Remembering our Carnegie Library; hoping Atlanta-Fulton won’t repeat the same mistakes
By Maria Saporta
The recent focus on the future of the Atlanta-Fulton Central Library designed by world-renowned architect Marcel Breuer is making me feel old.
I am still grieving over the demolition of the beautiful Carnegie Library that used to stand on the same block as the Breuer building from 1902 until 1977.
The Carnegie Library played an important part in my life. When I was 16 years old, I began working at the library’s Fine Arts department cleaning and filing classical music albums. I can still see the greenish-tinged light that filled the second floor room as soft music played in the background.
I was making minimum wage – $1.60 cents an hour. When another position at the library became available, my best friend – Francie – became a co-worker, re-shelving books. After work, we would often stay in the library – reading poetry or checking out books to read at home.
One day, one of the library’s regulars – David – was picketing in front. We started talking and soon became friends. He would joke that folks thought he was a devil, and I told him I thought he was an angel. So I started calling him “Angel.” He would come up to the Fine Arts department wanting to listen to “marching band” music. He said it reminded him of a social worker who had looked after him when he was young.
Angel also would study law books, saying he wanted to become a lawyer so he could defend himself when he got into trouble.
Somewhere along the way, Angel ended up moving to the Decatur Library. Just a few weeks ago, I saw him crossing a street in downtown Decatur, and I stopped to say hello. He still had that warm smile showing a slightly-chipped front tooth, and he told me of his recent issues with the authorities. He aisked me about Francie, saying he had seen her a few years ago.
Only in Atlanta do relationships with friends and acquaintances last longer than our buildings.
Back in the early 1970s, conversations began about tearing down the Carnegie Library. The library had been part of a gift from Andrew Carnegie, who had made a fortune in the steel industry and had since become a philanthropist helping set up more than 2,500 libraries around the world.
In three different gifts between 1899 and 1901, Carnegie ended up giving Atlanta a total of $145,000 for its downtown library, which opened March 4, 1902.
During the summer of 1974, I had a summer internship at Creative Loafing where I wrote articles about the Save the Fox movement, which was just taking hold. In one article, I mentioned what a shame it would be to lose the historic Carnegie Library.
A few days later, I went by the Carnegie and was confronted by a couple of the librarians who said Atlanta needed a brand new library to replace what they described was an old, run-down building that was too small and needed to be torn down.
Atlanta, a preservation-challenged city, naturally opted to replace the old with the new.
It moved the public library to a temporary home at 10 Park Place for the three years it took to tear down the Carnegie and build the Breuer library. During time of transition, the library lost a significant chunk of its collection. So when the new building opened, the library had to restock its shelves.
Because I’ve been around so long, I still see the ghost of the Carnegie when I go the Central Library. I wish we had been an enlightened city – like Boston – which kept its gorgeous historic library and hired Philip Johnson to design an expansion. It is one of the best examples of how to integrate a new building to be compatible with a legacy design.
(Renzo Piano did it with the expansion of the High Museum of Art by paying homage to Richard Meier’s museum that faces Peachtree Street).
I’m guilty for not trying to save the Civic Center because I still harbor resentment from my Save the Fox days. At that time, a common excuse to tear down the Fox Theater was because we had built the brand new Civic Center. The Fox was viewed as being out-of-date and in need of expensive repairs.
So let’s fast forward to the quagmire we are now facing when discussing the fate of the Breuer-designed library. At the recent meeting of the Library Board of Trustees, dozens of people spoke about the building’s potential to reuse – reimagining the library of the future.
We also want to re-enliven downtown. By thinking creatively on how to plan for the Library’s renovation, urbanists are convinced we will be able to bring new life to the building and our central city – with retail, restaurants and spots that would appeal to young and old and every one in between.
There used to be a fabulous restaurant on the basement level of the Library along Carnegie Way that was a great place for lunch. The Library also has a striking outdoor patio that few people know about.
Sadly, we can’t bring back the old Carnegie Library. But we can save the Breuer Library.
Let’s not keep repeating the same mistakes by constantly tearing down our past. We can show how we have matured as a city by cherishing what we have and making it part of our future.