By Amanda Myers, Point Park News Service
Built out of the ashes of the Homestead Strike of 1892, the 120-year history of the Carnegie Library of Homestead is rooted in both triumphant and tragic times.
As the staff and patrons celebrate the building’s anniversary in the fall, a look back at its current and past proceedings shows the intent of the library, its halls and various programs.
The building was designed with an eye for culture. The music hall is on the east end, the athletic club on the west end and the library in the central portion. It was meant to feel like a French Renaissance Chateau according to architects.
Renovations to the library took place during the financial collapse of 2008. That work shrank the library’s million-dollar endowment because there weren’t enough funds. Campaigning had to be undertaken to raise money for a new children’s reading room and other needed adjustments, according to library staff.
The library rebranded itself as “The Carnegie of Homestead” in 2014.
Today, the library continues to operate as a hub of activity for anyone who climbs the mountainous steps to its stately entrance. Visitors can not only take part in education resources but also have ways of getting outside their normal routine by way of swimming and other recreational activities. This wouldn’t be possible if not for the help of the staff.
Carol Shrieve, director of administration, detailed succinct logistics of the organization, such as employment.
“We employ a staff of 20, have approximately 15 subcontracted positions and almost 100 volunteers total,” she said. “Our annual budget is $1.1 million.”
Shrieve said funding comes from the Allegheny County Library Association, the Allegheny Regional Asset District and local government funding from Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.
The library attracts community members with programming and over 35,000 items for the public to choose from. For example, Stephen Laskaris, the library program coordinator, primarily runs the modern classroom located in the basement of the building.
“Between 10 to 20 children arrive after school for activities that depend on the night,” he said. “Tonight [Wednesday] is Lego night for the kids and tomorrow is anime club.”
Children now have access to technology steel mill workers would have envied, like laptops and 3D printers.
The Athletic Club offers Tai Chi and spinning taught by certified instructors. The gym membership program is available for fees that range from $35 monthly for adults, to $32 for seniors. For those who want to utilize the facility at their leisure, assistant manager of the Athletic Club, Katie Cherkes, explained the prices.
“We have a $5 drop-in fee for people who want to attend one of the group fitness classes, and a $10 daily fee for people if they want access to the pool and equipment,” she said.
The athletic club also keeps monthly reports that develop into an annual report of how many members it has each year, according to Cherkes.
“Our number grows each year,” she said. “In 2017 we had a total of 1,100 members.”
Community members and the public have enjoyed the music hall over the years. From the days of plays and orchestration, to national talent now taking the stage, change has been made in most areas. Original to the hall’s design, theater and concert attendees ascend the majestic white marble steps and can admire the relic of a pipe organ that remains in place, although it hasn’t worked in living memory according to staff.
Promotions for the music hall were taken over by Drusky Entertainment in 2007 as another form of revenue for the library. The library shares a percentage of the ticket price with the promoter. Since then, Drusky has helped bring notable acts that include comedian Marc Maron, The Smashing Pumpkins and David Crosby by way of Homestead.
These prosperous times are not reflective of a once struggling steel mill population. The Carnegie Library of Homestead would come to loom over that destruction and desolation as a beacon of hope.
“It sat above the steel mills the same way a manor would sit above a plantation,” Laskaris said.
When the library was established in 1898, Homestead was a mill town built by immigrants who worked long days in the steel mills and spent their evenings taking classes at the library by request of the steel mill owner, Andrew Carnegie.
The library was built as an act of good faith in the wake of the 1892 strike which saw dozens of workers on strike killed, after the success of already established libraries in nearby communities of Braddock and Oakland.
“Carnegie saw the library as a gesture of reconciliation, but it was also designed to control the population,” Laskaris said.
The strike of 1892 had a great impact on the town and created tension with big business controlled by Carnegie. Research text published by Mary Leon Solomon in 1998 highlights struggles and successes of a journey that allowed Homestead to become a cultural community.
“Legacy To A Mill Town: Carnegie Library of Homestead” presents an ambiguous picture of Carnegie and how he did and didn’t help residents. He may have given Homestead tools of advancement, but he didn’t particularly care on ensuring everyone had access to them. Segregation was an unfortunate factor. The library only allowed African-Americans to attend on Tuesdays if two members could vouch for them, Laskaris said. Because all the members were white, they could informally maintain this by never vouching.
Residents who had the privilege to enter the doors could not only push themselves further academically in the library but also athletically in the swimming pool located in the basement.
Promising talent allowed young women from Homestead to go all the way to the Olympics.
During the 1932 Los Angeles Games, Anna Mae Gorman and Lenore Kight competed as part of the U.S. women’s 400-meter freestyle swim team. Kight took home the silver medal that year. Both returned for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where Kight earned another medal in bronze. Plaques and photos of the team are displayed outside of the pool to commemorate the athletes.
The library plans to renovate parts of the building next year thanks to a $500,000 grant from an anonymous donor. The renovations will likely include an expansion of restrooms, an improvement to the not-so-comfortable wood seating of the music hall and renovations of rooms formerly used as offices by U.S. Steel, according to Laskaris.
As of now, there are no plans for the library to have an event in honor of its 120-year anniversary. The staff, board and volunteers do, however, have celebrations every four years through the Steel Valley Hall of Fame, which honors people of success who come from the region. These events started in 2008, with the next one set to take place in 2020. Shrieve oversees the process.
“During the celebrations, we honor celebrity sports figures, artists, actors/singers, prominent businessmen/women from across the U.S. who were born in the Steel Valley or currently reside in the community,” she said.
The library and its additional services continue to have a lasting effect on the community. Some may have read their first book there, or seen their first show in the music hall. Nearly every Homestead resident in the 40s and 50s learned to swim in the athletic club’s pool.
“If I see an old person come through the door and they are just looking around I’m like, ‘You’re here to see the pool,” Laskaris said.
People who helped the library after the 2008 economic collapse have bricks on the walkway outside memorializing their donations, along with pre-existing bricks from an earlier fund drive. This serves as a written testament to their community and the development of a legacy.