How the Free Library of Philadelphia Grew its Branches

Caricature of Andrew Carnegie as a Santa Claus with a sack of libraries, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 8, 1903.

“I am in the library manufacturing business,” gloated steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had been making dozens of grants around the country to build new public libraries. From New Hampshire to Texas, Maine to Montana, groundbreakings were planned or underway. New York had gotten the largest chunk of money, more than $5.2 million. Carnegie made that announcement back in 1899.

As 1903 got off to a chilly start, Philadelphians impatiently waited their turn.

But if Philadelphia was to see any of Carnegie’s wealth, City Council and the Mayor would have to increase their spending on libraries, each and every year. Librarian John Thomson went to Washington, D. C. and met with Carnegie, ready to admit that a city of 1.3 million people couldn’t be adequately served by the city’s current fourteen branch libraries, most of which were in rented, re-purposed houses. With the right level of support, however, Thomson would welcome the idea of an expanded, state-of-the-art, urban library system. But he couldn’t commit funds he didn’t have.

“I am Aladdin,” Carnegie told the librarian at the meeting. “You, Mr. Thomson, and the trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia are the lamp. I rub the lamp… But you do the work. You devote your time, your brains, your health to the task. I merely supply the polish.”

And, as both men knew full well, Philadelphia would be obliged to pay more, much more, for an expanded improved network of libraries. “I do not want to be known for what I give,” Carnegie claimed, “but for what I induce others to give.”

“This is not charity, this is not philanthropy,” he said, “it is the people helping themselves by taxing themselves.”

A few days later, Thomson received the anticipated letter: “After listening to you,” Carnegie wrote, “I beg to say that it would give me great pleasure to do for the city of Philadelphia what I have done for New York, provided always that Philadelphia will do what New York has done for herself.” (Carnegie committed to pay for the construction of what would amount to 67 libraries in New York for a total of more than $5.2 million. The city agreed to cover for the costs for land, books, staffing and ongoing maintenance.)

“You tell me that a complete system of branch libraries for Philadelphia would require thirty of such branches,” Carnegie continued in his letter to Thomson, “and you estimate that twenty to thirty thousand dollars apiece would be sufficient for these, but I do not think this sum would be enough. You should have lecture rooms in these branch libraries and our experience in Pittsburgh is that we have not spent enough upon them. The last branches there cost a great deal most than the first.”

Lehigh Branch (now Lillian Marrero Library) Free Library of Philadelphia, North side of Lehigh Avenue, west of 6th Street, October 16, 1912 (PhillyHistory.org)

“I think, therefore, it would be well for you to spend fifty thousand dollars apiece for these branch library buildings, and it would give me great pleasure to provide a million and a half of dollars as the same may be needed to erect thirty branch libraries for Philadelphia provided sites be given and the city agree to maintain these branch libraries at a cost of not less than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.”

“The branch libraries are the most popular institutions of all,” observed the steel magnate, “and I think, the most useful. A great central library is, of course, needed. But even before it in usefulness I place the local libraries, which reach the masses of the people.”

Before Carnegie’s offer, library trustees in Philadelphia were actually considering shuttering all but one of their fourteen current branches as “unsuitable.” But with the new offer on the table, they voted to accept it. The decision would be subject to approval by City Council and the mayor.

George McCurdy, president of Common Council, responded cautiously, acknowledging the gift as “handsome,” adding “the city will have to take into consideration the probably expense… it means an outlay of $150,000 a year for maintenance alone, exclusive of our big central library (the plans for which were underway along the Parkway). If the city is obliged to buy a score or more of sites, that also means a big outlay, and we will have to consider the propriety of expending so large a sum at this time.”

McCurdy hoped Carnegie’s “magnanimous offer” might “stimulate some of our own wealthy citizens to make similar gifts, either for a central library or for the purchase of sites. We have men here who could duplicate the gift, and should do it from a spirit of civic pride.” Discussions dragged on for a year before the city officially accepted Carnegie’s offer.

Among the earliest branch designed, bid and built was the “Grecian style” Lehigh Avenue Branch (now the Lillian Marrero Library) designed by architects G. W. & W. D. Hewitt. “When new [it] was one of the biggest libraries in the state,” wrote Inquirer’s Thomas Hine in 1985, “a classical building of immense pretension and grandeur standing on its own little Parnassus in the heart of the industrial city.”

“The cornerstone of the first Carnegie Library of the chain to be erected in this city was laid at Sixth and Lehigh avenue” the afternoon of April 10, 1905. The complete building would be outfitted with granite steps, Corinthian columns and be made of either Indiana limestone or Pennsylvania white marble. Beneath a giant reading room, would be a nearly equally large auditorium. The anticipated cost—about $100,000—was twice what Carnegie originally anticipated, and as much as five times what Thomson originally imagined for a typical branch.

That same year, the West Philadelphia Branch in the French Renaissance style by C.C. Zantzinger also opened. So did the Tacony Branch, designed by Lindley Johnson. Over time, twenty-two more, from Passyunk to Manayink, Cobbs Creek to Kingsessing would follow, joining the 1,689 libraries Carnegie leveraged into existence throughout the United States. “In 30 years,” wrote Hine, Carnegie “spent $56,162,662 and single-handedly increased the number of American public libraries four-fold.”

Carnegie’s grant to Philadelphia was his second largest library grant ever.

Lillian Marrero/Lehigh Avenue Branch, exterior, ca. 1906. (Free Library of Philadelphia Print and Picture Collection)

[Sources: In The Philadelphia Inquirer – “Carnegie Will Endow Thirty Free Libraries,” January 7, 1903; “Mr. Carnegie’s Gift to Philadelphia,” (Editorial) January 7, 1903; “Carnegie Gift to Camden; Opening at Washington,” January 8, 1903; “Councils Must Decide on the Carnegie Offer,” January 8, 1903; “Library Trustees Will Meet Today,” January 9, 1903; “Trustees To Accept Mr. Carnegie’s Gift,” January 10, 1903; “Library Bill Signed, January 12, 1904; “Will Bid Upon Two Carnegie Branches,” October 1, 1904: “Corner Stone for Carnegie Library,” April 11, 1905; “To Dedicate New Carnegie Library – Lehigh Avenue Branch,” November 18, 1906 and Thomas Hine, “Public Libraries Were his Gifts to the World,” July 25, 1985. Also, Theodore Wesley Koch, A Book of Carnegie Libraries. (H.W. Wilson company, 1917).]

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One Comment

  1. Susan Albert
    Posted March 18, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I had the good fortune to teach first grade about a block away from a Carnegie Library. When I first went in I didn’t know it was one of Carnegie’s. I loved the beautiful interior with its polished wood shelves, creaky floor, and high ceilings. The library in the school had to close due to budget constraints. I made regular use of the Free Library, making sure every child had a card and taking the class every other week. The area designed for children was closed due to leaks in the roof but fortunately it was repaired and the whole library was then used. I loved the intimacy and the beauty of this branch. It is so much warmer and inviting than what is being built today.

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