At 131 years, the first Carnegie Library, Braddock’s, is being upgraded for its next audience
The burdens weighing on Vicki Vargo grew heavy in the summer of 1995. Things were changing in her life, and some of those changes were not so good. She worried about her ill mother and other problems haunting her family. She needed a break.
So one July day, after visiting her mother in a Monroeville hospital, Vargo drove to her hometown of North Braddock to reflect on her past. Change was taking a toll there, too. The borough floundered in a sea of debt and would soon consider shutting off street lights to save money. Hard times plagued the Mon Valley.
While driving past the old homes and churches along Jones Avenue, Vargo noticed a small gathering of people in a nearby ballfield. Curious, she parked her car and wandered over to see what was happening.
The gathering was an event commemorating the French and Indian War. Vargo hung around, and when the group walked downhill a few blocks and into Braddock borough for refreshments at the Braddock Carnegie Library, she joined them. The old library building, slowly being brought back to life after a near-death experience in the 1970s, had never before played much of a role in Vargo’s life, but she enjoyed looking around inside the historic structure.
Afterwards, she walked back outside and up Parker Avenue, past a Methodist church missing its beautiful stained glass windows. Down on Braddock Avenue, birds flew through gaping holes in the roofs of once-stately commercial buildings. As Vargo stood in this distressed place at an uncertain time in her life, a strange thing happened. She became overwhelmed with a sense of belonging. This was her home, she realized. She needed to be here. And it had something to do with that old library building.
“It’s hokey,” she says, “but it was an ‘aha’ moment.”
Within a few years, she began serving on the library’s board. Now, more than a quarter of a century after her ‘aha moment’, Vargo serves as executive director of the Braddock Carnegie Library Association at a moment of great change.
A key resource in an area long considered “distressed,” the library announced a major renovation project in 2019 and began raising the needed $15 million. The plan’s ambitious goal: Transform the library into a fully-accessible facility able to meet the community’s needs for decades to come.
Then COVID arrived. As schools and businesses closed and the economy slowed, the library faced new challenges. How would it adapt its planned renovation? And how would it meet the newly emergent pandemic-related needs of the community?
'Laughter and frolic'
Dripping with wealth, Andrew Carnegie presented the library as a gift to Braddock on March 30, 1889. The 53-year-old industrialist was on his way to becoming the richest man in the country, and his turreted offering loomed above the town like a misplaced castle. A half mile away, 2,200 men toiled to keep Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Works steel mill running at full capacity.
A year earlier, Carnegie had broken a strike at the mill, allowing him to increase the workday from 8 to 12 hours. The move was regrettable but unavoidable, he claimed in his library dedication remarks. If other mills forced 12-hour workdays, he said, his mill had no choice but to follow. Still, he advised his weary workers and their families, “Life must not be taken too seriously. We must have our hours for laughter and frolic.”
The library would, he predicted, serve as “a center of light and leading” for residents in a community rattled by all the pounding, grinding and rumbling going on at his steel mill. Hereafter, those burdened by the stress of living next to an industrial colossus could climb up Library Street, mount a flight of steps and enter a refuge. Men trudging in after a shift in the mill could walk through a tunnel under the front steps and access a shower room, where they could scrub themselves of the mill’s grime in preparation for frolic and laughter or enlightenment.
Once inside the library’s first floor, visitors gained access to some 1,800 books covering topics such as manufacturing, mechanical arts, travel and science. The collection included poetry (including Longfellow, Byron and Tennyson) and “the higher classes of novels,” according to an 1889 story in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Dickens and Thackeray received mention. Those not in a reading mood could enjoy a game of billiards, a pastime favored by Carnegie.
“I trust also that you will not forget the importance of amusements,” he said at the dedication for what was the first of 1,689 libraries he would pay for around the country.
Within a few years, an addition doubled the library’s size and added a music hall, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and a duckpin alley.
A black-and-white illustration from the library’s early years depicts an idyllic scene. A cluster of well-dressed people gather near the front entrance. Women in dresses carry parasols as they leisurely pass on the sidewalk. Men wearing bowlers pause on the steps while horse-drawn carriages clomp along Library Street.
Whether this scene ever represented reality is an open question. Vargo’s paternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents moved to the U.S. from Slovakia and settled into Dooker’s Hollow, a neighborhood of mostly Eastern European immigrants jammed into a narrow valley next to the steel mill. “I know they never came here because they didn’t speak English,” Vargo said recently while standing inside the library’s main entrance, flooded with window light. ”Unless there were a lot of other Slovak people here, they wouldn’t be able to communicate with anybody.”
Residents who could speak English spent much of their time working, raising families, keeping their clothes and houses clean, perhaps attending church. Who had time to frolic in a library? In addition, the facility charged for use of amenities such as the swimming pool, billiards tables and events in the musical hall, Vargo said. Where would working class families scrape up the money?
Carnegie’s original plan for the library, while laudable, may have failed to take into account the specific challenges and needs of those who lived in the facility’s service area, Vargo suggested. “The one thing Carnegie left out was, ‘What is the audience?’”
