads every other city of its size in America as a library city."

The sticking point between the parties was over the design of the new building. Local officials envisioned an opulent facility, featuring a marble exterior and wide hallways, in keeping with the City Beautiful movement popular at the time. This collided head-on with Carnegie and Bertram's more restrained vision for building designs.

In 1910, the Carnegie library program pledged $750,000 to the Detroit Library Commission, with half being intended for a new main library and the balance for neighborhood branches. If the city desired a more elaborate building, Bertram communicated, it would have to make up the additional funds itself. Detroit voters passed a bond issue to do just that, and ground was finally broken. Then, another snag developed. A little-noticed clause in the paperwork required that any locally raised funds be spent first, prior to the release of grant monies. Since the bonds had been approved but not yet sold, this proved impossible. Construction ground to a halt, leaving the building's skeleton to stand dormant for about 10 months.

After work resumed, World War I began and further delayed the project, postponing the dedication until 1921. True to its original intentions, however, Detroit did raise the funds for the more elaborate facility. The result is the elegant Italian Renaissance Revival structure that still stands today.

The process of erecting the branches went much more smoothly. The remaining $375,000 of Carnegie's money was earmarked to build eight satellite libraries throughout the city, predominantly on the west side. Some were later replaced with more modern facilities, but three still survive: the Bowen, Conely, and Duffield branches.

Standing in stark contrast to Detroit's grandiosity is the story of Ironwood, which initiated Michigan's involvement in the program in 1900 when it became the first in the state to receive a Carnegie grant. The modest Ironwood facility has survived for more than 100 years with no additions and very little renovation, and still it manages--as its mission statement promises--to provide "equitable access to materials and services that support the educational, informational, cultural, and recreational needs of the entire community."

Today, despite the widespread availability of the Internet and other means of accessing information, Carnegie libraries remain a cornerstone institution in communities across the state and the country. It's easy to imagine this is exactly what Andrew Carnegie envisioned.

Paul Vachon is a Detroit-based freelance writer whose interests include 20th-century history, emerging industries, and education. He is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.


Eleven of the original Michigan libraries have been razed. But 50
still remain in cities big and small; see table below. Among those
still standing but adapted to a new use is one located in St. Joseph.
The eclectic building with Doric columns closed as a library in 1964,
and for many years was used by a local church for meeting and storage
space. Allegretti Architects purchased the building in 1982 and spent
considerable resources renovating it. Although owner John Allegretti
is proud that the building's original title is still visible, it can
sometimes yield a surprise. "We've had people walk in expecting to see
shelves of books," he notes.

City               Year of Grant   2012 Status
                   Issuance        of Building

Adrian             1904            Museum
Albion             1903            library
Allegan            1913            Library
Ann Arbor          1903            Razed, 2007
Armada             1913            Library
Bay City           1916            Bank
Benton Harbor      1902            Razed, 1969
Boyne City         1916            Library
Bronson            1910            Library
Cadillac           1903            Museum
Cassopolis         1908            Local history library
Charlevoix         1907            Razed, 1967
Charlotte          1902            Law office
Cheboygan          1908            Private office
Detroit            1901
  Main                             Library
  Bowen                            Library
  Butzel                           Razed, 1998
  Conely                           Library
  Duff ield                        Library
  Ginsburg                         Razed, 1927
  Lathrop                          Razed, 2009
  Osius                            Razed, 1940
  Utley                            Day care center
Dowagiac           1903            Library
East Jordan        1915            Art museum
Escanaba           1902            Private home
Flint              1902            Razed, 1962
Grand Haven        1903            Razed, 1968
Houghton           1908            History museum
Howell             1902            Library
Hudson             1903            Library
Iron Mountain      1901            History museum
Ironwood           1900            Library
Ishpeming          1901            Library
Jackson            1901            Library
Lansing            1902            College building
Lapeer             1917            Library
Ludington          1903            Library
Mancelona          1916            Library
Manistee           1902            Library
Marlette           1918            Library
Mendon             1905            Library
Midland            1917            Bank
Mount Clemens      1902            Art museum
Newaygo            1913            Library
Niles              1903            Chamber of commerce
Owosso             1913            library
Paw Paw            1917            Community center
Petoskey           1907            Meeting space for library
Port Huron         1902            Art & history museum
Portland           1905            Library
St. Joseph         1902            Architecture office
Sault Ste. Marie   1901            School offices
South Haven        1904            Art museum
Sparta             1916            Library
Stambaugh          1914            School offices
Sturgis            1907            Razed, 1967-68
Tecumseh           1903            School offices
Three Rivers       1902            Art museum
Traverse City      1902            History museum
Wyandotte          1911            Razed, 1940
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Title Annotation:Andrew Carnegie
Author:Vachon, Paul
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:May 1, 2012
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