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National Register: Etowah Carnegie Library

723-725 Ohio Ave. Etowah

The Etowah Carnegie Library, a Colonial Revival-style building constructed from 1915 to 1916, faces west at 723-725 Ohio Avenue in Etowah, McMinn County. It was constructed from 1915 to 1916 with an $8,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the building has served not only as Etowah's only public library, but also as the city's first high school during the period from 1916 to 1922, and as local government offices from 1916 to present day.


Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic spirit, its presence in the burgeoning railroad community served to better the quality of life for the city’s many residents by offering a public forum through which they could broaden their knowledge by participating in reading programs, attending specialized classes in business and home economics, and listening to public lectures and discussions. Thus, the library qualifies for National Register Hosting in the area of social history. The intact and preserved building displays the more restrained classicism of the Colonial Revival style, making it a significant architectural landmark in the community. The building retains integrity of association, design, feeling, location, materials, setting, and workmanship. The period of significance extends from the commencement of construction in 1915 to 1952, a date justified by the building’s continued use as a Library and city hall.


Etowah blossomed in the early twentieth century as the headquarters of the Louisville & Nashville (L & N) Railroad Company’s Atlanta Division. Its birth took place in 1905, when the L & N settled on the land between rural Wetmore to the south and Tellico Junction (now Englewood) to the north as the place to establish the new community. Upon the rolling rural landscape the company established a town plat and erected an expansive two-story office building and passenger depot (Etowah Depot, NR 10/17/77) next to the railroad tracks and an industrial corridor.


Incorporated in 1909, Etowah was typical of late nineteenth and early twentieth century town planning in that its residential neighborhoods surrounded the central business district, which stretched from north to south along Tennessee Avenue. Only the west side of Tennessee Avenue was developed commercially. The railroad company retained land on the east side of the road for construction of the railroad lines and associated industrial buildings such as the depot, machine shops, and storage sheds.


The community developed primarily between 1905 and 1930, when the economic turmoil of the Great Depression dealt a strong blow to the railroad, which had already experienced consolidation and lay-offs in the 1920s. Until the depression, however, Etowah exploded in a phase of growth that gave rise to single-family dwellings in the Queen Anne and Craftsman styles (Etowah Historic District, NR 7/25/96). But Etowah still needed to establish a sound program for education of the community’s increasing number of children.


By 1910, Etowah was home to nearly 1,000 residents who were under the age of twenty-one. In that year, the city passed a bond issue to construct the first school. The two-story building, located along Fifth Street between Indiana and Louisiana avenues, was rather modest in size and served children only to the eighth grade. Nevertheless, it enabled Etowah to fill an educational void. The school even housed a small library. This elementary school was the first public building constructed in the city and remained the community’s only public building for another five years.


During this period, an international movement was taking place that would forever change public perception of libraries. Throughout the nineteenth century, the personal libraries of wealthy men were laying the foundation for private, members-only libraries in the largest cities in the United States. These libraries were not, however, constructed for the general populace. Beginning in the 1880s, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie provided monetary gifts to towns with which he had a personal connection. He later extended this program to any community that was willing and able to meet his requirements. Many of Carnegie’s charitable grants were used for the construction of free public libraries that would be accessible to all residents."


The culmination of his philanthropic career was the 1911 creation of the Carnegie Corporation, whose purpose was to administer the public library grant program. The Carnegie Corporation would provide grants to any applicant town with a population above 1,000 inhabitants, with the amount of the donation typically set at two dollars per capita. Recipient communities were required to provide a building site and tax their residents at the annual rate of ten percent the total gift for maintenance, book purchases and staff salaries.


The culmination of his philanthropic career was the 1911 creation of the Carnegie Corporation, whose purpose was to administer the public library grant program. The Carnegie Corporation would provide grants to any applicant town with a population above 1,000 inhabitants, with the amount of the donation typically set at two dollars per capita. Recipient communities were required to provide a building site and tax their residents at the annual rate of ten percent of the total gift for maintenance, book purchases and staff salaries.


In 1915, the Etowah government instructed community leaders to form a committee charged with pursuing a library grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Members of the committee included local businessmen C. D. Bevan, editor of the Etowah Enterprise, and Joseph P. Dunn, an automobile dealer. Men involved in the construction trades, including building contractor Haywood York and lumber dealer John M. Johnson were also on the committee. T. A. Aber, a civil engineer for the L & N Railroad, and A. B. Bayless, the railroad superintendent, established the railroad's presence on the committee. City recorder N. Z. Dewees represented the local government.6 This mixture of public and private interests ensured that the committee would represent nearly all sectors of the community.