It’s a mistake the library has worked to correct.
Returned to life
As a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vargo found the library building daunting and uninviting. She visited only when she needed materials for school. By then the library seemed in its final stages of life. The roof leaked. The library’s endowment was gone. In 1974 the doors were chained shut, with demolition scheduled for 1978. The nation’s oldest Carnegie Library seemed doomed.
Its legendary resurrection story begins with a man named David Solomon, the facility’s last full-time librarian. He held an almost daily vigil at the abandoned building, gave dozens of tours to journalists and politicians and anyone else who showed an interest, wrote hundreds of letters seeking support and funds, and rallied a diverse group of supporters who succeeded in staving off the wrecking ball.
But the building was a mess. A reporter in 1980 described floors littered with crumbling plaster and broken glass. Thousands of mouldering books gathered dust on fine-grained shelves. Vandals had stripped copper tubes from the music hall’s pipe organ.
Volunteers cleaned the place up, hauling away thousands of pounds of debris, and by 1983 the library reopened, a kerosene heater providing warmth in the cold months. Since then, the grand structure has been revived room-by-room.
That piecemeal approach brought the library a long way from the days of crumbling walls and ceilings, but the new $15 million effort is comprehensive. It’s part of a “master plan” that will “bring the building into the 21st century and make sure that it is accessible to everybody, and that the full building can be used” year round, said Amy Kaminski of Mulberry Public Affairs, a consulting firm working with the library association. “It allows for sustainability into the future so that the library can raise money with rentals and events. They can make sure that they’re staying afloat without a lot of other grants from the outside.”
The original plan called for all renovations to be conducted at once, but COVID forced a change. “Things kind of slowed down from a funding perspective,” Kaminski said. So library leaders adapted. Work will be conducted in a few phases. The first, costing about $5 million, is scheduled to begin sometime this summer.
One of the first items on the list of improvements: Installing a heating and cooling system to moderate temperatures in the building so it can be used in all seasons. Some of the rooms currently become freezing cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer.
A major issue is accessibility. If you can’t climb steps, you’ll have difficulty getting around in the building today. The remedy: an elevator. Rustic restrooms will be upgraded. New doors and windows will be installed. Scheduled upgrades to the children’s and adults areas include new paint, floors and furniture.
The second phase, involving improvements to the music hall and conversion of the long-empty swimming pool to a lounge and performance area called the “Book Dive,” will follow, as funds are raised. When will the renovations be complete? “Sometime in 2023 would be a very optimistic goal,” Vargo said. “You know, it’s an old building. We don’t know what to expect” once renovations begin.
'We are flexible'
The library’s ambitious plan comes as Braddock itself experiences dramatic change. The once-thriving borough survived a decline that, in fact, resembled the library’s.
Like all Mon Valley town’s, Braddock suffered with the decline of the steel industry. Residents fled — population plummeted from a 1920 peak of 20,000 to about 2,000 today. By the mid-1990s, Braddock Avenue exuded a thick and palpable hopelessness, its once stately two- and three-story commercial buildings vacant, windowless and in various stages of collapse. Few businesses remained.
In the past several years, however, the borough has embarked on a sort of comeback by attracting artists and a variety of businesses, including tech companies, restaurants and a craft brewery. New housing is springing up blocks from the library. The borough has emerged as a symbol of hope that distressed communities can resurrect themselves.
Still, many of Braddock’s residents struggle with needs particular to those living in boroughs that have long lacked resources, and those needs only intensified with the onset of the pandemic.
The COVID crisis allowed the library to show that “we are flexible, and that our main concern is our patrons,” Vargo said. “We know how to reach out to our patrons, we know where they live, we know what they need. Let’s check to make sure they’re getting everything they need. Simple things, like, ‘Where can I go for a COVID test?’ to the basic essentials. ‘Where can I get food? Where can I get heating assistance, utility assistance?’”
Those filing for unemployment benefits access the library’s computers and copy and fax services. Students learning remotely and who have limited access to internet service check out the library’s hotspots. In the basement shower room, now a pottery studio, staff members conduct virtual clay classes for children and put together kits for those wanting to create clay projects at home.
Even before COVID, the library maintained an eclectic loan program. Residents borrow from the library’s art lending collection, and check out weed whackers, rakes and tools used for home repair. And the facility has become a hub of community expression. In addition to the ceramics studio, the library houses a print shop, a magnet for young people who create designs that go on posters, record covers and clothing.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, I walk past the library, but I don’t know if those programs are for me,’” Vargo said. “That saddens me to hear because the programs are for everybody, they’re for the neighborhood.”
The library will continue to adapt as needs evolve, she said. It’s a different, more nimble facility than the one dedicated by Andrew Carnegie more than 130 years ago.
“If you ever have any doubt, be bold, come up those steps and come in and say, ‘What’s going on?’ Do you know that it’s different now than it was? And it keeps changing every day.”
Steve Mellon: firstname.lastname@example.org.