Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 13, 2017

Carnegie Buildings, No Longer Libraries; What Now?

All things end. Scholars, students and fans of architecture know it as well as anyone. Palaces, temples, cities and entire civilizations have come and gone, sometimes leaving magnificent ruins, but just as often only grass-covered mounds or bare stone walls.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4188 (640x429)

Buildings have life cycles, though, and don’t necessarily fulfill their original purpose, then cease to be. As I pursue my hobby of visiting libraries, it’s common to encounter former Carnegie Library buildings that have changed roles. They may be converted to anything from community centers, commercial offices or storage space, or simply derelict.

No matter how attractive or historically or culturally significant, an old building presents problems after a certain age. Making them compliant with fire, earthquake and safety standards, accessibility requirements, or updating the plumbing, heating and electrical systems are all problematic, let alone the expense of maintaining old structures. Sometimes, they simply have to go.

Of 1,689 Carnegie libraries constructed in the U.S., a 1992 survey found that 1,554 buildings still stood, 911 of them still in use as libraries. There are, then, more than 600 buildings otherwise employed … or not in use.

I visited 7 Carnegie buildings on a recent trip from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. Here are a couple that fit into the “other”category.

Portland, Oregon

The Multnomah County Library System serves most of the Portland metro area and its 2 million people. I’ve written about several Portland Carnegies, one an active part of the Multnomah system, another serving as Multnomah County’s outlet for used books, the Title Wave Book Store, and the former East Portland branch, now an office building.

In 1909, Portland received a Carnegie grant to build 5 libraries. One of them was in the Arleta neighborhood, in the city’s Southeast district. Today, it’s easy to drive past the unimposing building without noticing it.

Arleta Portland Carnegie Brad Nixon 7670 (480x640)

That colonial revival exterior is a rather odd choice for the fast-growing, rough-and-ready northwest logging and shipping center Portland had become in its day. It lacks the imposing, classical styles a preponderance of the Carnegies sported.

Carnegie Library Portland OR Arleta Brad Nixon 7671 (480x640)

After Multnomah relocated its Arleta branch, the building became a recording studio, now defunct. Although I tried, there’s not much of the interior to see through the doorlights. A rear portion of the building houses a retail music instrument and equipment store.

For Arleta, good news/bad news: The Carnegie’s underutilized, but the neighborhood’s still served by a thriving library system at a different location.

You can find the former Arleta branch at 4420 SE 64th Ave., Portland, Oregon.

Eureka, California

The northwestern California port town of Eureka is a treasure trove of Victorian era architecture, the most spectacular example being the Carson Mansion.

Eureka CA Carson Mansion horiz Brad Nixon 7351 (640x472)

Eureka boomed in the 19th Century when throngs of would-be gold prospectors found the gold not worth pursuing, and turned instead to the timber business. The town exploded in scale with the demand for the Coast Redwoods that were clear-cut and shipped to markets worldwide. As I’ve written, only 3% of the original redwood forest remains, most of it in national and state parks and preserves.

Redwood National Park Brad Nixon 7396 (640x480)

Today, Eureka’s a rarity: a town of wooden houses that never suffered a disastrous fire, still standing in large numbers because the town never experienced another boom and the sort of urban renewal that has replaced much of the original architecture in thousands of American towns.

As the city prospered, the citizens of Eureka also built a library, which opened in 1904, with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation.

Carnegie Library Eureka CA Brad Nixon 7295 (640x475)

The exterior says it all: imposing, grandiose, solid, established: a town to be reckoned with, with a population focused on the future.

Carnegie Library Eureka CA Brad Nixon 7318 (640x471)

Things change, grow old, and are replaced, The Humboldt County Library opened a new Eureka branch in the 1970s, relegating the original building to a variety of administrative roles. In time, though, the structure had outlived its usefulness in the system.

Finding a purpose for a large, old expensive-to-maintain structure in a town of modest size is a considerable challenge. Seven decades after establishing their library, though, the citizens of Eureka (and Humboldt County) proved to have the drive and ambition to do it. After extensive renovation, the building reopened in 2000 as the Morris Graves Museum of Art.

They had assistance from Graves himself (1910-2001), American expressionist painter, a central figure in what’s known as the Northwestern School of art. He lived the last 35 years of his life living near Eureka and endowed the with his personal art collection and a number of his major paintings.

I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Graves’ work until this trip to northern California and Oregon. Visiting the Portland Art Museum, I saw my first-ever Graves painting, among the works included at this link to the museum’s collection.

I regret don’t have interior photos of the building. I was there on a Sunday morning before the museum opened. Here’s a look through the front door, with a glimpse of the intriguing second floor mezzanine.

Eureka libe int Brad Nixon 7307 (640x484)

We’ll see more of Eureka in a later post.

The Morris Graves Museum is at 636 F St., Eureka, CA 95501.

Leave me a comment if you’re familiar with the museum, or let me know if you visit.

I have another repurposed Carnegie Library from the trip through California and Oregon to report on. Stay tuned.

Most of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017


  1. A very interesting article Brad. I’m always eager to read about Carnegie libraries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What beautiful buildings! I hope the preservationists win; but it will surely be a battle against the developers and politicians who want to “modernize” and erase culture and history.

    Such forces exist everywhere, even in magnificent capitals like Paris. Were it not for 1960s French cultural affairs minister Andre Malraux, Paris would look very different than it does today (to the loss of the world). In those days, the pols and developers wanted to tear down the Marais, a quarter of spectacular and historic 17th and 18th century buildings. By the 1960s much of the area had suffered urban blight. But Malraux wanted to restore rather than destroy. Thankfully his efforts prevailed, and a lot of travel pix you see today come from that lovely quarter.

    Other boneheaded ideas Malraux had to fight were proposals to erase Paris’ historic center and put up blocks of identical highrises, and to remove the walkways along the Seine and replace with freeways. Mai oui!

    Fighting the rich and powerful takes endless will, courage, and stamina.


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