Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 8, 2016

A California Carnegie Library: SLO

I’m a stalwart advocate of free, public libraries. Wherever I travel, I enjoy seeing local libraries, because it reaffirms my conviction that communities play an important role in fostering literacy and understanding through their libraries, large or small.

I’ve featured numerous historic libraries constructed with funds from the Carnegie foundation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, they represented a rich resource for communities to enrich the lives of their citizens Recently, I visited one in San Luis Obispo, California (SLO).

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3554

San Luis Obispo was founded in 1792 as Mission San Luis Obispo de Toloso. The city moved its existing subscription library, established in 1894, into the new Carnegie-funded building across the street from the Mission in 1905 to serve the fast-growing community. The building’s granite foundation came from nearby Mt Bishop, and the sandstone arches, sills and corner coining are of local sandstone.

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3558

The architect was William H. Weeks, who designed hundreds of buildings in his career, including 21 Carnegie libraries in California.

The style is referred to as Richardsonian Romanesque. Take a closer look at the distinctive (and wonderful) sandstone relief carving in the two gables.

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3557

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3559

(Does anyone out there know what these fantastical faces represent?)

The building served as the San Luis Obispo library until 1955. It then became the San Luis Obispo County Museum, now known as the History Center of San Luis Obsipo County.

In order to remain usable under California earthquake standards, the structure required a multi-million dollar retrofitting, which included stripping all the woodwork and plaster from the interior walls in order to install steel reinforcing. Restored, the interior is now open and spare, but retains much of its original detail and character. That includes at least some of the original dental and cornice mouldings, which a knowledgeable History Center docent told us were ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog.

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3568

It’s also worth recalling that in 1905, those chimneys visible on the outside weren’t merely decorative, they vented the fireplaces that heated the building.

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3564

A few original furnishings remain, including this artifact, recognizable to library users of the past, but increasingly unfamiliar to younger ones of the present.

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3565

Yes, SLO still has a library, part of the San Luis Obispo County Library system.

SLO Library Brad Nixon IMG_3679

(Those distinctive purple trees are Jacarandas.)

To see more articles about other libraries, including numerous Carnegies, click on Architecture|Libraries in “Categories” in the right-hand column.

Have a library built with Carnegie funds in your town? I’d love to hear from you (especially those of you outside the U.S.) in a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2016

Postscript: Those faces

Fellow musician and UK-based blogger, Nick, suggests that the faces on the library may be related to the Green Man motif, faces formed of leaves, branches and plants. HERE are images to which Nick linked. You can follow Nick’s blog, “Thoughts While Shaving” at (Nick is an actuary, hence, “shaving.”)

Regular reader and commenter, La Boheme, suggests that those faces are examples of mascarons, which Wikipedia defines as, “a face, usually human, sometimes frightening or chimeric whose function was originally to frighten away evil spirits so that they would not enter the building. Interestingly, the Wikipedia mascaron entry also suggests a relationship with the Green Man motif Nick proposed.

I’m pursuing further information with some sources in San Luis Obispo, to see if I can answer my own question.



  1. Those ‘fantastical faces’ look awfully like Green Man to me… here’s an example (hope the link works):


    • Interesting. Hadn’t thought of it. You could be right. The Green Man legend doesn’t have the currency here in the States that it does across a wide swath of England, but one never knows where a visual theme might’ve originated. Thanks!


    • I added your suggestion to the post as a postscript, which is a double-entendre if ever there was one.


  2. We have an old Carnegie building in our town which used to house the library, but it is now a private residence with (as far as I know) has only 1 occupant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. Yes, I see it on the list: 1904. What a remarkable building to serve as a residence. Your town is full of interesting buildings. That courthouse is impressive. Worth noting that Indiana has the highest number of Carnegie public libraries (165) of any U.S. State.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, this whole area is full of interesting architecture. Rochester has recently received a grant to work on store facades in the “historic” district.

        I did not know that Indiana has the highest number of Carnegie libraries. Now are those active libraries or buildings? I am aware of some that still operate in Carnegie buildings.


      • 156 original grants resulting in 165 public libraries, irrespective of their current status. Here’s the U.S. list. Click on Indiana:

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks!


      • I also meant to say that yes, the court house is rather impressive. It is currently undergoing some renovation due to it’s age. I believe there are photos of it dating back into the late 1800’s? Anyway, there are very old photos of it.

        It has lions on top of pillars that “guard” it and underneath there platforms there are actual time capsules from various generations buried there! Lots of history surrounding that building.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. We have England’s first Carnegie library not do far away from where I live. It’s thankfully still a library today and is a magnificent building. I’ll write a post on it later in the year.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know what those mascarons represent exactly; however, I do know they are a common above door decorative element for 17th and 18th C. Paris hotels particuliers and major govt buildings in France. The mascarons can be human or animal heads or a combination of the two (like a human lion) and sometimes derive from Greek mythology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Je l’ai appris un mot nouveau. Merci.


      • Paris’ Marais quartier is the place to be for those interested in beautiful 17th and 18th C. sculpted doors and facades. The area is loaded with spectacular hotels particuliers, some of which are open to the public. ☺️


    • I added your suggestion to the post as a postscript, which is a double-entendre if ever there was one.


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