There were, however, groups with no representation. No women served on the committee, even though roughly half of the Carnegie Libraries in Tennessee were funded by grants initiated by women's clubs. Furthermore, there were no African Americans on the committee. This characteristic, however, was typical of committees across Tennessee and the southern United States, and was due to segregationist policies that permeated the southern United States.


Shortly after its formation, the committee commenced the grant application. In July of 1915, N. Z. Dewees approached James Bertram, the Secretary-Treasurer for the Carnegie Corporation, and inquired about the grant program. In a letter that painted the city's residents as energetic and characterized by a strong work ethic, he elaborated on the community's high percentage of home ownership and the residents' desire to promote the worthy cause of a local library. Yet Dewees also indicated that the local government, in its rapid progression from farmland to city, had passed as many bonds for public improvements as were possible. In 1915, the city had streets and sidewalks, but no municipal buildings other than the school. By depicting a community that was public­ spirited yet financially strained, Dewees was successful in his appeal to the Carnegie Corporation.


On 6 October 1915, the city passed a resolution accepting the corporation's $8,000 grant for the construction of a free public library. Carnegie's offer hinged however, on the ability of the city to provide a suitable building location and to allocate the yearly sum of $800-ten percent of the total award-to offset maintenance costs and a librarian's salary. During that same meeting, the local government resolved to levy a property tax increase to comply with the Carnegie Corporation's requirements.111 Six days later, the city agreed to erect the proposed library on Lots 10 and 11 in Block 8 of the Louisville Property Company's plat of Etowah, Tennessee.


The Louisville Property Company-the real estate branch of the L & N Railroad-had sold Lots 10 and 11 to the local government in 1911 with the stipulation that Etowah would use the land only for the "extending of municipal buildings...."12 This central location also proved suitable for the construction of the proposed library. In October 1915, the Louisville Property Company granted the local government permission to construct a library on the property provided the that the"...said Library Building shall be and remain a municipal building and a public library...." This agreement between the Louisville Property Company and the local authorities would later cause a rift between Etowah and the Carnegie Corporation.


Once the project was deemed eligible for funding and the city carried out its responsibilities, Dewees coordinated with the Carnegie Corporation to settle on an appropriate building design. Unfortunately, this process did not progress as smoothly as the initial application. Instead, Dewees and Bertram spent October and November struggling to reach consensus on the library's layout. Bertram had already emphasized that he wished to correspond only with the city authority rather than with architects or contractors. After Dewees initially submitted the blueprints on 14 October 1915, the Carnegie Corporation requested design revisions four times before finally approving the plans.


The product of these machinations was a uniquely executed building unlike most other libraries funded by the Carnegie Corporation. As opposed to many Carnegie libraries throughout the United States, which were often high-style Neoclassical buildings with extensive interior and exterior ornament, Etowah's library (Figure 3) was considerably restrained. The double-hung windows had only rock-faced granite lintels and sills that contrasted with the dark red brick of the exterior. The greatest detail was reserved for the entrance, which consisted of a glass-and-paneled double-leaf door and semicircular fanlight flanked by abbreviated sidelights. This design creatively interpreted the widely popular Palladian profile. A continuous limestone lintel with an exaggerated keystone highlighted the entry. These details, combined with shallow pilasters that delineated each of the elevations' three bays and the minimalist brick and concrete stairs, created a Colonial Revival-style building that was more in keeping with domestic forms and ornament that would rise to popularity during the 1930s and 1940s.


The Etowah Carnegie Library was also one of the most stylistically unique and modern buildings in the city. Constructed during Etowah's period of greatest development, the library contrasted greatly with every other building in the community. Etowah was home to a great number of Craftsman­ style four squares and bungalows with a few Queen Anne-style dwellings interspersed throughout the residential area. These domestic forms established a comfortable and informal neighborhood environment enhanced by tree-lined avenues that were bordered by sidewalks. The library even stood out among Etowah's non-domestic buildings. The wood framed L & N Railroad Depot was a paragon of Queen Anne massing and ornament. The commercial buildings constructed in the first ten years of the city's development had little to no stylistic detailing. They were primarily one- and two-part commercial blocks never surpassing three stories in height. While the earliest frame examples have not survived, the brick commercial buildings from the early twentieth century feature minimal ornament in the treatment of windows and storefronts. Perhaps taking their cue from the widely popular City Beautiful Movement, designers of the library bestowed upon the community a formal, classically inspired edifice of unprecedented style and proportions. The earliest Sanborn Fire Insurance Map reveals that the Library stood majestically on an open lot in a part of town that was yet only minimally developed. Located near the southeast corner of the library was a small jail. An even smaller hose house for the local fire department was sited at the extreme southern end of the property. A blacksmith's shop was sited to the far southeast of the library. Positioned on the boundary between the commercial district and the residential neighborhood, this part of Ohio Avenue was not greatly developed with dwellings, businesses, or institutional buildings. Indeed, many of the lots along Ohio Avenue were still vacant in the 1910s. The minimal development of the landscape enabled the Carnegie Library to dominate the few surrounding structures.


