If you look at the empty lot on the corner of 9th and Broadway, you can see the ghost of a library. You can see it in the steps leading up to Grace Church. You can see it in the big black mailbox at 215 Ridgewood Avenue, and in the empty fountain that now calls the Jefferson Street median its home. You can see it, too, in the garden of the McCracken County Public Library in the two columns that recently made their way back from the garden of Mrs. Olivia Cave.
The Carnegie Public Library of Paducah has been nothing but a memory since it burned shortly after Christmas in 1964, but the intellectual fire and spirit that inhabited that beautiful building on the corner of 9th and Broadway burns on.
At the turn of the century, Paducah was a town in transition. It had grown and matured, thanks to the enticing pull of its booming river and rail economy, but its reputation as a wild river town with more taverns than churches was tough to shake. Paducah needed a positive change. Paducah needed a public library, and Andrew Carnegie wanted to build thousands.
Carnegie had recently sold his legendary steel industry, and as a man who famously believed that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced,” he refocused his brilliance on giving away his millions to the benefit of mankind. Thousands of public libraries, universities, and museums sprung up in the United States. One of those libraries belonged in Paducah.
Carnegie came through with a $35,000 grant for construction of a public library. The cornerstone was laid October 8, 1902 at the corner of 9th and Broadway—”one of the handsomest and most eligible sites to be had in the city,” according to then Paducah Mayor J. W. Lang—and on October 4, 1904, Paducah’s first public library opened its doors.
“It was one of my favorite places of all time!” wrote Phyllis Thompson. “The walk up those steps, through the doors and the immediate smells in that building. The smell of books, all that polished wood and oiled wooden floors. The sounds of pages turning, muted conversations, footsteps which made the floor creak. On a rainy day, it was almost as if you were stepping into an Edgar Allen Poe story.”
In 2010, McCracken County Public Library Director Julie Hart held a program in honor of Carnegie’s 175th birthday, and in memory of the library he helped make possible. As she sat in her office on the library’s second floor years later, flipping through the postcards, photos, and written memories like Mrs. Thompson’s that she’d collected for the program, she let out an audible sigh.
“It was such an important building for me,” she said.
As it was for many. Designed in classic revival style by local architect A. L. Lassiter and erected by local contractor W. W. Karnes, the library that once stood at the corner of 9th and Broadway was, by all accounts, breathtaking. It was constructed mostly of brick, with Bedford stone in the facings and Bowling Green buff stone in the trimmings, topped with a red tile roof and terra cotta cornice work. An impressive flight of steps carried library-goers to the front entrance under a portico reading CARNEGIE PUBLIC LIBRARY, supported by four iconic columns.
Inside all was cool and calm, even in the heat of summer. The muted sounds of the library—a book being pulled from its place on the shelf, careful fingers flipping through the card catalogue, a librarian quietly answering an inquisitive child, pencil lead signing a signature on a book’s check-out card—danced from the polished marble to the polished oak all the way up to a rotunda where light poured into the atrium.
A pair of columns on the 9th street side of the library marked the entrance downstairs to the Anna Bird Stewart Department, the children’s department, and the home of the library cat.
The children’s department downstairs was the bright and magical to the upstairs’ dark and mystical. Tightly packed shelves of colorful books lined creamy-colored walls, and posters featuring smiling children and animals looked over young readers as they traveled to faraway places with the help of the printed word and their own imaginations.
“My first stop was always the library cat,” Hart continued, still sifting through her collected Carnegie memories, “then I would go straight for the books.” She and her sister Carol were absolutely in love with the library. One of the children’s librarians, Katherine Twitchell, took an interest in the two little readers and would give them each a book every Christmas. They both went on to become librarians.
There was magic in the books the Carnegie held, and there was magic in the men and women who looked after them. One man who worked in the children’s department as a boy remembered of the librarians, “They were so wise, so spiritually quiet, so astute, and peaceful. They were like priestesses of knowledge.”
Every December Miss Virginia and the other “priestesses” would decorate the library for Christmas, going heavy on the decorations in the children’s department—trees lit by large colored bulbs and wreathes smelling of holly filled the Carnegie with holiday cheer.
On December 30, 1964, however, one of those beautifully colored bulbs on a tree sparked and caught fire, quickly spreading to the rest of the library.
Ultimately, the push for progress and modernity that once brought the Carnegie Public Library into existence brought it to its end, 60 years later. After much debate, community leaders decided in favor of building a new library over saving the old Carnegie.
Luckily, many Carnegie-loving Paducahns like Mrs. Cave did manage to save pieces of the old library. When Mrs. Cave saw the children’s department columns lying to the side at the demolition site, discarded and forgotten, she decided she absolutely had to save them. She decided to take the mailbox, too.
“My mother was very determined that the columns shouldn’t go to to wreck and ruin,” said Shelby Cave Cobb, Mrs. Cave’s daughter. “She told me that library was a force, and had a strength all its own.”
Mrs. Cave and her daughter now live in Atlanta, but before leaving Paducah Mrs. Cave made sure to return the Carnegie columns to their rightful owner: Paducah’s public library.
Bits and pieces of the old Carnegie continue to find their way back home. Part of the massive circulation desk made it back. Hart has several of the heavy, tall-backed wooden chairs from the upstairs reading room upstairs in her office. And the books? Every so often, another handful of books (often covered in wallpaper with their titles hand-sketched on the covers) will make their way back as well.
What Andrew Carnegie said is still true, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the free public library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
Historically Mark The Spot! Want to help mark the Carnegie's place in Paducah's history? Help the McCracken County Public Library staff in their efforts to have a historical marker placed where the Carnegie once stood. Send letters of written support to:
555 Washington Street
Paducah, KY 42003