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Birthing a Bilding

…or is it berthing a bilding?

Planning Agincourt’s Public Library

Beyond his role in the public library movement — he underwrote the cost of 1,800 libraries between 1889 and about 1920 — the frugal Scot Andrew Carnegie felt that large amounts of ink, paper, and time were consumed preparing documents, and that a significant savings in all three categories could be achieved if we just simplified the spelling of the English language. In 1909, concerned that the early stage of his library benefaction had been misspent, Carnegie hired someone to analyze the program’s expenditures and rein in its excesses. James Bertram contributed mightily to its reform and, for the first time, provided guidance, rather than money alone, and it was Bertram who penned a simple two-fold pamphlet title “Notes on Library Bilding” which used the reformed spelling favored by Carnegie and a few others.

You may be surprised to know that a Carnegie grant was the result of a formula based on population in the last U.S. Census, provision of a centrally-located site, and commitment to annual support equal to ten percent of the grant. Carnegie played no role in programming the new library, nor were his staff involved with architectural selection. The pre-1909 result was monumental design that failed to work: Grandiose lobbies and Carnegie’s name in massive Roman letters, but poorly organized spaces that might have been more appropriate for an art museum.

There were 101 Carnegie-funded public libraries in Iowa and another seven for academic institutions. They range from 1892 until 1917, so there was no lack of enthusiasm for library construction, nor an absence of precedent. Indeed there were other libraries not underwritten by Andrew. I elected to fund the proposed Agincourt Public Library from local sources for two reasons: #1) it afforded greater latitude in design (e.g., I could add program elements beyond the library itself), and #2) it generated an exclusively local narrative. Also, by delaying the project until about 1915, Louis Sullivan had time to complete his five Iowa projects, and the Neo-Classicism that dominated earlier library design had passed its prime.

The clear majority of Iowa’s public libraries were Classical Revival or Neo-Classical in style, a logical result of influence from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This example from Iowa Falls is more extreme than most, but it illustrates the problem that Bertram uncovered: he found that grandiosity trumped functionality in far too may cases. Local building committees construed Carnegie’s benefaction as a wish for architectural immortality. They were wrong.

Iowa Falls is also typical in being a free-standing structure, splendid isolation on a prominent site, they have an almost suburban character, rather than genuinely “urban”. Examples in dense settings are rare, indeed, and may be limited to major urban areas like Pittsburgh or New York City. In many ways, these buildings are formulaic, so much so that many people actually believe they were built from a single prototype. They’re wrong, too.

You can see why I was fascinated, imagining an unconventional approach Louis Sullivan might have taken.


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