A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
Binghamton's Landmark Library
Carnegie Building Graces Court House Square

Laying the cornerstone, October 15, 1903.

Photo composite: one hundred years ago -- and today.

Main room on the first floor.

Staircase to the second floor.

View from the mezzanine.

Bronze plaque at the entrance.

Late afternoon, October 15, 1903 - without ceremony a large cut stone was hoisted into position, a tin box filled with mementos of the day was placed in the stone as a photographer captured the moment in time.

William F. Seward delivered the following words on the laying of the cornerstone of the Binghamton Public Library: "I am sure we are all agreed that our public library shall not be a mere pile of cut and carved stone, filled high with printed pages, but a living stream whose waters shall be for the healing of the people… In a word, that it shall be the people's university in which every man, woman and child of our city shall have part and lot."

Two years earlier, in response to a request by Binghamton's Board of Trade, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie agreed to contribute $75,000 for a new library.

The Chapman residence on Exchange Street was purchased for the site and the structure was designed by S.O. and H.A. Lacey with Isaac G. Perry as the consulting architect. The 26,000 square foot steel frame brick building is trimmed with limestone, the entrance portico is of Greek Ionic style and the steeply pitched concrete roof is covered with red clay tile. Names of thirteen literary icons are etched in stone above the large windows: Emerson, Lowell, Homer, Plato, Bacon, Shakespeare, Hugo, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Schiller, Longfellow, and Hawthorne.

True to plan, this "people's university" held much more than books. On the first floor was a large circulation area, reading rooms, reference areas and offices. An assembly hall dominated the second floor where community meetings and lectures took place. Next to that was a museum and art gallery. The historical society maintained its collections in an adjacent room.

Built in response to demands of a rapidly growing community, within nine years of opening, Seward's annual report already cited a "lack of room." Eventually branch libraries helped ease the situation and finally in 1958 an addition was constructed at the rear of the building.

Twenty five years later the building was again bursting at the seams… this time quite literally. The foundation could not adequately support the addition and in 1972 a crack appeared in the northeast corner, running from the ground floor to the roof. The addition was gradually separating from the main building. There were other problems - the roof leaked and the electrical and heating systems needed upgrading.

In 1976 the roof was replaced and the skylight restored. Two years later exterior masonry was repaired, windows were replaced, front steps were restored, the foundation was waterproofed and a portion was underpinned to prevent further settlement of the 1958 addition. In spite of that, years later construction work next door would cause further settlement requiring much of the addition to ultimately be torn down.

Finally, in 2000 the library relocated to a new facility on Court Street. Since then the Carnegie building has remained empty. A sign out front says "Historic Building for Lease," with an out of town phone number to call for information.

Inside the rooms look much as they did the day the library moved out. Grand arched passageways, brick fireplaces, rich wood trim and twin staircases dominate the first floor. Empty rows of library shelves fill the mezzanine, and upstairs, hidden above the suspended ceiling is a magnificent amber skylight.

Lack of climate control is evidenced by fallen ceiling tiles, peeling paint and lifted floor tiles. However, for being out of use several years the building seems to be in surprisingly good condition. "It doesn't look as bad as I expected," commented Broome County Historian Gerald Smith on a recent walk-through, adding that the condition of the basement appears the same as when the library moved out years ago.

Architect Jim Bryden agrees. "I find the entire building to be in excellent shape," he said, adding, "rumors that there are serious cracks evident in the main structure appear to be unfounded." Asked about evidence of mold, Bryden said "the mold appears limited to the basement where only a few walls had been built with drywall. The mold is very limited and very easy to mitigate."

Still, there is concern that without taking preventive measures, the building's condition could deteriorate rapidly.

Owner Steven Antler said there have been serious inquiries about the building and currently there is some interest. Asked what he sees for the future, Antler said "hopefully whoever ends up in the building will contribute to the betterment of the community by being there."

Broome County Executive Barbara J. Fiala would like to see the building used. "We cannot become a community that allows a Carnegie library to deteriorate to the point where it cannot be saved," said Fiala, adding "I have my own ideas about its possible uses but I also welcome any additional ideas from the community."

For over a century this building, donated by Andrew Carnegie and designed by this area's finest architects, has stood as a major landmark in the heart of downtown Binghamton. Today the building looks as grand, and appears to be as strong as the day it was built. Smith, who started working at the library in 1978, holds fond memories of the building. "There's a certain grace and beauty about it," he said. "It is an anchor in the Court House square."

Like the tin box inside the cornerstone, this landmark itself is a time capsule. No longer "filled high with printed pages," within its walls are the memories, lessons and teachings of a "People's University." It has stood the test of time and today waits in all its splendor to once again contribute to the future of this community.

See More Photos of the Carnegie Library