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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Secrets of the Main Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, August 23, 2015

A lot of traffic passes by the Main Library at 4th & Slack Streets on any given day, and I often am asked about the odd little windows that are on the tower portion of the building.  What secrets do they hold?


The short answer is “none.”


When the Carnegie Building opened in 1902, the tower extended 105 ft. into the air and terminated with a pointed roof.  In 1956, the top 35 ft. of the tower was removed due to deterioration and a flat roof was installed at the point of termination.


The tower had been a problem from Day 1, as early as 1908 the pointed roof of the tower was leaking and no amount of “tar roofing” seemed to fix it. 


The problem was enhanced by the fact that the face of the tower changed from stone to brick at the 70 ft. mark, and rain and freezing and thawing caused the bricks to lose their face, leading to deterioration.  The top portion of the tower also contained four round windows that were intended for clock faces --- never installed due to cost.


So, as it appears today, the tower is a 70 ft. tall square faced with stone, yet the interior is actually brick.


There is one floor level in the tower, where the arched windows appear right over the front door.  The small room was designed to be the Librarian’s Office and Board Room, but the 34 marble spiral steps leading to it made it inconvenient for that purpose.


Today, it is storage for the library, some books on shelves and various odds and ends.  Occasionally, something gets pushed against the frosted glass windows and appears peculiar from the street, lending to the supposition that “someone is up there.”


When Jimmy Carter was running for President in 1976 and his caravan passed the Library on 4th Street, library staff clamored around those windows for a view of the event, until the Secret Service shut down the tower room, saying, “It looks too much like a School Book Depository.”


Further up the tower are two small windows, and inside the upper tower are two levels of platforms intended to carry the clock mechanism.  There is also a huge round duct pipe that was supposed to bring fresh air into the library, but that design also failed and it is sealed off.


The library attic is full of ductwork, both the ill-fated 1902 system to bring air into the reading rooms, as well as 1970s era air conditioning ductwork that actually work.  The original library ceilings are concrete, suspended from steel I-beams attached to the top of the exterior walls.


The lower level windows bring the same curiosity, but I am sorry to say that the downstairs portion of the library brings no surprises as well.


The Children’s Library is on the left side in an area that served as a public meeting room until 1941 when the children’s collection was relocated there. 


To the right is the former coal bin area that housed coal for the steam boiler for the building until 1957 when a new gas steam boiler was installed.  That area houses the Bookmobile Offices and the Technical Services Cataloging Dept. which processes all of the books and A-V for the countywide library system.


In the rear addition are offices for the Fiscal Officer, Public Relations, and my office.  This wing of the building was added in 1963.


You will be seeing some changes to the Main Library shortly, as a contract has been issued to replace the 64 windows on the main floor level with exact reproduction windows, replacing the original windows with their 1970 storm windows.


The Library Board hired Valentour, English, Bodnar & Howell Architects last year to work on a two-phase project to replace the windows, and address ADA accessibility issues with the building with a new entrance, stairways, and elevator.


Phase I will be underway shortly, Phase II will be a future project.


We should all be proud of our Carnegie Building, as it is the only design by Alden & Harlow Architects that is this Richardsonian-Romanesque design, except perhaps its smaller cousin library in Oakmont, Pa.


The only other Ohio Library designed by Alden & Harlow, the Salem Library, looks nothing like our building.


Frank Alden supposedly took some of the design features of his Cambridge, Mass. City Hall of 1888 and incorporated them into the Steubenville and Oakmont Library projects, but that information was never documented.


So if you see a strange creature in the library tower windows, let me know so we can move the box away from the glass.