By Alan Jaffe
The Philadelphia Historical Commission will hear a nomination on April 16 of four Carnegie Libraries to the historical register, a rare case of the city being asked to protect its own property.
“I can’t remember the last time a city-owned building was nominated” to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which is presenting the application. “The presumption is that the city will set a good example by acknowledging that historic buildings under city ownership should be protected as much as those under private ownership.”
The four branches – Haddington, Holmesburg, Logan and Kingsessing – had been on a list of 11 libraries scheduled to be shuttered in December because of the city’s billion-dollar budget gap. But they received a reprieve when communities throughout the city objected to the loss of their libraries. Gallery hopes to make that reprieve a permanent situation.
Councilman Bill Green has introduced a bill that would ensure the financial future of all 11 libraries. It would dedicate a portion of the city property tax revenue – about $33.5 million a year – for library maintenance and operation. Mayor Nutter has called Green’s measure “irresponsible.”
But the city of Philadelphia promised to be responsible for its Carnegie Libraries 100 years ago, Gallery said, and he has the documentation.
A pact signed Feb. 20, 1904, by then-Mayor John Weaver and the Free Library’s board of trustees, in accepting the gift of 30 planned library buildings from Andrew Carnegie, requires the city to “provide for the maintenance” of the Carnegie branches and dedicate 10 percent of “the annual tax levy” to cover the costs. Any surplus not used for maintenance of the buildings “shall be used for the purchase of books,” the 11-point agreement also states.
“There was this agreement to provide dedicated funding, and probably no one even knows that it exists,” Gallery said. “That was part of the agreement, which was approved also by the action of City Council, which was never rescinded.”
From 1886 to 1917, Carnegie provided $40 million for the construction of 1,600 libraries around the country, motivated by his belief that the wealthy should give back to society and that easily accessible libraries would give every citizen the opportunity to rise.
In Philadelphia, 25 branches were erected by some of the best architects of the era, most following the Carnegie beaux art design plan. A few have since been razed, others closed and reused as a nursing home or senior center; 20 are still libraries.
“They are these architectural gems that really stand out in their communities because they are such distinct buildings,” Gallery said.