A Gift That Keeps on Giving: NJ’s Carnegie Libraries

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie built 36 libraries in New Jersey—each an architectural gem. Thanks to preservation efforts and creative reuse, most still serve their communities.

Elizabeth Public Library
The Elizabeth Public Library is one of 17 Carnegie libraries in New Jersey still used as originally intended.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Public Library.

Although he never lived in New Jersey, Andrew Carnegie left us a lasting legacy. From 1900 to 1917, the steel tycoon and philanthropist provided grants to build 36 libraries in the Garden State. All but seven of the buildings are still standing, including 17 still functioning as public libraries.

The Carnegie libraries remain among the most distinctive buildings in their respective communities. In Kearny, the main library is housed in an impressive twin-columned building—also home to the Kearny Museum—built in 1907 with a $32,600 gift from the Carnegie Foundation. Elizabeth’s main library opened in 1912; the Carnegie-funded building is reminiscent of an Italian palazzo and is part of the Midtown Historic District. Perth Amboy’s library, dedicated in 1903, is in the process of being enlarged to meet the growing needs of its community while maintaining its architectural integrity.

Even glitzy Atlantic City gets into the act. Richard Stockton College’s multiuse Carnegie Library Center—a former library located blocks from the Boardwalk—was named one of the state’s 150 top buildings and places by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Built in 1903, the structure features an exterior of granite, marble and terra-cotta; the interior is highlighted by terrazzo floors and marble staircases.

These libraries and others throughout the nation owe their existence to a pledge made by the mogul. Born in Scotland in 1835, Carnegie migrated to America with his destitute family in 1848, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. As a boy, he landed a job in a cotton factory and eventually worked his way up to the skilled position of telegraph operator in Pittsburgh.

Young Carnegie thirsted for knowledge, but there was little time for education, and books were hard to come by. Taking pity on Pittsburgh’s working boys, Colonel James Anderson opened his home and collection of 400 volumes for their use. Carnegie was one of them. After he struck it rich in the steel business, he credited Anderson with “opening the intellectual wealth of the world for me.” Carnegie promised himself that he would return the favor by making libraries his greatest gift to society.

“Mr. Carnegie believed that libraries were essential to the strength and progress of American society,” says Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Or, as Carnegie himself put it: “It is the mind that makes the body rich.”

Carnegie established his first library in 1881 in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland; he eventually would fund 2,509 libraries worldwide. Grants totaling $41.7 million helped build 1,679 libraries in 1,419 communities in the United States. Libraries were not the only beneficiaries; Carnegie is said to have given away more than $350 million during his lifetime. (Carnegie died in 1919.)

The terms of the library grants were simple. The Carnegie Public Library Program provided the money to build the structure, but the town had to provide the land and document that it had the funds to staff and maintain the facility. “Free libraries maintained by the people are cradles of democracy and their spread can never fail to extend and strengthen the democratic idea, the equity of the citizen and the royalty of man,” Carnegie said.

The first city in New Jersey to take advantage of Carnegie’s largesse was East Orange, which received a $50,000 grant in 1900. The building currently houses the municipal court. The last grant given in the state—for $30,000—went to Long Branch in 1917. Only a third of all of the Carnegie libraries in the country bear the name Carnegie on their façade. The Freehold Public Library, built in 1903, is one of them.

Many Carnegie libraries are admired for their neoclassical design and Beaux Arts features, such as arched windows, grand entrances and elaborately sculpted details. Such details can be seen in the libraries in Bayonne, Elizabeth and Belmar—each designed by Edward Lippincott Tilton, an architect and classical scholar who specialized in library buildings. He also designed the immigration building at Ellis Island.

Tilton’s strikingly beautiful Bayonne Library, vintage 1904, features a screen of columns at the entrance and a colonnaded courtyard. The building made a lasting impression on Pat Naffin, a resident of Wall Township who grew up in Bayonne. “It was a sacred place and gave me a sense of reverence and awe when I entered the courtyard, greeted by huge columns and busts of historic figures,” says Naffin. “As a third-generation resident of the city, I felt the history of my own parents and grandparents who climbed those same steps before me.”

The architectural glories of the Carnegie libraries have at times fallen out of favor. When an extension was added in 1981 to the Belleville Library, many of its original 1911 architectural elements were covered over in an attempt at modernization. But restoration is under way: the plaster that had covered the original columns and pediment is being removed. “To have it available to see is meaningful, considering we are an original Carnegie library,” says Richard Yanuzzi, president of the library board.

Not every Carnegie library in New Jersey has lived to enjoy a comeback. Former Carnegie library buildings in Collingswood, Cranford, Englewood, Lakewood, Little Falls, Plainfield and Summit have been demolished. In Camden, the former library building is in limbo. Opened in 1905 with a $120,000 Carnegie grant, the building’s beautiful neoclassical pediment, and portico and columned entrance are still intact, even if they look despairingly dismal. Since 1986, when library services moved to two other locations in Camden, the library—added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992—has sat empty, a mastodon gathering dust.

Some Carnegie libraries have survived through what is called adaptive reuse. The library in Vineland is now a senior center. “The building is intact, and whatever renovations are made will adhere to historic accuracy,” says Bruce Turner, the president of AIA of South Jersey. A treasured part of the city’s past, the library building has kept its rooftop cupola and dome.

Another example of adaptive reuse is the old Union City Library. Named for former Mayor William V. Musto, it serves as a community cultural center—with all its unique architectural details intact.

Even private parties can practice adaptive reuse. In the late 1950s, Felice Cohen and her husband purchased the Carnegie building in Westfield, which had ceased to function as a library. They turned it into a business complex that now includes an antique shop, bookstore, legal offices and dress shop. “Over the years, two wings have been added, but the original 1904 features remain,” says Barbara Burton of the Westfield Historical Society. Those features include a dumbwaiter used to transport books, and a Tiffany skylight that “still sheds light to the conference room on the third floor,” says Tony Perrone of Maria S. Decosimo Architects, which has an office in the building.

No one knows what lies ahead for the Belmar Library. Built in 1914 with a grant of $13,000, the building already needed repairs when Hurricane Sandy hit in October, causing extensive water damage. Library services were recently restored after many months of cleanup.

In Montclair, a political storm recently threatened the Bellevue branch library—housed in a Carnegie building. After much hand-wringing, the branch was closed due to budget cuts in January 2011. Ilmar Vanderer, a lifelong Montclair resident, formed a grassroots group, Friends of the Bellevue Library, to rally support for the building. “We could not fathom the idea of it being mothballed,” says Vanderer. The group lobbied the town council for a reprieve. The branch was reopened six months later.

Built in 1914, the Bellevue Branch is one of 12 Carnegie libraries in New Jersey on the National Register of Historic Places. Given such designation, a publicly owned building can be protected from demolition, explains Mark Alan Hewitt, a preservation architect in Bernardsville. He says only about one-third of towns in New Jersey have such an ordinance.

“New Jersey is fortunate in having more than its share of well-preserved Carnegie libraries,” Hewitt says. “It’s a testament to how wonderful they are that we still have them.”

Sharon Hazard is a freelance writer, author and blogger in Long Branch.

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  1. DCloyalist

    Montclair’s former main library, a unique (for the East) prairie style building, at Valley Road and Church Street was also given to the town by Carnegie and is now a church. New Brunswick’s impressive Carnegie library is still the Hub City’s main library facility.