words and photos by Charlotte Gintert
The Main Library had a couple of homes before arriving at its current location on South High Street. Its first home was on the northeast corner of High Street and East Market Street in what is now called the Carnegie Building.
Why do we call it the Carnegie? Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated $60 million of his personal fortune to fund the construction of 1,689 public libraries in the United States in the early 1900s. Akron received one of them, built between 1903 and 1904.
Celebrated local architect Frank Orlando Weary designed the building in the Beaux Arts/French Renaissance style. The oldest library in Washington, D.C. is also a Carnegie Library built in the Beaux Arts style. The words inscribed above those doors are “Science, Poetry, History.”
Akron’s Carnegie Building has the egalitarian phrase “Open To All” over its East Market Street doors. Carnegie libraries were some of the first public buildings that were truly open to all members of the public, regardless of gender, race, or economic standing. In some cities, these libraries were the only places African Americans could use the bathroom.
The Carnegie Building was also the first home of the Akron Art Institute, which is today the Akron Art Museum. The Akron Art Institute began in two rooms of the library’s basement in 1922. The library moved out of the building in 1948 and relocated to the Akron Beacon Journal’s former headquarters on East Market and Summit Streets, in the building that is now home to Summit Artspace. The Art Institute expanded to occupy the vacated library space and remained in the Carnegie Building until 1981.
The Carnegie Building is the only example of the Beaux Arts style in downtown Akron today. The Akron Armory, demolished long ago, was the only other building designed in this style.
The front facade features sculptures of open books and it is inscribed with the names of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Socrates and Herodotus. The highly ornate escutcheon on the central pavilion features the date of construction in Roman numerals, an Athenian lamp of knowledge and another open book. The front entrance is framed by two dramatic column lamp posts.
The building has undergone changes over the years. When Market Street was widened, the original front central staircase was replaced with two side staircases so visitors would not step into traffic. The Art Institute significantly remodeled the interior. The building underwent restoration after the Art Institute left the space and has been used as offices ever since.
While many Carnegie libraries have been demolished across the country, Akron’s building survives. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 2000, it was rededicated as the Carnegie Building. Despite the modifications, it remains an excellent example of early 20th century architecture in Akron.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.