Preserving Philadelphia's Carnegie Branch Libraries
by Sabra Smith
The City of Philadelphia boasts one of the largest and most cohesive collections of Carnegie Libraries in the world, a network of neighborhood branches built between 1905 and 1930 with a $1.5 million grant from Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.(1) The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia recognized the importance of the Carnegie branches in the history of the city, the development of public libraries in the United States, and especially the role of public libraries as important landmarks in many city neighborhoods. (Figure 1) In an effort to raise awareness about and preserve Philadelphia's Carnegie Libraries, in 2006 the Alliance's Executive Director John Andrew Gallery began developing a documentation project with Catherine Lavoie of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). HABS's efforts to research, study, and document each of the remaining Carnegie buildings—20 of the original 25 —would prove to be more important and timely than expected when several historic library branches were threatened with closure in late 2008.
Figure 1. The Haddington Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library is located in West Philadelphia and features handsome terra cotta ornament at the main entrance portico. (HABS No. PA-6753-3, Joseph Elliott, Photographer.)
Carnegie's Philadelphia Libraries
Philadelphia has a significant place in library history as home to the country's first private subscription library, the Library Company, founded in 1731. The American Library Association, now the oldest and largest library association in the world, was founded in Philadelphia in 1876. The city's public lending library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, was established in 1891.
Yet prior to Carnegie's grant, the Free Library had no purpose-built library buildings. Libraries of the time were often private collections or were housed in buildings built for other purposes, such as shops or residences. Carnegie's grant to Philadelphia was intended for the construction of 30 Free Library branches; that number was reduced due to rising construction costs over the decades-long building campaign. His generous funding not only led to advances in library science and the development of the library as a building type, but also made libraries a civic responsibility. Carnegie firmly believed that the wealthy should contribute to the welfare and happiness of the common man and that anyone could be successful given the proper tools and a good work ethic.
The $1.5 million grant was accepted by vote of City Council in 1904 and used to construct library branches designed by some of the finest architects of the time, including James Windrim, Albert Kelsey and Paul Cret, Cope & Stewardson, Hewitt & Hewitt, and Clarence C. Zantzinger. (Figure 2) Today, 16 of these structures still serve the public as branch libraries. Four others have been repurposed and five of the original buildings have been demolished or significantly altered.
Figure 2. The Thomas Holme Branch opened in 1906 and continues to serve the Holmesburg neighborhood. (HABS No. PA-6754-6, Joseph Elliott, Photographer.)
The HABS study included detailed historical reports and large-format photographs of the 20 extant library buildings, and measured floor plans of one representative example.(2) A program of the National Park Service, HABS is the nation's first federal preservation program, founded in 1933 to record and document all aspects of the country's architectural heritage. HABS historical reports, large-format photographs, and measured drawings are held by the Library of Congress and made available online without copyright restrictions.(3)
This documentation revealed that the Carnegie building program in Philadelphia was significant in the architectural and historical development of the Carnegie library building type. (Figure 3) Philadelphia branches have a quintessential T-shaped open plan, raised windows allowing for maximum book storage, and flexible space for lectures and other public programs. Open stacks allowed patrons to browse and select their own books under the watchful eye of the librarian at a central desk, a relatively uncommon practice at the beginning of the 20th century. (Figure 4) All of these features placed the Philadelphia branches on the forefront of library design.
Figure 3. First floor plan of Thomas Holme Branch showing the characteristic Philadelphia Carnegie branch library T-shaped plan. (HABS No. PA-6754, Sheet 4 of 6, Robert R. Arzola, Delineator.)
Figure 4. Logan Branch patrons enjoy the high-ceiled, open plan interior typical for Carnegie Branch libraries in Philadelphia. (HABS No. PA-6757-8, Joseph Elliott, Photographer.)
Philadelphia's Carnegie Branches Today
The surviving Carnegie branches not only represent a significant historical story, but also stand as beloved landmarks in their communities, as evidenced when the libraries recently came under threat. In the fall of 2008 Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter proposed closing 11 branches of the Free Library in an effort to close a major budget gap. Of the 11 branch libraries to be shuttered, four were built during the Carnegie-funded initiative of the early 20th century: Thomas Holme (Stearns & Castor, 1906) Haddington (Albert Kelsey and Paul Cret, 1915), Logan (John T. Windrim, 1918), and Kingsessing (Philip H. Johnson, 1919). (Figure 5)
Figure 5. Main elevation of Kingsessing Branch. (HABS No. PA-6755-1, Joseph Elliott, Photographer.)
The Preservation Alliance intended to use the HABS research and documentation as the basis for nominating all of the remaining intact Carnegie libraries to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and, with HABS, to nominate them as a thematic group to the National Register. Instead, armed with the HABS documentation, the Alliance moved to an expedited schedule of local nomination for the four threatened branches. Closures could result in the buildings being designated surplus city property and subsequently sold and thereby put at risk of demolition or adverse alteration.
The material provided by HABS served as the basis for individual nominations to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places for the four threatened branches. While the reports were supplemented with some additional research, the HABS's study allowed the nominations to be completed quickly and submitted to the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) while the budget debates continued. In practice, a property comes under protection of the PHC as soon as the commission has received the nomination and notified the owner, until the full commission is able to vote on designation. On June 12, 2009, the Historical Commission approved the nominations and placed the four threatened libraries on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Now the Alliance will move forward with nominations of the other Carnegie-funded branch libraries in Philadelphia.
The Carnegie Libraries are an irreplaceable architectural resource and important icons in their communities—a fact that was demonstrated by hundreds of community residents speaking out in support of the branch libraries, leading Mayor Nutter to withdraw his plans for library closures. Now not only will these fine buildings remain open for use as libraries as intended, but their historic significance will be recognized and the buildings protected. The swift protection and preservation of these architectural treasures would not have been possible if it were not for the timely partnership between HABS and the Preservation Alliance.
About the Author
Sabra Smith was an Advocacy Associate for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. For questions regarding the Alliance and its efforts to save the Carnegie branches, contact John Gallery, Executive Director (firstname.lastname@example.org). For information about the HABS program and collection go to http://www.nps.gov/hdp/.
1 . Only New York City built a larger collection of Carnegie-funded branch libraries. See George S. Bobinski, Carnegie Libraries: Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development (Chicago: American Library Association, 1969), 13-14.
2 . The HABS documentation of the Philadelphia Carnegie libraries includes historical reports prepared by Catherine Lavoie and Lisa P. Davidson. Joseph Elliott produced large-format photographs for each of the 20 extant buildings. Robert R. Arzola, Jason McNatt, and Anne E. Kidd produced measured drawings of the Thomas Holme Branch (HABS No. PA-6754), a typical example of the local Carnegie library form. To access the documentation, visit the Library of Congress website listed below.
3. For a history of the HABS program, see Catherine C. Lavoie, ed., American Place: The Historic American Buildings Survey at Seventy-Five Years (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, 2009). To access the HABS collection at the Library of Congress visit http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/habs_haer/index.html