GREENVILLE — Between 1883 and 1929, businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of 2,509 libraries around the world, in such diverse locations as the United States, Great Britain, Canada,, South Africa, New Zealand, Serbia, and Malaysia. In 1903, Carnegie pledged $25,000 for the construction of the Greenville Public Library.
Library director John Vehre had much to say about working in a historic building every day.
“Of course there’s always the beauty of the place, but then you also have the challenge of keeping it up,” Vehre said. “This building has served the community well for over a hundred years, and it’s adapted well over that time.”
The library building’s larger than average size is part of what has allowed it to be preserved for as long as it has, according to Vehre. Whereas a standard library at the time would’ve run about 5000 square feet, combined funding from Carnegie, Henry St. Clair, and the Greenville School Board allowed for 10,000. Garst Museum occupied the first floor of the building until 1947, when they moved into the actual Garst House, and this allowed the library itself to expand.
“If we hadn’t had that extra space to move into, the building may not have lasted,” Vehre said. “A lot of smaller libraries have started replacing their old Carnegie buildings when they expand.”
And expand they did, moving shelf space onto the first floor in 1947, and adding an elevator and additional wings, as well as renovating the third floor to provide office space, in 1989. All this was done with an eye toward remaining aesthetically consistent with the original building, however.
“A lot of times when people come in, we get a lot of compliments about how beautiful our building is,” Vehre said. “There’s a lot of times more charm, more character to an older building.”
Vehre said that many libraries lose a lot when they make the choice to expand into newer, more modern buildings.
“New isn’t always better,” Vehre said. “I imagine this old building could take a direct hit from a tornado and stay standing.”
Ultimately, Vehre said, the Greenville Library is a symbol of the great legacy left behind by Andrew Carnegie.
“It’s a beautiful building, and it’s also a reminder of a great thing that Andrew Carnegie did back in the day,” Vehre said. “He financed literally thousands of libraries worldwide. There are 250 library systems in Ohio, and a number of them started out as Carnegies.”
Genealogy specialist Carolyn Fisher was equally enthusiastic about the library’s beauty and architectural heritage. Fisher said there are groups that travel around the country specifically to visit old Carnegie libraries.
“It’s awesome,” Fisher said. “I just enjoy so much the people who travel to our area and stop in. They look up and are in awe of the beauty of our library. They say there are so many old Carnegie buildings that aren’t in use anymore, and have become dilapidated, and they so much enjoy seeing one treated as well as this one.”
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