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Auburn’s Carnegie library sparkles at age 100

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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After 100 years, Auburn is still passionate about a building hidden on a quiet side street on a hill overlooking Downtown Auburn. Grandiosity makes some buildings much loved. For others, it’s the history that permeates the plaster, brick and wood. Still others have panache that screams “Love me.” The gem at 175 Almond St. has more than a smidgen of all those qualities but for Auburn residents like B C Brooks, the building’s role as a public educator makes it extra special. The Almond Street building was dedicated on May 26, 1909, as a public library. The structure, with its Classical Revival lines and features, was bankrolled by Andrew Carnegie – one of the world’s richest men during the pre-World War I era. In more recent years, the building has morphed into a studio space for artists. Seven artists now share space and were part of a 100th anniversary celebration Thursday during the Auburn Art Walk that included historical displays, speakers and the unveiling of a porcelain book sculpture. Brooks, an artist with a studio in the library building, said Carnegie would be pleased with how the building he helped finance had served residents of the foothills community over the past century. “Andrew Carnegie believed in a meritocracy,” Brooks said. “He believed that those who wanted to learn should be able to. ‘Free to all’ is what it says on the front of the building. Today, we’re still educating the public and inviting them in on art walks.” Carnegie was a steel and rail tycoon who decided in later years to devote his fortune to philanthropic interests. He started a grant program in California in 1899, with initial library funding in San Diego, Oakland and Alameda. Most of the grants were to smaller communities like Auburn and many were for $10,000. Conditions on the Auburn grant were that the city provide the land and spend a minimum of $1,000 for its upkeep. By the time Carnegie’s foundation finished its library-construction funding blitz in 1921, 142 free public libraries had been built in a variety of architectural styles throughout the state. The Auburn Public Library continued to serve the community at the Almond Street location for 59 years until it outgrew its space. The library now occupies a building opened in 1973 on Nevada Street. In 1983, ARTcetera gave the Almond Street building a new life, moving in and establishing studio space for artists. The books had departed in the 1960s but the magic of the temple-style structure has lived on. Paula Amerine, a member of the library centennial committee and one of the Old Library Art Studios artists, said she observes with wonderment as washes of light in the airy studio spaces shift around the interior during the day, following the sun’s path. “It’s perfect lighting,” Amerine said, adding that the building itself is in a picture-perfect setting. After 100 years, the library building can celebrate a centennial, with its vitality and relevance intact. “We’re still honoring it and consider ourselves stewards of this building,” Amerine said. “We want it to have a 200th year celebration.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.