The Old Carnegie Library

It’s easy to miss, partly hidden by a shrub. But at Main and MacNab, not far from where commuters catch the B-Line, there is a cornerstone. A date is etched upon it: Aug. 23rd, 1911.

Yes, on a warm Wednesday a hundred years ago they gathered here to mark an important event. The construction of Hamilton’s fine new Carnegie Library was underway.

Libraries today are in heavy transition. It’s those rows and rows of computer terminals with free web access that draw the throngs to Central Library. And ebooks now move faster than traditional materials at seven city branches. People are still reading but don’t have to walk through the door to get the goods.

I love the library. But maybe, not so many years down the road, it’s done for.

Today’s story, however, is from a time when libraries were the latest thing.

Nobody believed in them more than Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in the world. He was a Scottish immigrant who started out as a messenger boy and retired in 1901 by selling the Carnegie Steel Company in the U.S for $500 million.

He declared the rich should distribute their wealth in their lifetime. So he decided to help towns and cities build libraries. He provided for some 2,500 of them, more than 100 around Ontario.

But before Carnegie began his giveaway, Hamilton built a library on the north side of Main Street, in the shadow of what is now the Pigott/Sunlife condo complex.

That library was a castle. It opened in 1890, at a time when libraries were still closed-stacks. You went to the counter and the librarian pulled out a book for you.

Carnegie didn’t like that system. He thought people should be able to browse the shelves, opening their minds to who knows what.

In 1906, Hamilton decided to go after Carnegie= funds for a new library. A staffer for the millionaire wrote back that his boss “does not think that the present library building has served its day and feels indisposed to replace it with a new building.” The local library board persisted, and Carnegie came up with $100,000 for Hamilton, then a city of about 75,000 and growing fast.

On that summer day 100 years ago this month, Lieutenant Governor J.M. Gibson pronounced the cornerstone to be “well and truly laid” and slapped on a little ceremonial mortar. The engraved trowel he used is on display at Central.

The Carnegie Library opened in 1913. For 67 years, the house Carnegie built was Hamilton’s main library. In 1980, they moved the books to a new home, six storeys and lots of glass at the northern perimeter of Jackson Square.

Andrew Carnegie made the move too, a bronze bust of him anyway.

Margaret Houghton, the library’s archivist extraordinaire, knows the head of Carnegie well. It sat on her desk in the new library for more than a year.

Someone in maintenance had tried to wipe the years from Carnegie with toilet bowl cleaner and turned him green. Houghton was instructed on how to scrub Carnegie correctly and she worked at it, with toothbrush, for the longest time.

Carnegie is at present lost from public view, somewhere in the stacks on the second floor. But word is that once a proper new stand is built for his beautiful head, he’ll surface in the main lobby.

As for the old Carnegie building, it sat empty for years. The plans were many – seniors centre, industrial museum, Chinese restaurant, 700-seat theatre. All came to naught. Nine aldermen said they’d vote to demolish the building instead of spending $5,000 to study its possible uses.

Then the province came up with a proposal – give us the building and the land for a dollar and we’ll turn it into Family Court.

Ontario spent some $6 million, doubling the size of the old premises to make space for six courtooms. It opened in 1989.

The building remains a neo-classical treasure. But now it is a place where battles are fought – divorce, custody, division of property. Most would rather not go inside.

You should. You’ll need to empty out your pockets at the door. Then absorb the grandeur that an American captain of industry made possible. Climb those elegant white-marble stairs, see the central two-storey atrium with skylight, admire the rows of mighty columns.

Katharine Greenfield has not been back since the library days ended, but she worked there for several decades.

Yes, there were many stairs to climb. Yes, the building sure could have used air conditioning. “And perhaps all that marble was a little daunting for some people,” she says.

But when Greenfield began there in 1944, TV was not yet on the scene. Books mattered.

She is 90 now, with the sharp mind that a lifetime of reading can bring. This summer she bought a new car.

Sometimes she drives past the old Carnegie library. “For me, the days in that building have taken on a golden glow,” she says. “We were proud to be librarians there.”

Comments 0

There are no comments

Add comment

Share post


© 2024 Robert Cekan Professional Real Estate Corporation. All rights reserved. Robert Cekan is a Broker at Real Broker Ontario Ltd., Brokerage.