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A “Handsome Structure”—How the Carnegie Library Came to South Haven

“The arrival of the cut stone for the library and the subsequent proximity of the time for laying the corner stone of that handsome structure makes it fitting that a brief review should be given of the movement which led to the building of the library.”

—South Haven Daily Tribune, Friday, September 29, 1905

Many know, some might not, that the South Haven Center for the Arts resides in what was originally the Andrew Carnegie Library; the first free library in South Haven. The building was financed with a $12,500 grant bestowed upon the City of South Haven by U.S. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. The grant would be worth $357,142.86 today.


Securing the funding from Carnegie was a bit of a hurdle, but those involved persevered. The local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic—who gifted the lot at the corner of Phoenix and Broadway to the city—appointed a committee of two to request funding for a Memorial Hall. Albert Earle and Reverend F. G. McHenry were enlisted to write to Mr. Carnegie with the request, but nothing came of it, so they abandoned the idea.


Mrs. C. R. Hemenway then began corresponding with the Scottish steel-master and he became interested in the town. She enlisted the help of Library Board Secretary W. W. Holmes and board member C. E. Abell to cement the promise that South Haven would pledge ten percent of the grant sum for maintenance of a building to be used as a library—Carnegie’s sole stipulation in return for funding. The board received a letter in May of 1904 from Carnegie’s business secretary, Mr. Robert A. Franks, announcing that South Haven would receive $15,000 to build a library. The offer was subsequently changed to $12,500.


The city chose the architectural designs submitted by Albert Randolph Ross of New York City from a pool of seven architects. The design is in the Neoclassic Revival style, as were many of Ross’s Carnegie Library designs. In exchange for the land—purchased by the G.A.R. in 1896 from Prentice Lounsbury and Mrs. Geo. Hannahs—the first floor of the library would house the Grand Army Hall.


The building project was granted to the construction firm of J. L. Simmons, 2162–4 West Madison St., Chicago, Ill., with a bid of $10,684. Mr. Simmons agreed to complete the building within 150 days. Construction began on August 21, 1905. Foreman O. M. Foster and crew began by digging the trenches for the foundation.


Building the Carnegie Library, 1905


The crew completed the south wall and half of the west wall on August 26 and predicted the east wall and the north wall would be completed on August 28. Sub-contractor Sullivan ordered the apparatus for hoisting the cut stone set in place for the arrival of the stone on September 28.


The masons first cut the foundational stones, the cornerstone, and the bases that would hold the embedded Ionic columns for the facade. They swung the foundational stones, which were “comparatively small,” into place on the northeast side of the building on October 5, 1905 and laid the cornerstone on October 6, “forenoon.” The cornerstone holds an 8” x 8” x 12” copper time capsule “in which will be placed newspapers, records, etc.”


The last of the four columns were lifted into place on October 27 and “attracted a good deal of attention from passersby, few of whom could resist the temptation to linger a moment and watch the columns take shape under the skillful hands of the workmen. The fine carving of the cornice and chapters is also being watched with much interest by the citizens who happen to be around the building.”


Above the door is carved “Open to All,” and beneath is the Carnegie crest, which adorns each library he funded. The frieze is inscribed “Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning,” which still holds true today in the form of the visual arts.


Board members and librarian Nellie B. Stewart assembled the collection for the stacks that were purchased and ready for delivery. The walls were plastered, the floor laid, the moldings attached. South Haven Plumbing, Heating and Lighting Co. installed the plumbing and the boiler that fueled the hot water and the radiators that heated the building.


The second floor, accessed by a wrap-around stairwell beneath a rotunda that is topped by a balcony, boasts a barrel ceiling, maple floors, and arched Palladian windows with transoms and wavy glass that radiate the most stunning shades of light you can imagine. All four walls have windows and much of the glass remains.

The second floor gallery late one sunny afternoon in 2018. Painting of the light by SHCA board member David Baker, 2019.


The reading room faced Phoenix St. and was separated by the stacks. The ceiling was painted Old Ivory and the walls crimson. The contrasting color scheme was designed to enhance the gracefully curved ceiling—a prized architectural feature. The space holding the stacks was painted French Gray and the picture molding ebony. The ceiling of the rotunda and reference room were light yellow, the walls a rich green. The reference room also remains and is situated along the south wall.


Even though the furniture was delayed, the community was eager to start using the library and so the grand new building at 602 Phoenix St. opened in early April 1906 for the exchange of books. Hours were from 1:00–5:30 p.m. and 6:30–8:30 p.m. The public was greeted by the library board during the formal opening and librarian Nellie B. Stewart gave official tours. The Grand Army Hall was dedicated at 3:00 p.m. on that same day.


The original address was 602 Phoenix St. In 1996, South Haven Center for the Arts’ Director and current SHCA Board Treasurer Michael Fiedorowicz learned that the building sits on more than one lot. Fiedorwicz worked with the city and the post office to change the address to 600, not only to avoid the hassle of a P.O. Box, but to make the art center easier to find for newcomers; even addresses in the hundreds or thousands are typically set on corners. And, because the building—the crown jewel at Phoenix and Broadway—deserved a more prestigious address. And, indeed it has one.

Cannon of the South Haven Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic honoring the Civil War, photo circa 1915


On December 22, 1905, Herb Daggett and two teams of horses hauled a G.A.R. cannon honoring veterans of the American Civil War from the M. C. Railroad Yards down by the water up to the library. Workers loaded the 16,090-pound cannon over eight-inch timbers affixed between two wagons, and three teams of four horses pulled it up the hill. It took them three days. The cannon and cannonballs were scrapped for the war effort in the early 1940s.

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