Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland, became very prosperous in the production of steel in the Pittsburgh area in the decades after the Civil War. The Bessemer process, first used in the United States at the Eureka Iron Works in Wyandotte, made it much easier to make steel from iron. And then a railroad building boom and industrialization generated a great demand for the steel that Carnegie produced. He took it upon himself to encourage literacy in the United States and elsewhere by funding the construction of public libraries. Typically, he would make a grant to a non-profit organization in a city such as a library commission. He would provide substantial funds but the location organization would have to provide matching dollars and then build a library consistent with his expectations.
Between 1896 and 1925, Carnegie’s funds built 1,679 libraries in 49 states. This just about doubled the number of public libraries in the nation. In addition, he funded the construction of 820 libraries outside the United States but most of them were in the British kingdom. Andrew Carnegie funded the building of sixty-one libraries in the state of Michigan. There was an interesting demographic and social change that fostered the construction of these Carnegie libraries. In rural areas, almost all wives worked full time on agricultural chores. As cities grew in the Nineteenth Century, men took jobs in urban businesses and factories and could support their families without their wife being employed. As the middle class developed, a variety of very active women’s clubs developed in large and small cities. In addition to social activities, these wives of urban middle class men sought to improve their towns in a variety of ways. One of the popular ways was to secure a Carnegie library for their city.
On June 23, 1901, Andrew Carnegie provided funds for eight branch libraries in Detroit: Bowen, Butzel, Conely, Duffield, Ginsburg, Lothrop, Osius and Utley. Three of them: Bowen, Conely and Duffield continue to operate in the early Twenty-first century. Indeed, Conely was remodeled in 2005. The Carnegie library you see here was designed in the English academic style using red brick and buff stone from Ohio.
This is a very active branch library with the special mission of serving the largely Spanish-speaking population of southwest Detroit. This library is named at Herbert Bowen who served on Detroit’s Library Commission around the turn of the last century. He was born in East Aurora, New York, studied law and established a practice in Detroit in 1869. His civic activities included service on the city’s Library Commission.
Architect: Unknown to me; William Stratton
Date of opening: 1912
Architectural style: English academic
Use in 2012: Branch library of the Detroit Public Library system
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; April 20, 2012
Description updated: July, 2012
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