The spirit of renowned steel magnate Andrew Carnegie lives on in San Luis Obispo. Carnegie, who became a champion of literacy toward the end of his career, leaves a legacy of reading and learning years after his death.
A little slice of historic heaven stands tall (but not too tall) downtown at 696 Monterey St., kitty-corner to Sinsheimer’s General Store — one of the oldest buildings in San Luis Obispo. The old Carnegie Library is now the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum, and is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The air-conditioned structure greets visitors with a reddish brown façade and light trimming. First opened in 1906, the building itself is about 103 years old, and its construction was a significant step in the development of the former railroad hub and oasis of San Luis Obispo.
A unique characteristic of the library is that raw materials from Bishop’s Peak and Morro Rock were used in its construction, Kimberly Alfaro, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Historical Society, said. The library was built by the Maino family. Alfaro noted that the grandson of the man who built the library now runs the family construction business, off of Tankfarm Road.
San Luis Obispo wasn’t the only town to benefit from Carnegie’s generosity.
Over three decades from 1899 through 1917, Carnegie bankrolled the creation of 1,679 libraries in America alone, according to the National Park Service, in addition to libraries he funded located outside of the country in such diverse locations as Trinidad, South Africa, Barbados, Australia, England, France and New Zealand. Carnegie donated more than $40 million to many small towns across the nation. According to one volunteer docent at the San Luis Obispo branch, the town leaders would apply for a grant, Carnegie would most likely agree to fund it, and the library would shortly be built.
The original reference desk still remains in the library, and a research room is open to the public downstairs, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The grant amount for this library was $10,000, according to the San Luis Obispo Historical Society. Many of the libraries received grants of around $10,000, with some receiving less, and some receiving significantly more. One sizable exception was the Eureka library, which received a grant of $20,000.
When a new library location was decided upon in the mid-twentieth century, it was decided that the old Carnegie Library would instead stand as a testament to the rich history of San Luis Obispo. The old library was officially re-opened in 1956 as a historic museum.
“For a period of about 16 years, there was at least one [Carnegie library] built per year in California,” State Historian III of the California Office of Preservation Jay Correia said. “The city had to provide the site and promise to provide support for the library.”
He also said that the Carnegie library grant program was “closely tied in with [Carnegie’s] personal philosophy of self help… one of the things that drove Carnegie to give these grants.”
In California, Correia said the grant application process “started with just a simple letter to Carnegie.” It soon became so popular that he had to hire a personal secretary just to handle all of the requests. In a National Register document from 1990, there were 85 public Carnegie libraries still in existence in California, and there have been very few losses since then.
The local Carnegie Library is one of two of its size built by famed Bay Area architect W.H. Weeks. The library is “noted for its beautiful use of natural and man-made stone,” Correia said. Weeks built the San Luis Obispo library and its Nevada City twin in a Romanesque style.
Today, the museum hosts both permanent and traveling exhibits, showcasing some of the major developments in the city’s history, and some of the major players in the development of our charming town. The next major exhibit will be in April on wedding dresses from around the county that date from the late 1800s to the 1950s.
For those venturing outside of San Luis Obispo, other nearby Carnegie libraries-turned-museums are located in Lompoc, Paso Robles, Hollister, Monterey and Santa Barbara (now a wing of the downtown library).
There are many historic treasures around town, the majority of which sit quietly, only attracting the attention of the most intrepid visitors. Don’t be discouraged, however; though it takes a little dedication and perseverance to find out more about this library, the research is well worth it.