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The Tycoon and the T-Plan

December 21, 2009
Library entrance

Chestnut Hill Branch of Philadelphia’s Free Library system is a Carnegie Library. (Photo by Sabra Smith, 2009)

I had the pleasure of working with Catherine Lavoie and Lisa Davidson of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) who spent many hours researching Philadelphia’s remarkable collection of branch libraries, built in the early part of the 20th century with a grant from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Using their reports, I was able to write nominations for four Carnegie branch libraries that were added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in June 2009.

For more information, read this article I wrote for CRM:  The Journal of Heritage Stewardship (live link here, or click link below for pdf) to learn about the Tycoon, the T-Plan, the Mayor and HABS.  Have a look at the images and let me know if the words “quintessential library” don’t spring to mind.

Preserving Philadelphia’s Carnegie Branch Libraries_Sabra Smith (pdf)

Browse the HABS/HAER archives at the Library of Congress and see if they’ve documented anything in your neighborhood.  They do amazing work.  Insightful, thorough research, detailed drawings, time-in-a-bottle photography.  (You can order reasonably-priced prints from the archives — an inspired and unusual Christmas present idea for the history buff or architectural enthusiast on your list.)

T-Plan, click for article pdf

One of my other favorite repositories is Google Books.  It found a 1916 article in the Architectural Record about the Haddington branch (Kelsey and Cret), including floor plans and drawings and photographs of architectural details, including a cartouche of the “triple-headed bird of wisdom” (I never knew there was such a thing).  For pdf of the Haddington article, click link below or the t-plan thumbnail at right:

Haddington_Architectural Record July 1916

Here’s a quote from the article (by C. Matlack Price) that I think sums up my attitude about historic preservation in our day and age:

And in no type of public building have classic forms been more often called into service than in library buildings.  This, in many ways, is fortunate, for we instinctively feel that, in all propriety, the repository for a valuable collection of books should be dignified.

In pursuit of the ideal of dignity many architects have overlooked the element of humor in architecture and have forgotten that with qualities of dignity in a library building it is desirable also to combine in as strong a degree as possible qualities of an inviting character.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2009 2:12 pm

    It’s snowing in your block quote.

    Great idea for a gift, btw.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      December 21, 2009 2:27 pm

      It’s also a great resource for designers and decorators who want “custom” art for low-cost. The connection to something “real” with a story behind it means so much more than framed stock photos off the wall at Ikea. Or so says I.

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