Four days after the Braddock Carnegie Library temporarily closed because of the coronavirus, executive director Vicki Vargo, who was working from home, stopped by to pick up the mail and a few other things. Outside the landmark building’s front door stood a library regular.
“He knows we’re closed, but just that look of, ‘Did you open yet, did you open yet?’” said Vargo, who lives nearby, in North Braddock. Other neighbors sat in the library’s courtyard, to access its Wi-Fi.
“People are missing our services. They’re missing us,” said Vargo, in a phone interview. Computer access, faxing – “Really, we’re the only place that offers those services in walking distance.” It’s also a meeting place, and a spot to exchange neighborhood news.
The library’s close relationship to its community is the driving force behind the first capital campaign in its 131-year history. In February, the library announced plans to see $15 million to remake the facility that was the very first library that Andrew Carnegie built in North America.
The overhaul will increase usable space in the building by 50 percent and accessibility as well, with improvements including library’s first elevator and the rebirth of its music hall.
“It’s about accessibility, sustainability, and adaptability,” said Dana Bishop-Root, the library’s associate director. “We’re one of the only public spaces in our communities that has regular operating hours. People … need to have tutoring sessions, they need to have family meetings, community meetings. So there’ll be lots more meeting spaces, and in general the space will be more open.”
The campaign got off to a good start with a $1.5 million donation from the Eden Hall Foundation, a long-time supporter of the library. “It’s just much more than a library,” said Eden Hall executive director Sylvia Fields. “But it’s also much more than a community center. It truly, truly is Braddock, the heart of Braddock.”
The library in the struggling mill town also serves North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, Turtle Creek, and Chalfant. It sits just a few blocks from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works – Carnegie’s first steel mill, which was already smoking away when the library was dedicated, in 1889. The library has survived a lot, including a decade of closure, starting in 1974, before it was revived by a grassroots effort. In 2012, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
The capital campaign is needed in part because, like many Carnegie Libraries outside the City of Pittsburgh, it’s an independent entity. It’s operated by the nonprofit Braddock Carnegie Library Association, and although it receives funding from the state and the Allegheny Regional Asset District, it is not part of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and does not benefit from the library tax paid by Pittsburgh residents.
The library has just over two dozen staffers, and prior to its temporary closure was open 50 hours a week, every day but Sunday. To a degree unusual even among contemporary libraries, it offers more than loans of books and DVDs, and free computer time. Upstairs, its Neighborhood Print Shop provides access to screen-printing equipment --for free to people from the library’s service area, and for a small fee to others.
“You can come up here and do some neat artistic kind of things,” said Gia Rouse, a Braddock native who now lives in Swissvale. Rouse was visiting in mid-February to screenprint artwork onto bandanas to hand out at her International Women’s Day brunch. “Everybody’s welcome to come do what they need to do, whether it’s print a flyer, print a T-shirt, you put something on your jacket,” she said. “It’s just a marvelous place to be, and to be a part of!”
The basement Bathhouse Ceramics Studio, with its pottery wheels and kilns, is similarly open to the public. (The library originally included a bathhouse for mill workers without indoor plumbing.) Like the Print Shop, it also offers classes.
The library’s lending collection includes hand tools, tables and chairs for events, handmade puppets, and even artworks: As part of the 2013 Carnegie International art exhibit, the Braddock library became the first in the region to lend out artworks as though they were books, with offerings from artists from the local to the internationally famous.
The reception area is even an art gallery of sorts, displaying works by area artists curated by staffer Mary Carey.
In 2019, says executive director Vargo, the library welcomed more than 32,000 visitors to spaces including the cheerfully day-lit art-lending library; the reception area, with its row of computer monitors; and the brightly painted children’s library. But large portions of the big structure remain unusable, including the empty swimming pool and the dilapidated music hall.
The music hall in particular is a ghostly reminder of the building’s long history. The remains of a pipe organ haunt the flanks of the big proscenium stage. The hall was built to seat about 1,000, and it served generations. Vargo, who also grew up in North Braddock, said Braddock High School held graduations there, as did the Braddock Hospital School of Nursing. Also, she adds, there were recitals for a neighboring dance studio: “I had my debut here!”
Save for a few special events – Quantum Theatre once staged a show here – the hall, complete with its sweeping balcony, has sat unused for decades. The original seats, with their ornate, wrought iron frames, are still present, but many have been removed to facilitate a long-running project organized by community member John Hemphill to replace the ruined wooden flooring. When renovated -- with the original seats widened and the rows deepened to accommodate 21st-century humans – the hall will seat about 500.
The library’s associate director, Dana Bishop-Root, said that small and mid-sized arts groups in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs, as well as schools, need performance space. The business plan calls for five or so resident groups to rent the space, generating revenue for the library.
Plans also envision the old swimming pool be reborn as a lounge area called The Book Dive. The library’s small gym, with its basketball backboards, would get heating and cooling, making it usable year-round for the first time. (Bishop-Root foresees the Book Dive, music hall and gym being available as a package for events including weddings.)
Other currently underutilized spaces include what was originally the Adult Reading Room (where shelves still hold a smattering of vintage books including a 1940 edition of Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume Abraham Lincoln biography, and an edition of Henry Adams’ multi-volume “History of the United States of America” from 1890 – just a year after the library opened.) The room will eventually be used as meeting space or for event rentals.
The renovations are guided by the library’s years-long comprehensive planning process, begun in 2013 at the suggestion of Eden Hall’s Fields. The library, Fields said, “was an extremely large project, and it always needed more than what they were raising money for, and it was kind of a piecemeal thing.”
The complete $15 million overhaul will increase usable space in the building by 50 percent, said Vargo. But she said the library’s budget of about $850,000 will jump by only $100,000, thanks to the installation of modern heating and cooling systems.
Bishop-Root came to the library more than a decade ago as a volunteer, along with two other young Brooklyn transplants who formed an art collective called the Transformazium; it was they who started the Neighborhood Print Shop. She subsequently worked at the library through Americorps before being hired as associate director. She acknowledges the capital campaign is a challenge.
“We’ve never asked for this much money,” she said. “Learning to ask for money, learning to say, 'This building deserves it,' was a learning curve for us."
The library hopes to raise nearly half of the $15 million from foundations, and much of the rest from government. In July, Bishop-Root said, it will begin a community campaign to reach out to individual donors who the library hopes will supply about 10 percent of the goal.
Even now, small donors help out. “We’re really fortunate that we have such an incredible community that really wants to give,” she said. “We see gifts that come in that are five dollars, one dollar, 25 dollars. We have people who give that amount of money to us because they want this space to be here. They see it as an everyday need.”
“This building has to reflect the people who use it,” she added. “It needs to. It’s about dignity, it’s about livelihood. It’s about how we show up for each other. That’s how we ask for 15 million dollars.”