hough nev€r a resident of the $tate, Andrew Carnegie gready influenced
rhc advancement of literacy in Michigan when his philanthropy
enabled ehe construction of more than 60 public libraries here.
Avenue entry of the Detroit Public
Library main branch is an important and often-missed
inscription. Etched in the marble of the hallway's nonh
wall are these words:
"In memory of Andrew Carnegie whose generous and
timely aid hastened the completion of this building and
enlarged the scope and function of the iibrary."
When visiting the statet public buildings, Michiganians
are more accustomed to seeing names from their
automotive past-Ford, Dodge, and Fisher-and t'ith
good reason. Beginning in the 1920s, the state's automotive
elite developed a well-known
reputation for altruism.
The name ofAndrerv Carnegie,
by contrast, connotes an eYen
earlier era-thar of the Gilded
Age. The unexpected sight of
rhe steel magnates name gives
a clue to what was one of the
most proli fi c philanrh ropic
efforts ever undertaken in
From 1883 until
the cosr of
public libraries across the United States (and in some
other countries). Grants were provided to small ro'nsJ
large cities, and some of the earliest suburban areas. In
total, the program endowed the construction of 1.688
buildings throughout the U.S., serving a rotal of 1,419
communities. Michigan-with 61 of these edifices-was a
sizable beneficiary of Carnegie's generosin-. Of these, 50 still
stand and 26 still function as libraries. Their reach extends
to all corners of the state, from Detroit in rhe southeast to
Ironwood in the northwest.
Amazingly, Carnegie's librarv program (u'hich never
had an official title) represenred onlr'a fraction of his total
philanthropic efforts. Additionailrt he established and
endowed more than 20 institutions dedicated mostly to
education, including Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Institution for Science in
'Washington, D.C., and others which do not bear his
Previous poge: Soult Ste. Morie's Cornegie librory now
houses the Eostern Upper Peninsulo lntermediote School
District. Courtesy of R;ck Moyer. Above: The originol
orchiteci for the Howell librory, Eliioh Myers, olso designed
the stote copitol. Courtesy of the Howell Cornegie District
Librory. Left: Andrew Cornegie focused his philonthropy on
librories, educotion, scientific reseorch, ond world peoce.
Courtesy of the Librory of Congress. Opposiie poge: A note
from Cornegie's wife resides in Howell's orchives.
arrived. in_America at the age of
William, a skiiled aUrt. *."*.?.*O
Dunrermr,"., s.*r""J," o[rn*r,Pennsylvania in 1B4g as a severe depression,.;?;"tl
ke. fespite "
the younger Carnegiet inrellectuaj
name, including the famous peace palace in The Hague.This,was all in keeping wirh. Carnegt"lpi,i"_pfry oFhowa well-purposed liFe should b. li".;r;dio,l ,uro,r, wealrhshould be dispersed.
factors to begin his ribrary program in r gg3. It was at thartime that the concepts oruni,rJ.r"i .;;.;" and access toinformation began io.take hold t" A;;;.;. This growingsocial trend dovetailed perfectiy *,th a;;;.gie,s way ofthinking. As the 20th century dawned, kroirl"dg. *",becoming democratized.
Yet the modern cor
very much a work," ;..#:::ff:*J:triJil,l,jl1,
"rCarnegie granrs were
1lr.".o_p"rrf r"** i^r.gheny and
fi:'a:".fi,'J:#::in rdse il t;;, respectiverv
pools, art galleries, and billiard fr"ffr. n.l"icilities, whichcould accuratety be cailed comm;;il;;;; rather thansimply libraries, reflecred Carnegiesie;;;" of.what the
an emproye,,hoid #, ;;-"';. not onry
nrs emproyees-wages. bur who also enriches rheir livesrn rhe grearer communiry
Carnegie handled many of the details of these eariyprojects personalry. Beginning in iB9B, to*.*r' ,t
curiosity proved insariable, due at least
in part to being exposed ,o *ork, of
great literature ar an earl1, age. rhile
Carnegie worked a series of"odd jobs
as a,teenager. J manager rvho owned a
modesr personal iibran aljowed him
access ro his bookr. Th
and used ir ro der.elop ,h. blrirr.r,
,.1-:n rhar made ir porsible to build
an rndusrrial cmpir. in rhe
steel br-rsiness and amass a
fortune so -asr 1]131-11,hsn
he retired in 1901_his net
u.orrh u'as esrimared ar $225
million. or abour S6 billion
hi, ,u..t-orL"l".rr.g,. retused ro be
beholden to his riches. He belii ed pr_o"r,.tu
that wealth should not be ,qur'ra.r.'a L,
person who gathered it, but be reinvesred into the
community to aid the public good. In his fimous
essay "7ealth,,, he wrore:
"First, to ser an example of modesr,
unosrenrarious living, shunning displar_ or
exrravagance: co provide moderarely flor rh.
