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Carnegie Library of McKeesport is being cleaned for its 100th anniversary

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By Mary Kirchhoff

Carnegie Library of McKeesport has sat atop a hill for 99 years, its beauty marred by residue of a city that once was a steel capital. But the industry and pollution have vanished, and the library remains a proud part of the city and its history.

It will celebrate its 100th anniversary next summer and is receiving a dramatic facelift, just one of the improvements the building has undergone over several years.

Designated a historical landmark in 1980 by Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the library will be rededicated in July 2002.

For some who recall the good-old days when McKeesport was thriving, removal of 80-plus years of residue is bittersweet. Director Jo Ellen Kenney said reactions to the restorative work are mixed.

"It was one of the last signs, the remnants of the mills. People remember the black soot fondly. They remember cleaning soot off their porches. Most people today know it as black. It's been black most of their lives. ... Some have said, 'Why did you do it? We liked it black.' "

Kenney is more optimistic. "It wasn't meant to be black. I couldn't wait to see it restored. It's been one of my goals for a long time. We're happy to be doing all this. It was on our campaign wish list. ... [The library] will get new character, new stuff inside, new stuff outside. It's just a matter of time before people get used to it."

Keystone Waterproofing Inc. of Greensburg began the work in mid-May and is expected to complete it in about three weeks at a cost of $80,000. Company President John Thiry said the process is done with a restoration cleaner and hand-pressure washing.

Kenney said the library was fortunate not to have closed down during difficult times. It received new life when awarded Regional Asset District Funds to help with operating costs. The RAD funding continues.

The library began its Capital Campaign of the Century in 1995 to raise money for improvements. In recent years, a new Spanish tile roof and elevators were installed along with wiring and cabling for computers, which Kenney said cost about $600,000. It also brought the building into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Last year, original tables were refinished and stained. For a donation, patrons can adopt tables or chairs and have their names engraved on brass plates.

The library has come a long way from card catalogs and a word processor. Five of the library's 21 computers were donated by Bill Gates to continue to allow patrons to surf the Net, write resumes or find new books by favorite authors.

In honor of the anniversary, a library appreciation album on display allows patrons to record their thoughts about services the library offers, its importance to their children or how it has helped to shape their future.

The word "free" has been dropped from Carnegie Free Library of McKeesport, and a logo was designed for the anniversary.

The library's origins are rooted in the actions of Odessa Moore Crabtree, a member of the Woman's Club of McKeesport, who wrote a letter to Andrew Carnegie asking him for $50,000 to start a library.

Members laughed. They said Carnegie had no interest in McKeesport and was on "bad terms" with National Tube Works officials. But she pressed on, and Carnegie came through with the funds, provided the city found a favorable location for the building and furnished the maintenance.

The library, which took 18 months to build and began with 3,000 volumes, now offers approximately 90,000 and has two branches -- one on McAllister Way in White Oak, the other at Elizabeth Forward Middle School on Rock Run Road.

Special events beginning in September will include the unveiling of a new sign, a letter campaign for the schools, a pumpkin festival and murder mystery dinner, parades, a festival of trees, and a boat ride on the Gateway Clipper.

For more information about current programs or how to adopt a chair or table, call 412-672-0625.

Mary Kirchhoff is a free-lance writer.

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