The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie (aka the “Carnegie Carnegie”) was one of only five libraries in the world endowed by Andrew Carnegie, among the more than 2,500 that he had built. But 35 years ago, the money ran out.
“We had $136 in our checking account after payroll,” says Margaret Forbes, the library‘s executive director. “People wanted to tear it down, but there were ferocious people who understood its significance. We launched a capital campaign in 2003 and have raised $11 million dollars, which is no small feat.”
The community’s love for this Carnegie library was proven years ago when the institution was in line to receive a $500,000 grant — if they could get matching funds entirely from people in the neighboring communities. That’s when Hurricane Ivan hit and flooding devastated the borough in 2004.
In the two weeks between the flood and the deadline, the community gave $60,000. That allowed the library to reach its goal, says Forbes. “I still have this feeling we have to keep this promise. Not just revitalize the library, but to be the cornerstone of revitalizing Carnegie itself.”
Floods, mudslides, catastrophic fires — Carnegie has been through a lot in the past few decades. But the borough seems to have turned the corner. And now, with the construction of the new Library Park on its grounds, the Carnegie Carnegie aims to be the community hub it was always meant to be.
Perched on a hill overlooking Carnegie, the library was built in 1892, a year and a half after the Homestead Strike when Andrew Carnegie’s reputation was at a low point.
“Five years ago, we were holding up crumbling plaster with painted over duct tape,” says Forbes of the interior. “Water damage was insidious. Nobody had done anything for 100 years, which was the bad news. It was also the good news. Its architectural integrity was always intact.”
The interior has since been restored to its former glory. And now the Carnegie is celebrating its 125th anniversary and continuing a major overhaul of the grounds, which will be called Library Park.
Approximately one acre, the park will connect the Carnegie with the lively main street below, says Forbes.
Dead trees were removed so the Carnegie can now be seen from Main Street below. Instead of a hike up steep staircases, a serpentine pathway meanders through the park, reducing the slope of the three-minute walk. New trees are being planted.
One remarkable feature of the park is a 117-foot mosaic mural designed by artist Laura Jean McLaughlin, which was completed in 2018.
“People canoodle on it; kids walk on it,” says Forbes. “You can have a picnic, even an outdoor wedding. People now say, ‘Meet me at the mosaic.'”
Carnegie’s main business district has seen a resurgence in the past few years, with restaurants like Bakn, LeoGreta, One Thirty One East and Apis Mead & Winery attracting diners from all over Pittsburgh, and new additions like the Abandoned Pittsburgh art gallery.
A better connection to Carnegie should provide a boost to both the library and the business district — theatergoers checking out a Stage 62 production at the Music Hall can stroll down the hill for ice cream or dinner, and vice versa.
The project, started in 2017, has not been without its pitfalls — literally.
“We had a major mudslide in February 2018,” explains Forbes. “Nobody was hurt, and it was cleaned up in a day, but we found a potentially hazardous outcropping of rock. It kind of stopped us in our tracks. It was fixed in 2018, but it kind of ground everything to a halt.”
Now things are moving again, in a good way.
“Overall, it’s a $2 million project,” says Forbes, who adds that they’ll get that funding this year and finish construction in March. They hope to celebrate the opening by early next summer.
One thing not a lot of people know about “the Carnegie in Carnegie” is that the Music Hall attached to the library was modeled after the renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City, one of the most famous and acoustically superb venues in the world.
In fact, the two-story Italianate facade of the Carnegie Carnegie looks a lot like Carnegie Hall.
“If you’d look at a picture of Carnegie Hall, you can see echoes of the architecture,” she says. But, Forbes adds: “Our building is much prettier.”
The Music Hall, which is not yet fully restored, seats 500-plus and is also considered to have excellent acoustics.
The building is also home to the Captain Thomas Espy Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a room — now a museum — designed to honor Union veterans after the Civil War. When the last veteran died, the room was locked and left undisturbed for 50 years. It houses invaluable Civil War artifacts and historical records.
“Ours has been documented as the most intact GAR post in the country and is a national treasure,” says Forbes. “It’s the neglect going on in the building that probably kept it intact all these years. It has been meticulously restored — to the point of taking core samples from behind the radiator to get the color right.”
It’s all a labor of love for Forbes, who says: “We’re a pretty damn special place.”
Want to help support this local treasure? You can attend their annual fundraiser, Carnegie Swings on Sept. 28, featuring Reggie Watkins and the Boilermaker Jazz Band.