The man who provided $25,000 to build the St. Anthony Park Library a century ago did so because of a rock-ribbed conviction.
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” said Andrew Carnegie. “It is a never-failing spring in the desert.”
Generations of St. Anthony Park residents have felt the same way, because their stewardship has helped maintain what’s now commonly acknowledged as a jewel in the community at 2245 Como Ave.
“Our library is a form of public art, people love it, it feeds the soul,” says longtime supporter Mary Griffin.
Across Minnesota, age has taken a toll: of the 66 libraries Carnegie funded, only 48 of the buildings still exist, with a mere 22 used for their original purpose.
St. Anthony Park’s library, along with those in the Riverview and Arlington Hills neighborhoods of St. Paul, are members of that latter select group, all celebrating their 100th anniversaries this year, as is the George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul.
All three branches were designed by Charles A. Hausler, a city architect, who favored the lavish beaux-arts style of architecture.
The St. Anthony Park library was the first of the branches to open in 1917. On a hot July day, 150 people attended a brief ceremony, each checking out a book.
The formal dedication took place in October, starting with a march to the library by children from Murray School. Dietrich Lange, principal of Mechanic Arts High School and St. Anthony Park resident, spoke on the uses of libraries. An evening concert followed, with more speechifying.
By the Great Depression, the library was showing signs of neglect. A group of supporters created a community room out of an abandoned children’s area in the basement and raised money to redecorate the building. In 1934, they formed the St. Anthony Park Branch Library Association, still going strong today.
In 1957, the library was modernized, with the installation of a lowered ceiling and fluorescent lights, a decision that was lamented as years went by. As part of a mid-1980s restoration project that the library association helped fund, the dropped ceiling and lighting were removed and the top of the window arches, as well as original ceiling with its plaster carvings once again became visible.
But the biggest project in the library’s history came in the 1990s, an outgrowth of the need to make the building more accessible.
“The city’s idea was to install an elevator on the side, which would have taken out two ranks of bookshelves,” recalls Arlene West, a resident who was actively involved. “We said, ‘This is a small building with high per capita use, this makes no sense.’ ”
The city plan was rejected and an association design team worked with an architect for several years to develop a plan for a round addition to the back of the building which would house a children’s reading room, passenger elevator, informal reading area and librarian’s work space.
Many stepped up
To plug funding gaps in what would turn out to be a $1 million project, the association sold personalized paving bricks and sponsored a “read-athon” at which local authors spoke. The Friends of the St. Paul Library and St. Anthony Park Bank each made $12,500 challenge grants, which individual contributions more than matched. The City of St. Paul kicked in extra money as well.
“People really stepped up: everything from children’s allowance money to much bigger contributions,” West said.
There were a number of delays that included a change in construction contractors and the library was closed for nine months, reopening in early 2000, with a grand opening in April of that year.
St. Anthony Park library manager Tracy Baumann has worked at all three of St. Paul’s Carnegie libraries and says that all of them “have a similar basic layout and wonderful large windows. So when I came here last year, parts of the building itself felt familiar, as well as the sense of being in a space that has been an important part of the community for a long time.
“Shortly after I arrived, the library association funded a renovation of the library’s auditorium space,” she noted. “And earlier, the Weekly Weeders, an offshoot of the St. Anthony Park Garden Club, planted the amazing pollinator garden around the back of the library.”
Heading into its second century, the library is in good shape and no major projects loom, according to Bob Arndorfer, chair of the library association. The association continues to support reading programs and related activities, including a Fourth of July essay contest at St. Anthony Park Elementary School.
Since 1969, the association’s major annual fundraiser has been the St. Anthony Park Arts Festival on the library lawn, to be held on Saturday, June 3, this year. Many volunteers from both within and outside the organization pitch in to help, Arndorfer said.
The library’s offerings are no longer strictly book-based, of course, but a comparison of its circulation over the years gives an idea of what a busy place it is. During 1918, its first full year of operation, its circulation was about 27,000; in 1998, it was 97,000; and last year it was 133,000, counting all types of materials that were checked out.
Yes, it’s a busy building, a place to get information, stimulation and to gather, just the sort of “spring” that a certain industrialist had in mind all those years ago.
A GARDEN PARTY will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the library from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday, July 17.
Everyone is invited to bring a picnic supper to enjoy on the library grounds, among the gardens created by community volunteers.
Activities will include a puppet show, family craft activities, a hat contest for children and adults, garden tours and a garden dedication, a story walk and history display. Participants will also be asked to share their stories of the library and the community to be included in a digital scrapbook.
In fact, an effort is already under way to collect those kinds of stories. If you have a story to share, stop by the library to find out how, or go to http://sppl.or/100.
IN THE FALL, a local artist will create a mosaic mural for the library and community members will be invited to contribute their artistic ideas during a series of sessions at the library. Dates and more specific information will be forthcoming.