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Braddock library looking ahead at 125th anniversary

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 2:59 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
The exterior of the Braddock Carnegie Library. This was the first of Andrew Carnegie's libraries in the United States, built in 1889.

John Hempel remembers his father, Robert, pausing every time he drove past the Braddock Carnegie Library.

“That's where I taught myself to read,” Robert would tell his young son as he'd point to the stately building.

The elder Hempel's story likely mirrors those held by many residents of the library's service area. For more than a century, the building has served as a hub for community activity and education, as intended by its founder and namesake, Andrew Carnegie. As the 125th anniversary of the building approaches, library leaders are preparing to celebrate all that has taken place during its storied past.

“Andrew Carnegie said he intended this to be a center for light and learning for generations to come,” says John Hempel of Braddock Hills, president of the library's board. The memories of his father inspired Hempel to get involved more than two decades ago. “It's such a neat mission statement and really what the whole place is all about.”

The library, serving Braddock, North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, Turtle Creek and Chalfant, was the first Carnegie Library built in the United States. Andrew Carnegie dedicated it on March 30, 1889.

The building has always been much more than a library and housed various recreational facilities, a bathhouse and more. An 1893 addition doubled the size of the building and extended the building's use even further with a music hall, gymnasium, swimming pool and a two-lane duckpin alley.

In 1974, a lack of funds needed for repairs forced the library's closure. It was slated for demolition in the late 1970s when a group of residents led by librarian David Solomon organized to save it.

The building reopened as a children's library in 1983. The wood-paneled gym was restored in the early 1990s, and the roof was restored in 1998.

The library was named a National Historic Landmark in 2012 and is on the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation's list of historic landmarks.

While use of all the facilities has changed over the years, Vicki Vargo, executive director, says the library's mission has always been about meeting the needs of the community.

“This has all been a learning process,” says Vargo, who's held her position for 13 years. “We've worn many hats based on what the community needs. We've refined our role in the community.”

Leaders have learned, she says, to differentiate which services they should offer exclusively and which ones they should partner with existing organizations to provide.

“We've been a lot of things,” Vargo says. “We tried following what the building originally was, with athletics and after-school programs. We were doing everything except being a library. We took some time to look at that and say, ‘What do we want to be when we grow up?' ”

Library leaders finished a strategic plan last year focused on renovation needs and green initiatives. They also have found creative ways to use existing space. A formerly unused area is now the Art Lending Program, run by art collective Transformazium, which operates out of the library. There is a puppet room, used for workshops and storage of completed pieces, some of which are available to be checked out. There is a print shop on the top level and a ceramic studio in the basement. Vargo hopes to have a master plan implemented within the next decade. Questions remain, such as what to do with the swimming pool. Quantum Theatre used the space for a show, sparking a conversation of converting it into a permanent performance space. Vargo sees it more suited for a space to sell books and have a small cafe.

Despite its name, the library is not a branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, but operates independently, Vargo says. Leaders have several efforts planned for the 125th year to raise money needed for an operating reserve fund, renovations and more.

Vargo calls the library a “beacon of stability in the community.”

“Braddock has been through a lot of changes,” Vargo says. “We need people to know we've been here through the good and the bad and now the good again. We have full intentions to stay here and be here for generations.”

Library leaders hope to further solidify that goal with the Billion Pennies Campaign, its effort to raise $10 million by March 2015. Donations will be accepted in any denomination for a reserve fund, renovations of the courtyard and rest rooms, heating system upgrades and more.

Extensive work also is needed in the library's second-floor music hall, a space abandoned since the 1970s, when a leaky roof caused its closure. Hempel has made it his personal goal to bring the performance space back to life.

Hempel, a retired biochemist who's no stranger to grant applications, has been organizing proposals and fundraising efforts for the space for years. He recalls the first application, to the Heinz Endowments, a task the scope of which made Hempel wonder if he was ready to pursue such a large undertaking.

“It was an extensively detailed application,” he remembers. “I was beginning to wonder if we were really ready to tackle this.” Hempel pauses to wipe away tears springing at the corners of his eyes. He called the agency. “They said, ‘We met yesterday. We want to give you the money.' ”

It was enough to get some of the work under way.

By the late 1990s, stripping away paint on the hall's ceiling had revealed a pattern painted on the perimeter of the skylight, which was replicated with stenciling. The skylight, originally used as a backup for unreliable electricity, now depicts a painted Braddock sky finished by New Guild Studios in 1998.

Hempel and others dedicated to restoring the space had a “great head of steam to keep going” in 2000, when a gas leak in the basement closed the library for six months. Other necessary building repairs delayed music-hall work for some time, leading Hempel to focus on restoration of the original cast-iron, wood and velour chairs. Hempel worked with a local restoration company to repair about 50 chairs, when he realized the pine flooring was not stable enough to hold them. Replacing it became the next priority.

Over the years, other organizations have contributed to repairs including the Hillman Foundation, Allegheny Foundation, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Eden Hall Foundation and Rivers of Steel.

Hempel now spends a few days a week working on the space, tearing up old floor boards, and replacing them when he has a second person to help. The only music playing in the hall is from his radio, but Hempel has a vision of a wide range of performers taking to the stage once his work is complete.

Getting to that point will cost at least $250,000, he estimates. He's willing to keep working until every dime is raised, no matter how long that takes.

“I'd rather have it done right than be pushing up against some deadline,” he says.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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