Carnegie Paw Paw (Michigan) District Library. Photo courtesy of the Getaway Guys

Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

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.

Built 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, Penn. textile factory. With his innate mathematical and mechanical skills, he got out of textiles and, through telegraphy, secured employment with the Pennsylvania 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, Andrew Carnegie had given away hundreds of millions. In addition to Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Art Museum (Pittsburgh, 1895), Carnegie-Mellon University (Pittsburgh, 1900) and the Hague Peace Palace (Holland, 1903), Carnegie contributed to the building of 2,509 public libraries in the English-speaking world. In Illinois alone, 106 benefitted from his philanthropy.

Before 1900 Carnegie endowed about six high-profile library facilities, but these were controversial because of their personal connection with their benefactor. His steel mills were not pleasant places to work and their management was not benevolent. Like other period industries, labor unrest – sometimes violent – was suppressed with lethal force. Simply put, Carnegie did not have a sterling labor relations record; 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.

Carnegie money built libraries, and in the process also established guidelines for library design, such as 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 that relied on book paging and not open stacks. In the late 19th century H.H. Richardson (an American) used his signature Romanesque style to design several prominent libraries. With somber interiors of monastic quiet tucked into intimate, 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, therefore, looked like Greco-Roman temples, sign of sophistication for early 20th-century communities with aspirations to greatness.

Funds 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 loath 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.

In addition to Oregon, the Guys visited Paw Paw, Mich.; Crown Point, Ind.; Gilman, Onarga, Streator, LaSalle, Marseilles, Aurora, Geneva, Polo and Sycamore (all Illinois); and Janesville, Wis. 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 1830s-40s 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 Midwest farm house. Practically all Carnegie libraries were built after Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition where Classicism 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.”

According to “Carnegie Libraries Across America” (1997) by Theodore Jones, 22 Illinois Carnegies of the 106 built have been razed (and, now, 14 years later, no doubt others). Some are abandoned (Onarga), 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 officials’ beliefs, the Internet is not the sole information-provider in modern America.

The Getaway Guys do not think the average traveler or vacationer will be seeking Carnegie libraries, but those traveling through hamlets on America’s byways can be on the lookout for these and other “Temples of Wisdom.”

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.