Library Anniversary

by Lynn McKeown

We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the first Galesburg Public Library on Simmons Street. The old library building was dedicated there in June of 1902. Many long-time local residents have fond memories of the building, which burned in 1958. Possibly things sometimes appear more grand and beautiful in memory than they really were, but, as photos of the library make clear, it was, in its way, a beautiful structure.

The Galesburg City Council first approved a plan to build a new public library in 1894. It was estimated that the total cost would be $50,000, and the first installment of $12,500 was appropriated the next year. Actual work on the building eventually started in 1900. In 1901 the City gained a great ally in its project when millionaire steel manufacturer and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie made a gift of $50,000 to the City on condition that it agree to provide a site and raise $5,000 annually for the ''keeping up'' of the library.

There is a glowing account in the Galesburg Daily Mail of the new library's dedication ceremony, held across the street in the Central Congregational Church on June 3rd, 1902. The speeches on the occasion are also contained in a dedication booklet published at the time. They included short (for the time) speeches by local politician and writer Clark E. Carr; banker and library board president Albert Perry; Galesburg Mayor W. O. Bradley; merchant and board member E. R. Drake, who spoke on the history of Galesburg's public library; and even the general contractor, Charles Bartlett. Charles Ellwood Nash, president of Lombard College, gave the invocation.

The main speaker of the afternoon was George R. Peck, of Chicago, lawyer for the Santa Fe Railroad and an acclaimed orator. Peck gave a lengthy address on the value of books and knowledge for civilization, complete with quotes from Emerson, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and the Book of Job. There was also much praise for philanthropist Carnegie and his gift to the city.

The whole affair was a splendid one, according to the newspaper reporter, with an audience made up of ''Grand Army (Civil War) veterans, clad in their regalia Š hosts of public school children, members of the City Council, and members of the Board of Education,'' as well as the general public. The Galesburg Musical Union performed for the audience, including the ''Hallelujah Chorus'' from Handel's Messiah. Afterward, everyone was allowed to go over and tour the flower bedecked library building, though it was noted that no books could be checked out on the first day.

Much of the Mail article is taken up with an exhaustively detailed physical description of the new library. It is noted that the exterior of the Romanesque building was made of stone, which was felt to give ''results which could not have been obtained with cheaper material.'' Other materials were also considered of good quality, including ''the best grade of Purington brick.''

It is also noted, ''the floor joists are all yellow pine, all heavy beams and girders being steel. The bearing and division walls and partitions from basement to top of main floor are brick -- making a semi fire proof building.'' (This comment seems somewhat ironic, in view of the 1958 fire.) ''The main cornices of the building were constructed in heavy copper supported by medallions''

The newspaper article also gives a detailed description of the interior of the library, including what ''will be the public's chief delight,'' the second floor reading room. This room is said to have a 21 foot ceiling with ''four heavy columns with massive square bases, several feet high, formed of the handmatched gray Tennessee marble which is used unlimitedly all through the building and which is one of its chief beauties. There is also a large fireplace made of oak and marble and above it a fresco representing ''Literature and Fame,'' done by Lawrence Maclver of Minneapolis, Minn.

The system of illumination, including incandescent and gas lights, is described, as well as the steam radiators, which ''are of the low, long style, and each is fitted with a patent heat regulator which, by manipulating one of the two or three thermostats in the room, is adjusted so that the steam boilers in the basement will send only the heat desired for the room'' -- probably state-of the-art technology for the time. Visitors to the library would be walking on hardwood floors ''covered with linoleum, imported directly from Germany.''

On the exterior of the building there was an entablature with names of ''men of science, art or letters.'' The names were: Homer, Vergil, Bacon, Chaucer, Shakespeare (centrally located over the front door), Milton, Darwin, Dante, Aristotle, Longfellow, Scott, Hawthorne, Burns, Tennyson, Hugo, Whittier, Franklin, Irving, Goethe, Lowell, Emerson, Dickens, Thackeray and Bancroft. (The latter was probably George Bancroft, a famous historian. Two inscriptions on the south side are obscured in photos of the building; one of them may be Whitman.) George Peck, in his oration, mentioned several of these names, including Darwin, whom he praised as one of the great scientists of the age.

The article ends with a few statistics (''21 cars'' of blue Bedford sandstone'' from Indiana and ''nearly 1,000,000 Galesburg brick'' were used in the building) and a quite detailed listing of all the various contractors who provided work and materials.

Local firms included: Churchill & Hemenway (sheet-metal work), Lass & Larson (glass and painting), Erastus Winn (lath and plaster), Ed Allen (setting of gas fixtures and electrical wiring), Hjerpe & Munson (cement floors), Kellogg, Drake & Co. (linoleum), Galesburg Furniture Co. and A. Dean & Son (furniture), O.T. Johnson & Co. (window shades), J.P. Quigley (plumbing and gas fitting), C.S. Telford (steam heat), Frost Manufacturing Co. (boilers), Terry & Lewis (cement walks), W.B.Hutchinson (interior finish), G.D. Colton & Co. (screens) and McIntosh of Monmouth (ornamental and structural iron work).

The general contractors for the building were Bartlett & Kling of Keokuk, Iowa, and the architect was J. Grant Beadle of Galesburg. Charles Miller, also of Galesburg, was the superintendent of construction.

Was it a great loss to the city when this building burned? The old building would have had its problems. It would probably have been more costly to heat, cool and maintain than the modern building, and it might have been difficult to adapt it to modern technology, including computers. Parts of the building would not have met modern standards for the disabled.

But there was a grandeur about the old library -- and other buildings of its era -- which modern buildings lack. The 1902 library was a temple of books and learning. Galesburg of the time had come a long way from the frontier Log City still within living memory. The Galesburgers of 1902 were making a statement (with a little help from Andrew Carnegie) about the city's prosperity and a new level of civilization that they hoped prosperity was bringing with it. The name given the library at the time was ''Galesburg Free Public Library.'' The staunch civic leaders of the city wanted to create a place where the great writing and thought of the world would be available for everyone.That grand old building no longer exists, but the current Library's mission is the same.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website March 13, 2002

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