BUFFALO — Andrew Carnegie built 16 beautiful libraries in Wyoming. Only 10 of them remain standing today, and one of those architectural treasures is in peril.
The Buffalo Carnegie Library, built in 1909 from native sandstone cut by hand and hauled to town, is crumbling.
Like most Carnegie libraries, it was built to stand the test of time, but weather, traffic vibrations and a well-intentioned repair job in 2006 using cement mortar are causing its sandstone to crack and break.
Sylvia Bruner is executive director of the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum in town and said that repair used the wrong material, which is now accelerating the building’s decline.
“Of course, I’m learning this as we go because I’m not a historic preservationist, but, for instance, when you’re dealing with these old buildings you really shouldn’t use a modern cement as a mortar,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “It doesn’t allow for any kind of flexibility, and a building needs that.”
The building is located on a busy street corner where traffic vibrations are exacerbating the problem.
“We get a lot of traffic, so any time the ground is moving, instead of the building’s mortar kind of absorbing some of that shifting, it’s actually pushing it into the rock, so the rocks are cracking,” Bruner said.
That damage has been accelerating in the last few years, sparking a grassroots capital campaign to fix the problem and save the historic building.
What Are Carnegie Libraries
Carnegie was a self-made, Scottish-American businessman who at one time was wealthier even than the Rockefellers.
One of the key elements Carnegie always pointed to in his rise from a dirt-poor immigrant to wealthy steel baron was access to a library.
But Carnegie had to fight for that access, and he was determined that in the future, people like himself would never be denied knowledge and learning because they were poor.
As a bobbin boy in a textile mill, Carnegie couldn’t afford the $2 subscription to access a local library. He wrote a letter to the administrator, brashly suggesting the subscription be waived. When the administrator refused, he took his case to the court of public opinion, writing a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The letter lit a fire that ultimately caused the administrator to back down.
As a result, the library was opened to working men as well as apprentices like himself. Carnegie went to the library whenever he could, learning all that he could, and used that knowledge to improve his lot in life.
By the time he was 30, he was a very wealthy man. But Carnegie believed that the man who dies rich dies a disgrace. He saw himself as merely a steward for the wealth he had made and believed it his duty to return that wealth to the masses in ways that would help them help themselves.
He settled on public libraries as the best way to achieve that.
His campaign would build almost 1,700 libraries across the United States, about 800 of which are still in use today as public libraries. About 300 of these Carnegie facilities have been razed or destroyed, while the rest were repurposed as museums, administrative offices or other uses.
Carnegie was often criticized during his lifetime for these libraries, which some felt were too ostentatious or too difficult for small communities to maintain or too idealistic to really effect change in society, but perhaps no other effort has so managed to institutionalize the concept of a free, public library than Carnegie’s libraries.
While Carnegie never spelled out in writing any particular architectural requirements for the libraries, all of them seem to have a few things in common.
They generally came with local commitment of resources as well as use of local materials. They also almost always had some sort of grand stairway or staircase, even if the library was so small that that staircase was just leading into the building.
The staircase was intended as a symbol of the elevation and enlightenment of all who enter the library seeking knowledge.
New Life For Buffalo’s Carnegie Library
Buffalo’s Carnegie library is among the many that have been repurposed as the decades have marched by and community needs have changed.
“Buffalo was even smaller in 1909 than it is now, so the fact the community wanted a library in their tiny town then I think is a pretty cool piece of our history,” Bruner said. “We’re lucky that ours is still here.”
Several of Wyoming’s Carnegie libraries have been torn down, Bruner added. That includes the Carnegie libraries that used to be in Cheyenne, Sheridan, Casper, Douglas, Cody and Basin.
Johnson County received $12,500 from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation in 1909 to build its library. But the facility was small, and as the county has grown, it’s needed more room for books.
That led the library to migrate to a new and larger facility sometime in the 1980s, Bruner said. Soon after, the empty facility was repurposed. It became the entryway and gift shop for the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.
The project in 2006 wasn’t just about maintenance and repair. It also joined the former Carnegie library to the museum in a way that would make the space handicap accessible. With that project, the museum gained more space as well, and a new directional flow for its exhibits was implemented.
“Maintenance issues have been on the radar for, I think, a long time,” Bruner said. “And there’s been some kind of piecemeal work done, but it wasn’t necessarily the best work, because it didn’t have that historic preservation aspect.”
That’s led to the current situation, where the historic structure needs an estimated $600,000 in work to save it from further damage and ultimate ruin.
Rallying To Save History
The community has already begun to rally strongly around its former Carnegie library, which is now referred to as the Carnegie wing of the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum.
Through fundraisers, the community raised $30,000, which was matched by an anonymous donor for a total of $60,000. Johnson County officials, meanwhile, have been setting aside money for the work as well.
The first phase of work to save the structure is set to begin next week, Bruner told Cowboy State Daily, and it will start on the most endangered side, the east wall.
The first phase will cost an estimated $200,000.
“Johnson County commissioners have been very cooperative with us as far as management maintenance, trying to take care of all of our assets,” Bruner said. “I think the cool thing about breaking it into three phases is that gets that immediate, really the worst damage, resolved quicker. It also gives people an opportunity to actually see what is going on with the money that people are donating. The community can come and look at it and watch that work.”
The company doing the work is out of Missoula, Montana, Bruner said and specializes in this type of preservation work.
“He’s done work on Margo’s (Pottery and Fine Crafts), the courthouse and the Occidental (Hotel),” Bruner said. “He’s done a lot of work locally in Buffalo.”
There will be five people on the work crew, and people in the community are likely to see scaffolding going up next week on the side of the building where the repairs are happening.
“I am super wound-up about getting the work actually started because I just think it’s going to be really cool to see,” Bruner said. “I’m also worried because any kind of construction project when you start doing it, that’s when you start finding even more issues or problems.”
While the company is in town, it’s also going to do some work on the mural that’s on the side of the building at Margo’s Pottery and Fine Crafts, where there are some cracking issues.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.