A look back at Andrew Carnegie’s gift to Long Beach

Andrew Carnegie had money he was mad at.

The Scottish-American steel and industrial magnate, born in 1835, had a love-hate relationship with money, and he was equally passionate and successful about making money and its reverse: getting rid of it.

Carnegie worked his way up through the railroad and telegraph business to the pinnacle of the steel industry. When he sold his Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan in 1901 for $303.5 million he surpassed John David Rockefeller as the richest man in America.

Despite his staggering wealth, Carnegie always harbored an enthusiastic distaste for the pursuit of money. He had written, “The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry. No idol more debasing than the worship of money.”

He also had a formula for living, which he called the Andrew Carnegie Dictum: To spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can; to spend the next third making all the money one can; to spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.

Andrew Carnegie in 1913. Courtesy photo.

He was successful at all three. By the time of his death at 83 in 1919, Carnegie had given away some $350 million—more than $5 billion in today’s dollars, and almost 90% of his accumulated wealth, to charities, foundations and universities. That included gifts of more than $60 million to public libraries in America and in Europe. He paid for nearly 1,700 public libraries, including 121 in California.

In 1908, Carnegie offered Long Beach $12,500 for a public library. The Long Beach Library Association was without a main library at the time. The association had begun in 1895, using chiefly volumes acquired from the collection of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and its location had moved around the city in various rooms before landing in City Hall in 1899, but it had nothing so grand as a Carnegie library.

Looking a bit askance into the gift horse’s mouth, the city, sort of unbelievably, balked at the $12,500 gift offer as being insufficient for what it had in mind, and after some extensive correspondence with the benefactor, Carnegie upped his offer to $30,000. The city magnanimously tossed $4,000 into the hat and the Carnegie Library was built in Pacific Park (which was renamed Lincoln Park, when Abe’s statue was unveiled there in 1920).

The cornerstone was laid on Sept. 5, 1908, and the building was open to the public on May 19, 1909, with a formal opening and dedication on June 14—110 years before the planned opening of Long Beach’s new Billie Jean King Main Library later this month.

The building was designed in the Classical Revival style by architect F.P. Burnham who, either by himself or with his firm Burnham & Bliesner, designed 12 Carnegie libraries in Southern California between 1903 and 1909. It was a modern marvel at the time, with an elevator that took books from the basement to the upper level, and separate reading and reference rooms, a lecture hall and an art gallery for rotating exhibitions.

Built of gray granite and white pressed brick, the library welcomed visitors who walked up the wide stairs and passed between twin sets of double Colonial columns into the ground level, which held the library’s 14,654 volumes as well as tables for its 133 magazines and 35 newspapers.

Upstairs were the auditorium, lecture rooms, a professional library and art gallery. The basement held the reassembled skeleton of Minnie the Whale, the city’s big tourist draw at the time, which had been moved from an exhibit in the park.

On March 17, 1910, Carnegie made a surprise visit to the library, motoring into town from Pasadena’s Raymond Hotel to check out the library’s first floor (a disability prevented him from climbing the stairs to the second level). He smiled at the library’s appearance and he inscribed a copy of his book, “Problems of Today,” noting that the fact that he was able to pay for the library “is one of the sweetest of all rewards.”

The Carnegie Library was an architectural hit right off the bat and it remained a source of civic pride even as other notable buildings sprang up in the 1910s and 20s: the First Congregational Church, the Jergins Trust Building, Farmers & Merchants Bank, Community Hospital, the Cooper Arms, the Breakers Hotel, the Pacific Coast Club and the Villa Riviera were just a few examples.

Those buildings all weathered the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake to varying degrees.

The library was damaged and its staff lugged the stacks outdoors in the park enabling quake survivors to continue to escape the disaster through reading.

The library’s rebuild was paid for by the Work Projects Administration and it reemerged without the Colonial columns and with a more streamlined and modern look, though not ceding a bit of its stateliness as it continued to preside over Lincoln Park for another four decades.

The Carnegie Library after its WPA rebuild following the 1933 earthquake. Photo courtesy of the Long Beach Public Library.

In July 1972, an arsonist set fire to the Carnegie Library. The fire started in the basement area and the blaze sped up the staircase and destroyed about 5,000 books, including the library’s prized California History Collection.

A few weeks later, the arsonist, Alvin Uribe, broke into the building again but police found him hiding under the library’s Bookmobile. Uribe, a self-described artist and professional dancer, told police he had set the fire “because of his religion,” though he wouldn’t name the religion or elaborate on his beliefs. He was sentenced to two to 20 years in prison.

Though the library survived the fire structurally intact, it had already been doomed by the city, which had plans to demolish it after its books were moved to a new Main Library in 1977. So, rather than repair the Carnegie, the library’s books were moved to a temporary Main Library in a former Central Telephone Directory Co. building at 1775 Ximeno Ave., near the Traffic Circle in the intervening years.

So, the Carnegie Library was finally demolished, ending its 63-year reign at Lincoln Park. The beautiful park, too, was virtually swallowed whole by the new Civic Center and Main Library, which, in turn, are already set to meet a similar demolition.

Destroying the Carnegie and its park wasn’t a great move for the city, which has a long reputation of trading in beautiful and historic buildings in an eternal pursuit of something shinier. Other cities have been more caring for their Carnegies, perhaps most notably New York City, which still has 30 of its original 39 Carnegie Libraries still in use, and Pittsburgh, which has a Carnegie library as its main library as well as 18 Carnegie branches.

Of the 1,681 original public libraries that Andrew Carnegie had built between 1883 and 1929, 911 are still in use as libraries today.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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