Carnegie libraries key in U.P. communities

The Ironwood Carnegie Public Library, the first Carnegie Library in the U.P. and the oldest continuously operating Carnegie Library in Michigan, is pictured here. Andrew Carnegie used much of his fortune for public good. (Photo by Pam Christensen)

By Pam Christensen, executive director, Superiorland Library Cooperative

Many of the 1,679 U.S. public libraries founded by Andrew Carnegie proudly display a stately portrait of their benefactor. The distinguished white-bearded man shown in the photograph is often identified as Santa Claus by today’s children. That perception is not too far from the truth. Andrew Carnegie spent more than $40 million to erect public library buildings across the United States from 1898 to 1917.

Andrew Carnegie is estimated to have spent $333 million or 90 percent of his fortune, for the “improvement of mankind.” Projects undertaken by the steel magnate include the purchase of 7,000 church organs, the Carnegie Hero Fund, support of the Simplified Spelling Board, Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Carnegie Institutes in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While these philanthropic endeavors are laudable, nothing compares to the impact the 2,509 public libraries built in English speaking parts of the world have made over the past 119 years.

Michigan ranks number seven in the number of Carnegie libraries bestowed on a state. Michigan public libraries received $1,655,950 from Carnegie for the construction of 61 library buildings in 53 communities. Carnegie donated $750,000 to the City of Detroit for the main library and eight branches for the Detroit Public Library system. This donation was controversial, and for over 10 years the city, residents and elected officials sparred over the funding and construction of the libraries receiving support from Carnegie. Ultimately, the Detroit Public Library system completed the main library and eight Carnegie branches with the Carnegie Library gift.

The Escanaba Carnegie Library building that served as a library from 1903 to 1995. The facility is now a private residence. (Photo courtesy of Escanaba Public Library)

On the basis of total donations, New York State ranks No. 1 with $6,449,200 primarily due to Carnegie’s generous support of the New York Public Library system and branches. His home state of Pennsylvania ranks No. 2 with contributions of $4,621,148. Dead last in the rankings is the state of Nevada with one library construction project at a cost of $15,000. During the life of the Carnegie library grants, every state except Rhode Island and Delaware were benefactors of Carnegie’s generosity.

The Carnegie grants could only be used to construct the library building and pay for book shelving. Carnegie funds could not be used to equip or furnish the facility. It was also prohibited for the grant to purchase materials for the new library. Each community awarded a grant was required to pledge an ongoing support for the operation of the library equal to or exceeding 10 percent of the Carnegie grant.

Seven Carnegie libraries were built in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some historians believe that Carnegie’s involvement in the U.P. iron ranges and visits to the area gave this region an edge when it came to awarding the competitive Carnegie Library grants. Carnegie funding provided library buildings in Escanaba, Houghton, Iron Mountain, Ironwood, Ishpeming, Sault Ste. Marie and Stambaugh. Today, only the Ironwood and Ishpeming buildings are still being used as public libraries.

The Ironwood Carnegie Library is the oldest continuously operating Carnegie Library in Michigan. Andrew Carnegie had more than a passing knowledge of the Ironwood area. In 1892, Carnegie needed more reserves of iron ore, and he bought controlling interest in the Norrie and Pabst Mines owned by H.W. Olivier. These holdings formed part of Carnegie’s vast industrial empire and assured that he would never have to purchase ore on the open market.

James Gayley, vice president of Carnegie Steel Company, sent a letter to Andrew Carnegie asking about the possibility of  building a modest library “in our principal mining operations in the Lake Superior region.” Carnegie answered in the affirmative, saying, “If they will provide a suitable site, I shall give them the $12,000, which they state is required to erect a library building.”

In June 1902 Gayley once again sent correspondence to Carnegie asking for an additional $5,000 to complete the building. This second request was granted and the building was dedicated to the city in January 1902.

Designed by Alden and Harlow of Pittsburgh, the library plan is typical of many of the Carnegie libraries. Alden and Harlow designed the Pittsburgh library branches in 1898 and 1899. The Ironwood building is the cornerstone of Ironwood’s downtown district. With red brick and red-brown sandstone accents, the building sits atop a tall raised basement. The rectangular building is in a modified Georgian style featuring a hip roof on the front section and a shallow, gabled central portion that contains the main entrance. As with most of the Carnegie buildings, a prominent entrance atop a “grand staircase” signifies that a person entering the facility has reached the pinnacle of learning.

The interior of the building still contains the beautiful original woodwork, elaborate heat radiators and scrolled iron grills for cold air returns. The adult fiction reading room features a fireplace and an original 1912 Regulator clock. High ceilings and an arch above the circulation desk add to the stateliness of the building. Over the past several years, grant funds from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority-Michigan Heritage Restoration Program administered through the State Historic Preservation Office in Lansing have allowed the library to replace the doors to the main entry of the building, repair sandstone window sills and restore the cornice and corbels on the building. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library is the second oldest Carnegie Library in the Upper Peninsula. Carnegie approved Ishpeming’s request for $25,000 in library funding in 1901 and the building opened in 1904. The Neoclassical Revival building was designed by architect John D. Chubb.

The Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library remains relatively unchanged over the past 113 years. The colorful glass skylight is still in place above the entry foyer as is the glass mezzanine overlooking the circulation desk. Many of these mezzanines and the steel structures that supported them were victims of overzealous metal collections during World War II. The non-fiction on the mezzanine is still arranged in the original radial stack arrangement popular in early public libraries.

Fans of the film Anatomy of a Murder recognize the second floor mezzanine of the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library from the scene where Jimmy Stewart is franticly perusing what the audience understands to be legal texts in an attempt to save his client who has been charged with the murder of a popular local saloon owner.

The stained glass skylight located at the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library, the second-oldest Carnegie library in the U.P., is pictured. (Photo by Pam Christensen)

In 2015 the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library undertook an ambitious project to renovate and provide accessibility to the facility. Restoration and modifications to the entrance to the library and installation of an elevator were desperately needed to ensure continued use of the historic facility. The $300,000 project also expanded public meeting space and provided dedicated space for the library’s local history collection. The newly installed elevator makes the lower level of the building, which houses a comfortable children’s department, meeting space and local history research collection, barrier free. Despite extensive renovation to the lower level of the building, the facility maintains its historic significance.

Many of the Carnegie Public Library buildings no longer being used as libraries have transitioned to art museums, education facilities, offices, history museums, community centers or private businesses. All but one of the five Carnegie Library buildings in the U.P. no longer being used as libraries are still functioning in a public capacity.

Escanaba’s Carnegie Library building, designed by Theodore Lohff in a Classical Revival style, was in use from 1903 until 1995. Carnegie gave the city $21,200 for the library construction. In 1992, the City of Escanaba began construction on a combined city hall and library complex. The Carnegie building, located at 201 S. Seventh Street, was sold in 1995 to owners who are using the facility as a private residence. The building remains on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Carnegie libraries in Iron Mountain and Houghton are both still in use, but not as libraries. Both facilities now serve as history museums, a purpose that Andrew Carnegie would most likely support. According to the State of Michigan historic plaque outside of the Iron Mountain Carnegie building, Carnegie was in Iron Mountain on business in 1901 and saw the need for a library on the Menominee Iron Range. In March 1901, Carnegie donated $15,000 for the Neo-Classical Revival structure designed by James E. Clancy that stands at 300 Ludington Street in Iron Mountain. The building was completed in 1902 and now houses the Menominee Iron Range Historical Museum.

The Carnegie Library in Houghton was the penultimate Carnegie project in the Upper Peninsula. Carnegie awarded the City of Houghton $15,000 toward a library building in April 1908. The building was completed in 1910. A practical red brick, two-story Classical-Revival design with sandstone headers, sills and erection plaque, the library is built into the steep hillside of Huron Street. The library featured a rubble-stone fireplace in the main reading room, a feature replicated in the new Portage Lake District Library, which opened in 2006. The Carnegie building has found new use as the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw.

Sault Ste. Marie received a $30,000 grant from Carnegie in February 1901. The city signed a contract with James Teague, who also designed the Michigan Lake Superior powerhouse building and the St. James Episcopal Church. The site selected for the library was transferred to the city by the U.S. government. It was previously used as the Fort Brady cemetery. Remains of the soldiers buried at the site had been moved to Riverside Cemetery, or so it was thought.

A June 20, 1903 Evening News article titled “Library Will Rest on Ashes of the Dead” talked about the surprise that awaited work crews at the site.

“In excavating for the Carnegie Library the workmen have made several ghastly discoveries in the shape of the skeletons of the soldiers who were buried at that point when the place was used for a military cemetery several years ago. It had been generally supposed that the bodies had all been removed, but the developments of the last few days prove that many are still in the ground.”

Despite the setbacks for the project, the new library opened in October 1904 and was in use until February 21, 1975. The Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD business offices currently occupy the Sault Ste. Marie Carnegie Library.

The Stambaugh Carnegie Library was the last Carnegie project in the Upper Peninsula. A Carnegie grant in the amount of $12,500 was awarded in April 1914. The building, located at 601 Garfield Avenue, now serves as the administrative headquarters of the West Iron County Schools.

Unfortunately, many of the original Carnegie Public Libraries have been demolished due to the ravages of time or inability of the facility to meet the demands of technology and modern library services. The Carnegie gifts to seven Michigan Upper Peninsula cities still stand in testament to the generosity of Andrew Carnegie and his connection to the iron ore industry.


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