Although some written information suggests that the building served as a high school between 1918 and 1922, the 1916 map and a Chattanooga Dai!J Times article indicated that the lower floor was used as a high school immediately after construction

they were nevertheless sufficient to hold classes. The presence of high school-level educational opportunities was significant for this young town. Education and personal advancement were of great importance to the community leaders and residents of Etowah, as evinced by a full-page newspaper announcement:


Although some written information suggests that the building served as a high school between 1918 and 1922, the 1916 map and a Chattanooga Dai!J Times article indicated that the lower floor was used as a high school immediately after construction . While the first-floor rooms were modestly sized, they were nevertheless sufficient to hold classes. The presence of high school-level educational opportunities was significant for this young town. Education and personal advancement were of great importance to the community leaders and residents of Etowah.


By providing children a solid public education through the twelfth grade, Etowah gave its future generations a foundation of knowledge that would ideally benefit the entire community. The one ground level room served as the office of the City Recorder. Until that time, the recorder's office was located in a rented office in the dilapidated wood-framed post office near the railroad tracks. By moving the recorder's office to the Etowah Carnegie Library, the local government eliminated the need to pay rent while offering at least one city employee prime office space. The remaining city offices would not relocate to the new library for another eight years.


This alternative use of the lower floor contradicted Andrew Carnegie's intentions for the libraries constructed with his grants. Carnegie intended these libraries to serve as non-sectarian public spaces open to the entire community. Acceptable uses beyond the function of a library included meeting rooms, clubrooms, museum space, art galleries, and auditoria. Although its service as a high school promoted many of the same ideals as museums, galleries, and public meeting halls, this function ensured that a portion of the building would be available only on a very limited basis and would not have the broad accessibility intended by Carnegie.


As a result, Bertram repeatedly reprimanded Etowah for its "breach of faith."28Upon publication of the 1916 newspaper article proclaiming the completion of the library, Bertram forwarded a copy of the article to city mayor W. E. Hunter and demanded an explanation for the city's inappropriate actions. The mayor justified the city's discordant use of the lower floor by indicating that the city recorder was acting as the building custodian and that high school classes were being held in the lower level rooms because the existing grammar school was too small to house the advanced grades. Hunter even admitted to using the auditorium as a chapel. Bertram responded by scolding the mayor for the city's decisions. He did not, however, require Etowah to repay the grant or pay another form of restitution to the Carnegie Corporation. Even upon the request of the L & N Railroad Company to permit the continued use of the building as a high school, Bertram only responded in the negative. Ultimately, the Carnegie Corporation had no way to punish the local government for its actions.


In 1922, when the Etowah High School was finally constructed, James Bertram wrote a letter to Etowah librarian Pearl Burnham indicating that the town had violated the trust of the Carnegie Corporation by permitting the lower floor to serve as a school and city offices. This letter effectively released the library from complying with Carnegie's regulations regarding building use and enabled the city to move all its government offices to the lower floor. The conversion of the classrooms to city offices required few structural alterations to the interior space. The use of the auditorium as an assembly hall for commission meetings and public hearings continued without change to the room.


Another change that occurred at this transitional time was the institution of a membership fee. Andrew Carnegie emphasized that libraries constructed with grants from the Carnegie Corporation must be open to the public free of charge. The rift that developed between the Carnegie Corporation and the library in Etowah enabled the latter institution to begin charging a fee of one dollar per year to all residents who wished to obtain a membership card during the normal part-time operating hours on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons:' Although the library assured that the nominal charge was considerably less than any of the new books cost to purchase, the membership fee was enough to price out residents who had only poverty-level incomes.'·


The library nevertheless continued to grow as an educational institution despite its ideological divergence from Carnegie's ideals. In the mid-1920s, the library became a member of the American Library Association (ALA). Membership in the national organization enabled the library to expand its horizons as an institution for learning. The public announcement of its pending application detailed the goal of the ALA and its member libraries: Its purpose is to attract promising young men and women, who have the necessary personal and education qualification to do library work as a profession. To hold annual conferences for the discussion of library topics. To assist in making books a vital, work, educational force in American life. To raise the professional standards, dignify library service, and improve library salaries.


