Gold beneath the rust

Braddock's Carnegie Library in its second life

Just because things are old, it doesn't make them -- necessarily -- good. If we're honest, most old things are useless and decrepit. Look at me -- at 64,  obsolete and undesirable.

It's a question of quality, really. Beyond a certain age, things of quality become treasures, enduring and venerable.

A recent impulsive trip across South Braddock Avenue, down through Swissvale and Rankin, brought me to Braddock’s Library Street and the Braddock Public Library. It was their Christmas party for the community.

By any measure, this is one of the finest things ever built in these parts, and it went up in 1888.

After the gothic splendor of the building’s exterior, one expects the interior to be something on the scale of Heinz Chapel or East Liberty Presbyterian.

That would be wrong. It’s nothing if not humble and spare. Clean, organized and well-lit, certainly, but with an unmistakable air of struggle about it.

Most obviously, there aren’t nearly enough books -- not for the sheer size of the place, with its immense wall, floor and ceiling dimensions. The public-access computers are sensibly and neatly arrayed along one wall, but there are just a few of them.

But then, today’s Braddock has just 2,200 inhabitants. Back in the day, there were 10 times as many residents and thousands more worked in the town.

If you’re aware that this structure was the first-ever Carnegie library -- a Gilded Age book palace that brought gawking visitors from all over the world -- it all seems very subdued here in the early 21st Century.

But you’d also need to know that in 1974 there were bulldozers and wrecking balls parked outside on Library Street. The library, like much of Braddock, had run out of steam. The building had fallen into ruin and was going to be demolished.

If you tell that story to people from, say, Myrtle Beach, they can’t believe it. But this is a community where we routinely knock down palatial world-renowned structures like the Mellon Estate and go to the very brink with revered buildings like Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall.

The memorable Braddock General Hospital, established in 1906 upon conversion of the old Isaac Mills mansion, today is a pile of brick-crusted mud after being managed into extinction by UPMC.

Fortunately, the Braddock Library demolition didn’t happen. Government failed, but private individuals stepped in. You can read the whole official story at www.braddocklibrary.org/history.

The Braddock library’s steady resurrection as a community center inevitably will stop short of the splendor it enjoyed 123 years ago. Not only would that be a financial impossibility, it’s also unnecessary. Among other things, people have their own showers and bathtubs these days. They can go to pool halls, bowling alleys and swimming pool wherever they choose.

The Braddock complex was designed long before there were mass-produced motorcars. It was just 23 years since The Civil War, after all. And old man Carnegie was -- somewhat paternalistically -- looking to provide amenities that plain folks didn’t enjoy in those days.

Say what you will, Andrew Carnegie was a shrewd man who didn’t get that rich by being naive. He was well aware, and perhaps abashed, that he had more money than 99 percent of his employees, combined. In 2007 it was calculated that his personal fortune, in 2007 dollars, was $273 billion. That would be $273,000,000,000.

Was his philanthropy entirely altruistic, or perhaps a little pragmatic? Who knows?

What we do know is that the Carnegie library system is a marvel of American culture. And the Main Library and Museum of Natural History in Oakland, erected in 1895, would be welcome in the heart of downtown in any city in the world.

Here in the modern-day East End, among quasi-public organizations, our libraries are among the least democratic. None are created equal -- not even close.

For example, just five miles from Braddock, the Squirrel Hill library has the comfort and vibe of a Google field office. The C.C. Mellor Library in Edgewood is dandy -- reminiscent of a snug country manor. The Swissvale Library, a gem when it opened in 1918, isn’t doing quite so well.

That’s because old Carnegie built the libraries and donated them to their host communities, but he made no meaningful provision or endowment for their maintenance and continuation. He thought, perhaps wisely, that if communities wanted to have good libraries, they’d do what was necessary.

But some communities have not been able, or willing, to do that. A miserably cruel irony is that the collapse of the U.S. steel industry, built largely by Carnegie himself, ripped the population and prosperity out of many of our communities. Libraries became much less supportable when weighed against municipal public safety and educational imperatives.

Having looked, I’m confident that somebody, somewhere, knows just how our local libraries are managed and supported. But to an earnest inquiring outsider, it appears to be a bucket of snakes swimming in overlapping jurisdictions, overpaid executives, overworked volunteers and underpaid staff all blended up in a stew of school district real estate and Regional Asset District tax shenanigans.

“Scientia potentia est” is chiseled into the cornice of one of the Carnegie buildings -- Francis Bacon’s admonition that “knowledge is power.” As long as they manage to keep the doors open and the lights on, there’s cause for optimism. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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