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Brooklyn's Carnegie Libraries

Feb 25, 2014 1:40 PM | 0 comments

This blog post looks at Andrew Carnegie's library legacy in the microcosm of one borough, but those interested in a wider-angle view of the philanthropist and industrialist are encouraged to attend a lecture by Carnegie biographer David Nasaw in the Dweck Center at Brooklyn's Central Library this Sunday, March 2nd, at 1:00pm. RSVP for free tickets here: http://brooklynpubliclibrary.brownpapertickets.com/.

An eager line outside the Brownsville Branch library, 1908.

In the Brooklyn Collection we have a few boxes of photographs documenting that special, revered category of library -- the Carnegie branch.  For those of us who didn't learn about the steel magnate's bibliophilic legacy in the United States in library school, I'll give a brief overview.  Andrew Carnegie was in many ways a poster boy for the American dream -- an immigrant from Scotland, he rose to the top of the Gilded Age heap after working his way from lowly telegraph assistant to head of his own steel conglomerate at a very opportune moment -- that is, the birth of the United States' extensive railroad system.  After amassing his impressive fortune (with $480 million in the bank in 1901, he was for a time the richest man in the world) Andrew Carnegie devoted his time to philanthropy.  

Below, a portrait of the magnate as a young man.

Attributing his own ascent to prominence to free access to books during a crucial period in his adolescence, Carnegie set out to establish free libraries across the nation and the world for the edification of similar ambitious youths.  The deal he offered to communities was a generous one: if they could demonstrate need, provide land, commit future financial support, and pledge to remain free to the public, any locality could get funds to build and furnish their very own brick-and-mortar library.  The deal was an irresistable one; more than 1,500 Carnegie-sponsored libraries went up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.  

Above and below, views of Brooklyn's Pacific branch, built in 1904 and the first of many branches built in this borough through Andrew Carnegie's campaign.

Brooklyn was no exception to this philanthropic spree.  Although some library service already existed in the borough, Carnegie's contribution kickstarted the drive to put a branch in every neighborhood.  Eighteen of Brooklyn Public Library's current-day branches were built with Carnegie funds.  Of these, today's Stone Avenue branch first made fame as the Brownsville Children's Library -- the world's first library devoted to the reading habits of little ones.  The Park Slope branch recently received a major renovation, perhaps making it once again the "most pretentious" of the Carnegie-funded branches, as the Brooklyn Citizen described it at its opening in 1906.  

Below, the showy Prospect Park branch around the time of its opening.  Now known as the Park Slope branch, it is oddly prescient that this building was deemed a bit much from the beginning.

It is not difficult to find information about these century-old libraries that continue to serve their constituents (albeit in somewhat compromised conditions, as even far-sighted Carnegie couldn't predict our recent need for laptop plug-ins and bean-bag-strewn teen spaces); it is harder to track down details of the Carnegie libraries that failed the test of time.  It is certainly no secret that the Pacific branch -- the very first of the Carnegie libraries to be built in this borough -- is facing potential demolition now that it has found itself in poor physical shape and, coincidentally, next door to one of Brooklyn's hottest properties, the Barclays Center.  Have we lost other historical gems through the years?  The answer is yes.

The South Branch was constructed in 1905 at the corner of 51st Street and 4th Avenue in today's Sunset Park neighborhood.

Above, a rendering of the South Branch and below, a photograph of its interior taking shortly after its opening.

The building was declared obsolete in 1970 and demolished.  A new branch quickly went up in its place and opened to the public in 1972.  More in keeping with the design ethos of its time, today's Sunset Park branch may not be as architecturally appreciated as its Classical Revival forbear, but it does at least fulfill the Carnegie promise of operating on the same plot of land.  

Another Classical Revival branch that was lost to the ravages of time and dilapidation was the original Greenpoint Branch.  Opened in 1906 and praised by the Greenpoint Star for its "tasteful simplicity", this building also succumbed in 1970.  

Above, the Greenpoint Branch around the time of its opening in 1906.  Below, a sad view of its demolition in 1970.  As with the former South Branch site, a new library quickly opened up in the footprint of its predecessor.

Most tragic, perhaps, is the plight of the original Red Hook library branch.  Built in a Mediterranean Revival style, the branch stood out against the typical brick and brownstone facades of Brooklyn.  At the time of its opening, much was made of its "open-air reading room".

Above, a headline from the April 21, 1915 Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper announcing the new branch.  Below, exterior and interior views of the branch shortly after it opened.

This unique branch was closed in 1946 due to extensive damage from a fire the previous year.  As this letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published on July 27, 1947 stressed, no mere fire could gut a community of its need for the services offered by a library.

Even so, the library was deemed unsalvagable and demolished in 1947.  Adrift for several years after that as it searched for a home, the Red Hook library was eventually given a more permanent harbor at its current location on Wolcott Street in 1975.

As the public debates the merits and atrocities of clearing our oldest Carnegie branch in the name of progress, it is only prudent to take a moment and look at those pieces of his legacy that have already crumbled to dust through neglect and obsolescence.   

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