The article further elaborated on the direct benefit to the Etowah library that ALA membership would have. The librarian stated, "It will also entitle our library to free copies of many magazines, papers and pamphlets, which will be a great benefit to the schools in reference work."


Library membership was maintained through fund drives and incentives. When necessary, local organizations would aid the library by selling memberships throughout the community. In September of 1927, the local chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union held one such drive. Women in the group canvassed Etowah's neighborhoods by going door-to-door and soliciting the one-dollar memberships.'6 Other activities that promoted library membership included story hour on Saturdays. Sponsored by the Mothers' Club of the Child Conservation League, this weekly activity promoted regular membership by expanding the library's clientele. The library could, through such reading advocacy activities, reach an even wider audience.


Through the 1920s, the building took on a significant role in the lives of local residents. Its multi­ disciplinary uses enabled the building to become the foremost civic space. More than the Gem Theater, any of the city's churches, or the grounds of the L & N Railroad depot, the library was the ultimate extension of the school system, private homes and local non-profit organizations. In addition to serving as a library and city offices, it was the locus of special classes, lectures, and group meetings. For residents of Etowah, the Carnegie Library was an icon of learning and social integration.


Although the high school classes had transferred out of the library in 1922, the building continued to function as a school, if even unconventionally. In February of 1927, the Presbyterian Women's Auxiliary sponsored a one-week cooking school in the library that featured lectures, demonstrations, and show booths. The array of goods and technological advancements that were touted brought Etowah to the forefront of the local effort to modernize domestic science. Local residents saw displays of Crisco, White Lily flour, Monarch electric ranges, and Frigidaire refrigerators." Later that year, the Georgia-Carolina School of Commerce announced the opening of a commercial school in the library. Beginning in September, the school offered day and evening classes for a five­ month period. This post-secondary educational opportunity furthered the prospects of Etowah's graduates for obtaining professional jobs locally.


The Great Depression brought an end to these more extravagant activities at the Etowah Carnegie Library. The ultimate loss of over 20,000 jobs on the L & N Railroad in the 1930s meant that residents in this single-industry community would suffer an overwhelming loss. No longer were they able to fund and partake in conferences and attend specialized classes. Instead, they formed many social groups that met regularly without the burden of membership fees. The Women's Benefit Association, Missionary Society, Junior Music Club, Thursday Music Club, Business and Professional Women's Club, Hi-Y, Wednesday Evening Club, Rainbow Club, Bridge Club, and So­ Sew Club all met weekly in churches, school auditoria, private homes, and the "clubroom" of the Etowah Carnegie Library.


Naturally, the group that met most frequently at the library was the Monday Book Club. The club even sponsored the annual activities of National Education Week. Una Campbell, the librarian and charter member of the club emphasized use of the library in a 1932 education week lecture entitled "Promoting Good Reading." During another discussion, Campbell revealed the effects of the Great Depression on the library and its holdings: I regret very much that the library will be unable to have a large number of new books to put on display for Book week. As it is impossible for the Library to buy books, I know of no other way to secure them than to ask that the people in town give us books. Our reference books are in fairly good condition, but the fiction and children's books are so badly worn that they are almost past reading. Campbell went on to plead for book donations from local residents who maintained personal libraries: "Haven't you a new novel, or a story book...that you will give? Perhaps your family read and enjoyed the book-why not pass it on ... ?"

Despite its shriveling budget and deteriorating collections, the Etowah Carnegie Library maintained a progressive social profile during a period of great socio-economic reform through the 1930s and 1940s. In one example, the Monday Book Club partnered with the University of Tennessee to offer lectures on Child Welfare in Etowah. Taking place in the library's community clubroom, these lectures emphasized the important role of parents and the community in raising children.41 During World War II, the library was the local headquarters of the American Red Cross. After the war, the smaller of the two reading rooms housed a temporary museum exhibit of war­ related artifacts collected from local soldiers.