regrnmate wants oI chose dependenr upon
him; and after doing so ro consider all surplus
revenues which come to him simply as rrusr
funds, which he is called
and strictly bound as a marrer of dury ro
administer in the manner which, in his
judgment, is best calculated to pr"a".. the most
beneficiai result for ,h. .o--,rlrriry-.,i. _"" .,wealth thus becoming the mere
"g"lr, "rri'r.'rr,..for his poorer b..th."-n, bringing i"li""l.*,* f.,,superior wisdom, experign6s, arid abiliry to administer,
doing for them better than they;;;i;';;."rld do forthemselves."
Carnegiet reverence for knowledge, coupled with hispersonal philosophy of wealth, pr;j.J Ji;"moti,,"ting
popularity forced him to detegate
uay-ro-day responsibilities to his personal secrerary
James Bertram. Berrram.adminircered ,tr. Orogrr. 'i"accordance with Carnegies simple b", ;;;;qrireme nr..Each communiry was Jhg.,i ,i p-",a. ,fr.l.,,ra,rr*
site, and to earmark an-amounr equal to l0 percent of rhegrant annually for the facilitys op.."tior,
perpetuiry. The costs of the library's holdings, equipment,
and furniture were also a local responsibility.
Architectural styles of the early Carnegie libraries varied
considerably and included Tudor Revival, Richardsonian
Romanesque, and even Prairie School examples. Often,
these buildings incorporated sumptuous details, such as
thick marble columns, domed cupolas, and impressive
porticoes. Carnegie and Bertram frowned on these excesses,
insisting that the dollars be spent practically, in order to
provide the maximum amount of shelf space. Eventually,
Bertram insisted upon approving all building plans and,
by 1910, most grants were dedicated to constructing the
recognizable "Carnegie Classical." This design, with Greek
Revival features, symbolized a reverence for knowledge
often associated with the ancient world.
Bertram used a formula of $2 to $3 per resident in
local mayors or
that had little
due to cost overruns, local leaders could apply for
supplementary amounts which were sometimes accepted.
Such was the case with at least one Michigan communiry.
W4ren Howell's grant of $10,000 fell short of funding the
complete project, Bertram approved an additional $5,000
necessary to finish.
The Howell library still serwes residents of the Livingston
County community today. A 1990s restoration and
expansion project included a 22,000-square-foot addition
architecturally sympathetic to the original structure. Also
involved was the removal of a drop ceiling installed during
24 | mrcrrcAN HrsToRY
the 1960s, which hid the iibraryt distinctive cupola.
In the library's archive are correspondences with Bertram
(which document the firing of the original architect and
contractor in a dispute over costs) and a 1919 personal note
from Carnegie's wife Louise to Miss fl Winifred Brown,
the librarian at the time.
Petoskey is another place where Carnegie's legacy lives.
In 1909, the city dedicated its new library. A larger, more
modern facility was opened in 2004 across Mitchell Street,
but the original structure is still used as meeting space.
Petoskey also benefited from a double dose of
philanthropy. In 1908, LeliaJohnson, a prominenr
local citizen who was aware of the Carnegie program
requirement that local communities supply the building
site, purchased the Mitchell Street site in memory of her
deceased husband. Just rwo weeks later, Carnegie gave final
approval of $12,500 for the building. The cin'subsequently
decided to raise an additional $5,OOo through raxes to
allow for a more elaborate structure.
