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Preserving history: Grant awarded to 'Carnegie Library,' historical society

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Children sit down for an activity in the Children's Library in the basement of the Carenegie Library building, 203 N. Main. The Children's Library was part of a 1937 expansion to a building opened in 1904.
The Carnegie Library was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Gov. Laura Kelly recently announced that the Historic Sites Board of Review awarded $1,168,492 for 15 historic preservation projects across the state as part of the 2021 round of Heritage Trust Fund grants. One of those grants is headed to the Harvey County Historical Society for work on the building it calls home. 

"We will be fixing our flat roof. It is long overdue. It is just old, and the materials are wearing away. It is time for a new one, it is time to get fixed," said Catherine Graves, director of the museum. 

Roof issues are nearly as old as the building itsself. Librarians began complaining of leaky roofs as early as 1916 in a building opened to the public in 1904. The complaints increased into the 1950s despite efforts to fix the problem with rubberized roofing, then later tar roofing and eventually paint-covered metal roofing.

The Heritage Trust Fund grant is for $29,734 to the Newton Carnegie Library. The Carnegie Library was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Despite those roof issues, the building has remained at Second and Main, and it is considered one of the more striking buildings of downtown. In 1904, The Newton Kansan called the opening an “epoch in Newton’s History.” It was the beginning a nearly 70-year run as a bastion of literature and community culture.

“The Kansan talks about its oak floors and trim,” said curator Kris Schmucker in a 2015 interview. “I think people were proud of it. ... I think they saw it as an honor to get the money. Of course the building was very nice too.”

The money was a grant from Andrew Carnegie that moved the building project forward all those years ago. 

The building is one of 59 libraries built in Kansas by grants from Andrew Carnegie.

The Carnegie Library was completed in 1904 and designed by architect William W. Rose in a Neoclassical style.

"It is a beautiful building. That is why we tried for this heritage trust fund (grant), for upkeep of it," Graves said. 

Carnegie was a Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist who led the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century to become one of the wealthiest Americans in history. He became a leading philanthropist in the United States and in the British Empire.

His contribution to the Newton community allowed the public library to finally find a permanent location. In the years leading up to 1901 the Newton Free Library had bounced around the second floors of multiple downtown buildings. Discussions began that year over the possibility of giving the library a permanent home. A year later, local library board member, J.W. Patterson sent a letter to Carnegie in request of funds.

“We very much desire to have a building of our own, where we can keep up the library as it should be,” he wrote.

Even though the library has moved on to a location in Military Park — and there is a current fund-raising campaign to replace that building — the Carnegie building continues to play a role in the education and history of Newton as the home of the Harvey County Historical Society and Archives. Opened in 1974, the museum features exhibits about the county's history and culture, offers public programs and speakers, operates the 1873 Kellas School and houses an archive of historic photos and documents.

According to the Newton Public Library website, Clara Rand of Chicago, a teacher in Newton schools, promoted the idea of a library for Newton in the late 1870s. The "Ben Franklin Library," a semi-private venture, was established and later the Newton Public Library Association was organized with an membership fee. In 1886, at a special election, the citizens voted to establish and support the Newton Free Library.

The location for a new library, to be constructed using funds from Carnegie, was selected after E.C. Llewellyn donated property at second and Main — on the edge of the old Hyde Park District. About a block to the west was the site of one of the deadliest gunfights in the old Wild West. 

After an initial offer of $10,000, continued conversation led to $15,000 being granted, “If the city of Newton pledges itself by Council to support a Free Public Library at a cost of no less than $1,000 a year and provides a suitable site,” wrote James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary.

Carnegie gifted $15,000, equivalent in purchasing power to about $465,100 today, to the effort. The city guaranteed, at that time, $1,500 in yearly maintenance. On March 14, 1904, the Newton Free Library held an open house in its new building.

In the early years, the second floor housed “Carnegie Hall” with a stage and dressing room for plays and events. Patronage was so constant a $5,000 extension was added in 1924.

In 1937, the Children’s Library was established in the basement, beckoning little readers for the next 30 years.

The Carnegie Library was constructed to  serve a population of 8,000. In 2021 it is the  oldest public building in Newton. In 1904, it became a member of the American Library Association. With periodic remodeling, the Carnegie Library served the needs of the community for many years.

On April 19, 1966, the city commission voted to set aside one mill annually for 10 years to accumulate funds to build a new library. Utilizing those funds and grant funds, a project at the corner of Seventh and Oak moved forward in 1972. 

Transfer from the old Carnegie Library at the corner of 2nd and Main was made to the Newton Public Library in February 1973, and a ribbon-cutting and open house was held on April 1, 1973.

Soon after, the Carnegie building was deeded to the Harvey County Historical Society for $1.