Carnegie Library is the gateway to the small town's big history

The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall recently restored its Civil War room, where Union veterans used to meet, after it had been essentially closed for almost half a century.
The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall recently restored its Civil War room, where Union veterans used to meet, after it had been essentially closed for almost half a century. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)
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By Becky Krystal
Friday, February 12, 2010

Time may have forgotten Carnegie, Pa., but now may be the occasion to refresh its memory.

The borough lies an easy six miles west of Pittsburgh. Its picture-perfect Main Street looks as though it has been lifted from a model railroad. And on a hill overlooking it all sits a landmark that townspeople hope will draw visitors to this hamlet of about 8,000, a population that because of forces of nature and industry is nearly a third less than its peak in the 1940s.

Friday, on Abraham Lincoln's 201st birthday, the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall opens its newly restored Civil War room, a former meeting place for Union veterans that had been essentially shuttered for 50 years.

The Capt. Thomas Espy Post No. 153 of the Grand Army of the Republic received its charter in 1879 and moved into the library in 1906. The organization undertook to furnish and maintain its second-floor room in exchange for a promise from the library that it would protect the space and its many war relics once the post no longer existed.

Sadly, Executive Director Maggie Forbes said, the library did not keep its end of the bargain. Once the last member of the post died in 1937, the room was locked. Items disappeared from its displays and dust, mold and vermin moved in. Other than some rudimentary cleanup in the 1980s, nothing much happened to improve the post's condition.

"We knew what we had here, but we weren't in a position to do anything," Forbes said. At one point, the library's coffers had shrunk to $136. The entire facility needed an overhaul.

The library has raised nearly $7 million for renovations since a capital campaign began in 2003 with an anonymous $500,000 challenge grant. A 2008 donation from a local couple kicked off the effort to restore the Espy post, one of perhaps about a half-dozen such historically accurate GAR rooms left in the country, according to one expert. The work included installing a separate HVAC system for the room and windows with UV protection. To maintain historical accuracy, the library sent paint samples to a lab in Bryn Mawr, Pa., to determine the original wall color, which turned out to be, as Forbes put it, a lovely "pumpkin chiffon pie." Also replicated were two sets of stenciled borders and several light fixtures.

The veterans themselves made the restoration easier. In a 1911 pamphlet, they meticulously documented the room's almost 200 items, which ranged from bullets to cotton picked at Petersburg, Va., to a hornets' nest that formed around a Union canteen left in a tree near Gen. Robert E. Lee's Fredericksburg headquarters. Photos helped the library reconstruct how the room would have looked in the early 20th century.

"There were obviously members of this post who had a sense of posterity," Forbes said.

Forbes likes to call the room a time capsule. When I visited on a recent January morning, sunlight streamed through the windows that looked out over the snow-covered homes below. Disregarding a few modern trappings, she was spot-on. I wouldn't have put it past the magic of the moment to conjure a uniformed veteran who would take his seat under the serious portrait of Espy above the commander's chair.

Main Street conveys a similar sense of history. Bright blue lampposts line the sidewalks in front of shops, restaurants and offices. But there are also more than a few empty storefronts.

Carnegie -- pronounced Car-NAY-gie, thank you very much -- came into being in 1894, when two boroughs merged. In a clever act of solicitation, the new locality named itself after steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in exchange for his agreeing to endow a high school and, you guessed it, a library, which opened in 1901.

The borough grew along with the steel mills, the last of which closed nearly 50 years ago.

"A lot of people left town," said Irene Sekelik, a volunteer at the Historical Society of Carnegie. "We're so close to downtown Pittsburgh . . . so I don't know what keeps people away."

Inside the society's first-floor exhibit area is an amazingly detailed model of Main Street, meant to resemble how the town looked in the 1930s and '40s. "It was just jammed with people," Sekelik said of the street's sidewalks. "It was a thriving time."

Today, fewer people walk those same paths, particularly after a devastating flood in 2004 forced some businesses to close. Still, Carnegie's boosters hold out hope for the years to come.

Some artists have moved to the area, Sekelik said, and Forbes thinks the revival at the library may serve as the "linchpin" to bring more visitors to town. In addition to the reopening of the Civil War room, this Presidents' Day weekend's festivities include a display of 100 photographs of Lincoln that belong to Pittsburgh photographer Norman Schumm. They range in date from 1847 to 1865 and were developed from a set of negatives from photojournalist and author Stefan Lorant.

Forbes envisions similar-themed weekends in the future, with events such as reenactments, lectures and concerts at the library's music hall. For now, though, I was happy to enjoy the quiet charms of Carnegie: Watching the snow swirl off beautiful houses, admiring the view of the library from below and walking slowly up Main Street.

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