A story attributed to the Petoskel. library states that
Ernest Hemingway gave a series of lectures there in 1925,
recounting his experiences during 7or1d War I. Though
no ephemera confirming the event is known to exist, the
Hemingway Sociery of Michigan is convinced of the storfs
Another Carnegie library with a connection to a famous
writer is located in Lapeer. This Georgian Revival structure
Cornegie opproved o sizoble gift to the Detroit Librory Commission, which finonced the construction of nine bronches including
the moin one on Woodword Avenue. Courtesy of Robert Yonol.
The Petoskey librory-now o meeting ond events spoce-is soid to hove hosied o series of
lectures by Ernest Hemingwoy. Courtesy of Cory Pompolone.
was complered in 1921 and known as the Lapeer public
Library unril 198 1 , when it was renamed in honor of
Marguerite deAngeli: the acclaimed children's authori
illustrator and Lapeer native. The library is the custodian
of an archive of materials on deAngeli, including original
artwork, manuscripts, galley prints, and the Newbery
Medal deAngeli won in 1950 for her work, "The Door in
Among the stare's larger cities, Derroit benefited the most
from Carnegie's largesse, rhough not without considerabie
debate. Negotiations benveen rhe Detroit L16rary
Commission and Carnegie began in 1903 and dragged on
nearly a decade. Most everyone in the ciry agreed that the
existing library, located downto*'n on the site of todays
Skillman Branch, was ta-xed beyond capaciw. In 1907, The
Detroit News ran an editorial that echoed this need while
reflecting deep civic pride:
"fith nearly a quarter of a million books packed within
a space intended for only 40,000 and with sanitary
conditions which are frankly condemned, Detroit's
public library has now reached a point where...either
Andrew Carnegie's offer to the city should be accepted,
or the city itself shouid issue bonds ro the extent of
$45O,OOO for the erecrion of a new building... . At the
presenr time, Detroit leads every orher ciry of its size in
America as a library ciry."
The sticking poinr berween the parties was over rhe
design of the new building. Local officials envisioned
an opulent faciliry featuring a marble exrerior and wide
hallways, in keeping with the City Beautiful movemenr
popular at the dme. This collided head-on with Carnegie
and Bertram's more restrained vision for building designs.
In 1910, the Carnegie library
program pledged $750,000 to the
Detroit Library Commission, with half
being intended for a new main library
and the balance for neighborhood
branches. If the city desired a
more elaborate building, Bertram
communicated, it would have to make
up the additionalfunds itself Detroit
voters passed a bond issue ro do just
that, and ground was finally broken.
Then, another snag deveioped. A
little-noticed clause in the paperwork
required that any locaily raised funds
be spent first, prior to the release of
grant monies. Since the bonds had been
approved but not yet sold, this proved
impossible. Construction ground to a
halt, leaving the buildingt skeleton to
stand dormant for about 10 months.
After work resumed, World.War I began and further
delayed the project, postponing the dedication unril 1921.
Tlue to its original inrentions, however, Detroit did raise
the funds for the more elaborate facility. The result is the
elegant Italian Renaissance Revival srructure that still stands
The process of erecting the branches went much more
smoothly. The remaining$375,000 of Carnegie's money
was earmarked to build eight satellite libraries throughout
the ciry predominantly on the west side. Some were larer
replaced with more modern facilities, but three still survive:
the Bowen, Conely, and Duffield branches.
Standing in stark conrrasr to Detroit's grandiosiry is the
story of Ironwood, which initiated Michigan's involvemenr
in the program in 1900 when it became the first in the state
to receive a Carnegie grant. The modest Ironwood facltiq,
has survived for more than 100 years wirh no additions
and very little renovation, and still it manags5-a5 i15
mission statement promises-1o provide "equitable access
to materials and services that support the educational,
informational, cultural, and recreational needs of the entire
Today, despite the widespread availability of the Internet
and other means of accessing information, Carnegie
libraries remain a cornerstone institution in communities
across the srate and the country. Itt easy to imagine this is
exacdy what Andrew Carnegie envisioned.
Paul Vacbon is a Detroit-baseclfeelance writer whose
interests include 2 1th-centur! h istory, emerging ind.ustries,
and education. He is a member of the American Society of
Jo u rn a lists a nd A u tho rs.
MAY/1uNE 2atz ) 25