Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 8, 2011

Palo Alto's first public library

Andrew Carnegie Library on Hamilton Avenue preceded current branch downtown

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie helped fund the first permanent library in Palo Alto, which was built in 1904 on Hamilton Avenue and Bryant Street, where City Hall now stands. Town trustee and later mayor John F. Parkinson had approached Carnegie for the funding during a trip to the East Coast and eventually was awarded a $10,000 grant, about half of what was needed, according to the monograph "Palo Alto and its Libraries — A Long-Time Love Affair" by Tom Wyman.

But it was enough to get started.

Residents crowded the street as the cornerstone was laid in 1903, with Stanford University president David Starr Jordan giving the keynote address.

The new 5,000-volume Andrew Carnegie Library opened in 1904, a modified Florentine Renaissance structure with a red-tile roof and heavy-beam construction.

Two years later, the sturdy edifice withstood the 1906 earthquake, but lowered property values from widespread damage reduced library funds.

The earthquake brought other problems to the library.

"From our mattresses out on the front lawn, we could see the glare of the fire (in San Francisco) in the sky, and there was trouble at night in the Public Library with some hoodlum refugees from San Francisco," first City Librarian Anne Hadden wrote.

The city wanted to expand the library to add a newspaper room, children's room and more shelf space in 1910 and again asked Carnegie for funding, but he refused. Subsequent library bonds for the expansion were narrowly defeated in 1912 and 1913, Wyman noted.

But strong public support in 1921 resulted in passage of a $40,000 library bond, with a library annex built in 1922 by architects Arthur Clark and his son, Birge Clark.

Library circulation now topped 100,000 in 1925, Wyman noted.

The library came to have additional uses in times of crises. It became a defense information center during World War II, and its basement was declared an emergency station in the event of a disaster, according to Wyman.

By 1957 some in the city thought it was time to shut the old library down. The city's branch-library system was well under way: Mayfield (on California Avenue), College Terrace and Children's libraries had been constructed, and two more libraries, Main and Mitchell Park, were in the pipeline.

Residents protested loudly to the downtown library's proposed demolition. Some urged keeping the old building as a cultural and recreation center for seniors; business associations wanted to make room for downtown parking, Wyman said.

The Carnegie Library was demolished in 1967 to make way for City Hall and the underground parking structure. The Downtown Library branch temporarily moved to a commercial storefront at 420 Ramona St. After four years and numerous delays, the new Downtown Branch Library opened on March 8, 1971, at its present location at Bryant Street and Forest Avenue.

The new library housed a senior center (now Avenidas, located at the old police and fire station on Bryant Street) and two large public meeting rooms, according to Wyman. Decorative wrought-iron grille work — all that remained from the Carnegie Library — was incorporated in the new library's front and back patio gates.

— Sue Dremann

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