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Carnegie's Legacy: In Homewood, a mezzanine goes and a 'battleship' sinks

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

The Homewood library became not only Pittsburgh's biggest branch when it opened in 1910, but also the one that deviated from the classical mode established for branch libraries by architects Alden & Harlow. But Frank Alden had died in 1908, and the design, with its battlements and ornate Gothic entrance, has been attributed to Erie native Howard K. Jones, then working for Alden & Harlow.

Carnegie's Legacy

Planned renovation for the Carnegie Library's Homewood branch


Homewood was not part of Carnegie's original grant to Pittsburgh, but came about through the efforts of the Homewood Board of Trade. Carnegie, likely encouraged by his brother Thomas' ties to the affluent neighborhood, purchased the land himself and gave the architects a hefty budget -- $150,000, compared to the typical Carnegie library grant of $50,000 or less.

Inside, you can easily see where some of the money went -- quarter-sawn oak paneling, moldings and casework, dentil cornices, pilasters with linenfold panels and a wealth of mullioned windows that flood the library with natural light.

Apart from a 1970s mezzanine that added a meeting room and offices to the book room, the Homewood library has seen little change, and that has meant a delicate tightrope walk for architect Rob Pfaffmann and Craig Dunham, project manager for all the library makeovers.

"We're trying to do a balance between preservation and restoration and services we want to improve," Dunham said recently in the children's reading room.

The mezzanine is coming out; the project's $3 million budget also includes an elevator, discreetly tucked inside the current entrance but with ground-level access. A stained glass skylight in the foyer, which had been removed and stored, will be restored.

The library's circulation desk, which Pfaffmann has dubbed "the battleship," also is being removed. Bigger and more daunting than those in other branches, it spans almost the width of the lobby and acts as a physical and psychological barrier between readers and the book room and librarians. Its wood will be recycled into two new desks for the librarians.

"We're not trying to replicate but capture the spirit of the old," Pfaffmann said. That also means bringing back about a dozen wall sconces as well as hanging lights and table lamps.

"This library doesn't have a particularly high circulation, but it could expand and improve," Dunham said. "The African-American collection is unique in the country. We want to make it prominent and focused."

The Homewood library, which will reopen in October, does enjoy good use as a community center, with frequent jazz concerts and meetings. With the mezzanine's removal, the library's second floor will be reactivated for meetings and after-school programs. In the basement, the auditorium's 500 plywood seats with be replaced with fewer, more comfortable ones, and the basement bathrooms will be improved and enlarged.

Like some other Pittsburgh branch libraries, Homewood still has its original oak phone booth. While it would seem the perfect place to cloister those annoying cell-phone calls, it's coming out to make way for a new first-floor bathroom. Its wood will be reused for the bathroom's exterior walls.

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