As the Etowah City Hall, the building was a public space where the city's future was directed on a daily basis. Residents were routinely admonished to attend public hearings at the library's assembly hall to take part in discussions about the state of the community. One announcement implored citizens to take a stand: At this meeting propositions of vital importance and plans for the immediate future of Etowah and the surrounding territory will be taken up.... If you own any property or business or are interested the least bit in the future welfare of our town and community, it will pay you big dividends to attend this meeting.


Unfortunately, this type of private enterprise was not sufficient to boost Etowah's Depression-era economy. It took national reform under the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to resurrect the community with the promise of jobs in road construction across the countryside of McMinn County. When local contractors handed out nearly five hundred jobs in February 1933, a "great crowd swarmed the Carnegie library building... as the men were notified to be present...." The $2,700 in federal aid for the community meant jobs for innumerable men who had been unemployed for over three years. Thus, the property was a rallying ground for those whose lives depended on public relief. Through the 1930s, the library transcended its existence as an institution for learning as outlined by Andrew Carnegie. Indeed, its presence as a city hall enabled the building to stand out as a governmental as well as a social and academic landmark.


After World War II, Etowah's economic profile was bleak. The L & N Railroad, which had experienced a resurgence transporting "unprecedented numbers passengers and amounts of freight" during the war, was losing business. Increasing post-war production of automobiles rendered obsolete nearly all passenger rail transportation. Although the railroad was still used to haul freight, its service continued to decline. Without a solid employment base that could support its nearly 3,500 residents, the community looked to industrial diversification. The third quarter of the twentieth century saw Etowah and its citizens redirect their focus from expanding social programs to recruiting new industries. Announcing that the number of unemployed laborers had reached nearly 10,000, promotional pamphlets touted the city's amenities, including concrete and asphalt streets; hotels, motels, and restaurants; health facilities; and existing utility infrastructure. In many cases, discussion of the library was reduced to one sentence that merely established its presence.


Although libraries statewide responded to this general post-war change in community focus by shifting more toward academic integration with the public educational system, the Etowah Carnegie Library nevertheless still played an important role in the progress of the community: A library consultant for the University of Tennessee stated in 1956, "Modern libraries have changed from the havens of recreation and culture devoted almost exclusively to fiction, poetry, and history.... Today's institutions use aggressive reference services to keep in the town's mainstream of activity." In an effort to streamline library service across Tennessee in the 1950s, the state created a regional system of public libraries. Eleven library centers comprised the regional library system and provided assistance to local libraries within each region.


The Etowah library greatly benefited from this arrangement. As part of the Fort Loudoun Region, it was eligible to receive technical assistance from the regional library in acquiring better financial support, publicizing the library and its services, and selecting, ordering, and processing books. This partnership with the regional library strengthened the presence of the Etowah Carnegie Library and enabled it to retain a social and academic standing within the community.


Other than partnering with the newly established regional library system, the most significant programmatic change that occurred at the library during the second half of the twentieth century was its racial integration. The 1964 Civil Rights Act by the United States Congress outlawed racial discrimination in public places and by employers. Prior to the passage of this landmark legislation, public venues in Etowah, including the Gem Theater and L & N Railroad Depot were segregated. African Americans were not permitted to even enter the library. Obtaining a library card was impossible. A few individuals were able to clandestinely circumvent the race-based protocol. In the 1950s, a few African-American girls benefited from the generosity of a white neighbor when she checked out paper bags full of books for the children to read. According to oral interviews, integration of the library caused little social backlash in the small community. Shortly after the Civil Rights Act passed, black residents began obtaining library cards and using the library on a regular basis.


Few physical changes have occurred to the Etowah Carnegie Library since 1952. The city has made cosmetic alterations to the first and second floors, including the superficial application of wood paneling on the lower story and carpet and wallpaper in the library. Otherwise, the primary historic treatments, including the perimeter shelving, windows and doors, and stair ornament, remain intact. The building retains its association not only with the free public library system, but also with the local government, which continues to maintain its offices in the ground level. It is in this area that the greatest changes, albeit largely cosmetic, have occurred to the interior. The assembly hall has seen the partitioning of small offices in the southeast, northeast, and northwest corners, and the application of wood paneling to the walls has taken place. Historic wood doors were replaced with modern wood doors. Most of these changes occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and have only minimal impact on the overall interior integrity. Ultimately, the Etowah Carnegie Library is an historically and architecturally significant and intact public building that continues to serve its original purposes as a free public library and city hall.



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