The beloved Spades Park Library, one of only two operating Carnegie libraries in Indianapolis, has survived despite fears of closure over the past several decades and will celebrate its 100th anniversary on March 24.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie had sold his steel manufacturing business in 1900 for $480 million and was the richest man in the world. Having fond memories of time spent in a library in his youth, he made libraries one of his chief causes.  Carnegie funded over 2,500 libraries. According to the Indiana State Library, Indiana constructed 164 Carnegie libraries in 155 communities, more than any other state.

In 1906 Eliza Browning, head librarian for the Indianapolis Public Library, wrote a proposal to build six branch libraries in developing neighborhoods and received word of her success in early 1909. Carnegie would fund each library at $20,000 each for a town the size of Indianapolis, but required communities to acquire the property, fill the shelves, annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation, and provide free access to all.  One of the Indianapolis neighborhoods raising money to purchase land was unsuccessful, so only five Carnegie libraries were actually built in Indianapolis. Of these, two have been demolished (the Madison Avenue Branch  and the West Indianapolis Branch), the Hawthorne Branch building currently houses the Hawthorne Community Center, while two still serve as libraries on the near east side. The East Washington Street Branch was the first to be built in 1909 and the Spades Park Library was completed in 1912.

Michael H. Spades, a wealthy former resident then living in Chicago, donated the lots for the library in October 1909. Although he, or rather the nearby Spades Park (donated by Spades in 1898), is the library’s namesake, Albert E. Cottey, a lawyer and ward councilman who lived at 1601 Nowland Avenue, appears to have been instrumental in getting the library built in this neighborhood.

In late 1911 the Indianapolis Star described Wilson B. Parker’s design as Italian style. Parker, an Indianapolis architect, designed many other Carnegie libraries, including in Williamsport, Pendleton, Thorntown, La Porte, and Bloomington. Local contractor George Weaver was to have the building ready for occupancy in November, but the much later dedication date indicates that he missed the deadline.

Neighbors and library officials celebrated the opening at a formal dedication on Friday, March 22, 1912. Speeches were given by dignitaries including state librarian, Demarcus C. Brown, who stressed the library as a center: “its constant use by the people would give the entire community a higher tone.”  A children’s week followed to orient children to the library. Groups of 150 children from three local schools marched to music into the assembly room for story-telling. Afterwards librarians gave them a tour and provided instructions for checking out books.

The Arts and Crafts movement was popular in 1912 as seen by the original interior woodwork and furnishings. The library had reading, circulating, and reference rooms; offices for the librarians; and a kitchen for socials and entertaining.  During the dedication, artwork loaned by Herron Art Institute lined the walls.  (Indianapolis Public Library Archives, ca. 1912)

Four stone columns flank the front doors, which are typically at the top of stairs in a Carnegie library, symbolizing a person’s elevation by learning.  The library is remarkably intact one hundred years after construction, thanks in part to a $600,000+ restoration project in 1987. Sadly, the library lost some of its charm when cost prohibited the replacement of the red tile roof. (Current photograph by Joan Hostetler, February 28, 2012)

Today the library layout is basically unchanged, other than the addition of extra bookcases, computer workstations, and an elevator. The central, u-shaped librarians’ desk (partly visible to the left) remains, but the counter is now covered with Formica. Original wooden stairs in the foyer lead to a second-floor public auditorium, a large room used for meetings and programs.  Carnegie libraries had an “open stack” design, encouraging readers to browse and discover new interests. This was a newer concept since many libraries still used the “closed stack” plan where librarians had to retrieve requested books for patrons. (Current photograph by Joan Hostetler, February 28, 2012)

As technology changes the way we read with Kindles, Nooks, tablets, and ways we can’t yet imagine, many people wonder if the good, old-fashioned book will become obsolete and if the library has outlived its usefulness. One only has to spend a couple of hours in the Spades Park Branch to see how essential this library is to the economically-struggling neighborhood. Granted, our world is evolving and  libraries will change, but it’s nice to see children enjoying story hour, people reading newspapers in front of the fireplace, parents and children gathered at the computers, and neighbors solving community problems in the upstairs meeting room.

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