Steel Magnate Andrew Carnegie’s First Library Lives On

The Braddock Carnegie Library opened in 1889, equipped with a swimming pool, billiards room, theater and bowling alley. Nearly demolished in the 1970s, the library is undergoing a massive renovation, thanks to local help.

The Braddock Carnegie Library in Braddock, Pa.
The Braddock Carnegie Library in Braddock, Pa.
David Kidd
It’s moving day at America’s first Carnegie library, perched on the side of a hill in Braddock, Pa. A team of young librarians shuttles in and out with arms full, filling the back of a pickup truck parked just outside. Inside, the bookshelves are bare, with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere. Mismatched chairs, easels and racks are scattered around the front room near the entrance. Soon, the professional movers will finish the job, taking most of what’s left to different storage locations. For the next year or two, Braddock’s historic library will operate a few blocks down the hill, out of a renovated storefront on the city’s main thoroughfare.

One of the richest men in the world at the time, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie took it upon himself to build libraries across much of the English-speaking world. More than 2,500 Carnegie Libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including 1,689 constructed in the United States. The earliest examples were built in areas where Carnegie had a personal connection: his native Scotland and the Pittsburgh area. The Braddock Carnegie Library is America’s first, and one of the very few that he retained ownership of. Dedicated in the spring of 1889, Braddock’s library is situated a short distance from Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Carnegie’s first mill. The imposing, turreted structure was designed in eclectic medieval style using stone and brick. Just four years later, the library’s size was doubled with the addition of a music hall, gymnasium, swimming pool and two-lane duckpin alley. A billiard room, barber shop and bathhouse were part of the original structure.

Braddock’s library was a centerpiece of the community for decades and remained in use until 1974 when the building’s deteriorating condition and lack of funds forced its closure. Soon after, a group of concerned citizens banded together to stop a planned demolition, purchasing the building for a dollar, then raising enough money to begin the building’s revival. The old stone structure reopened in 1983, as a one-room children’s library. The roof, gymnasium and music hall walls were restored in the ’90s as the building was slowly reclaimed for public use. The pool is empty, and the billiard tables long gone, but Braddock’s library is once again a place where locals have access to a range of activities and amenities. The basement bathhouse has been repurposed as a ceramics studio, and a screen print shop occupies a small room on the third floor. An eclectic selection of things is available to check out, including tools, tables and chairs, artwork and giant puppets.

Once the old library has been cleared of its contents, work can begin on a $15 million comprehensive restoration and modernization, scheduled to begin this summer. As originally planned, the renovations were to be done all at once. But COVID-19 necessitated a change to the schedule. Prioities will include new heating and air conditioning, windows and doors, updated restrooms and the addition of an elevator. Work begun earlier on the music hall will eventually resume and the empty pool will be repurposed as a lounge and event space to be called the “Book Dive.” The duckpin lanes are to be sacrificed for needed space.

Finding the money to finish the project is an ongoing problem. “Why don’t funders appreciate the importance of this building?” asks Vicki Vargo, the library’s executive director. “What are we not saying to people?” Vargo has always lived nearby and can remember being on stage in the music hall as a 6-year-old. “The beginning and end of my dance career.”

The library’s early success, slow decline and ongoing resurrection have followed the changing fortunes of Braddock and the local steel industry. Andrew Carnegie’s edifice on Library Street is just as important to the 2,000 people living here today as it was to the 20,000 who were here a century ago. As the needs of its patrons have changed, so too have the library’s offerings.

“The programs we offer have always been in cooperation with the community, reflecting what they want and need, and are interested in,” says library assistant and development and administrative coordinator Hannah Graves. “That’s what we hope to do as a library, give people access to what is going to help them. Carnegie built this library and then it was really up to the community to save it from being demolished and it was up to the community to figure out what it means to be a library in the 21st century.”

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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