100 Years of History at 105 Huron Street: History of the Houghton Public Library and the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw
1908 – 1910
In 1908, the Houghton School Superintendent, John Doelle, received word that “the Ironmaster” had offered $15,000 to build a public library - the community need only purchase a site and pledge $1500 per annum to pay for maintenance. A discussion ensued but ultimately Houghton accepted Mr. Carnegie’s offer. By the following spring, Doelle had raised $5,000 to purchase a lot on the corner of Huron and Montezuma; the plans submitted by the Wisconsin architectural firm, Claude & Starck, had been approved; and local builder John Michels had been awarded the contract. In July 1909 the cornerstone was laid in a “brief but impressive” ceremony.
The 5,000 square foot Classic Revival building was designed to hold books on the top floor with a children’s area on the south side of the building. Downstairs included a “gentleman’s smoking room”, a “community room”, and a classroom. Though the contractor completed his work in the fall, the opening was delayed until February because “there is no telling when … [the furniture] will reach Houghton” and “the cork carpet has not been laid … and it will require two weeks of adjusting before this may be walked on by the public”. Finally, on February 18, 1910, the Houghton Public Library opened its doors to the public for the first time. “A general reception to women and children”, which included “an informal talk by Miss L. E. Stearns of the Wisconsin Free Library commission, Madison” was held during the day. From eight to eleven o’clock in the evening a second reception was held that included musical selections by the Houghton High School Orchestra, vocal selections and addresses by various people including William Miller, Village President, and John Doelle. The next day’s Mining Gazette reported, “From 9 o’clock in the morning till 9 last night the library was crowded, largely with school children, but also with men and women eager to take early advantage of the opportunity. At 7:30 o’clock last evening the library had given out 315 books and the demand was still in active operation so that the total issue of the day must have been nearly 350.” The article continues “The children simply overran the building yesterday and gave evidence of their delight in the building now and for the future.” (Daily Mining Gazette, February 19, 1910) Andrew Carnegie’s gifts enabled small towns across America to build public libraries in order to enhance the education of their citizens. Claude and Starck’s Classical design for Houghton’s Carnegie library created a building that stands today as “one of the city’s grande dames, its ornate façade a testament to the grandeur of earlier times”. (Daily Mining Gazette editorial, December 22, 2005.)
In 1976 the Michigan Historical Commission “judged the site to be of significant historical interest” and listed the building in the State Register of Historic Sites. This designation enabled the library to apply for a grant to finance needed repairs and during the winter of 1978, with a $16,000 grant, the entire entrance was redesigned and re-built. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary celebration in September 1984, a plaque commemorating the designation of the building as a Michigan State Historic Site was dedicated. It hangs on the north-east corner of the building. Anticipating a need to enlarge the original structure, in 1917 the Board of Education paid $3,250 to purchase the adjoining lot, west of the Douglas House, but due to lack of funding the plan never materialized. More than 80 years later, in April 1999, the library board began to consider ways either to expand the original building, or relocate entirely. It was not for another seven years, however, that this dream became a reality. At last, in June 2006, Library Board Vice President Gloria Melton and Houghton Mayor Tom Merz, in front of a large audience of local citizens, cut the ribbon on the new library building. Twice the size of the original Carnegie-funded library, the one-story building stretches along the Portage Canal; large 12 and 16 foot windows line the water side of the building, providing a dramatic and practically unobstructed view.
Now, the question became, “What would come of the ‘grande dame’ on the corner of Huron and Montezuma?” At a September 2006 Houghton City Council meeting, “John Haro of Portage Township presented a proposal for use of the Carnegie Building (old Library building). He would like to see it house the Raffaelli Historical Photo Collection and other local history exhibits.” The Council supported the proposal unanimously and within a couple of months the first exhibit – a photo display about the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community – was opened to the public. Since that time the Carnegie Museum has shown dozens of different exhibits on subjects ranging from shipwrecks to sandstone, from science exhibits for children to the history of brewing beer in the Keweenaw. Though the school district had turned over the deed to the library board four decades previously, ownership reverted to the school when the library moved out. In December 2009 the school board unanimously passed a resolution to sell the building to the City of Houghton and, in turn, at the following Houghton City Council meeting the members voted, again unanimously, to adopt Resolution 2009-1295, authorizing the purchase of the Carnegie building with the last of the money from the Vibrant Small Cities Initiative grant.
Now begins the next one hundred years of the building originally built with a combination of a gift from the great philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, and local community spirit and financial support. We hope this “grande dame” will stand proud for the next hundred years as a community museum - a testament not only to the former grandeur of the community, but to its grand future as well.
Architectural History And Building Restoration
Claude and Starck, the Madison, Wisconsin based architectural firm hired to design Houghton’s Public Library, were influenced by the uniquely Midwest “Chicago School” style of architecture. Among the buildings they designed during their 34 year partnership were over three dozen libraries, including many “Carnegie” libraries. Between 1903 and 1912, they designed a dozen libraries in the Classical style, including the Houghton Public Library. Characteristic of the traditional Classical style is a centered main entry flanked by large fluted Doric columns and topped with a pediment. Several tall windows on either side of the entrance provide a light and open reading room. Other Classical features of the Houghton library are the brick pilasters, placed symmetrically along the outer walls, and set-off the corners of the building. The pressed yellow brick upper story rests on a Portage Entry red sandstone foundation. Local sandstone was also used for the window lintels, to frame both the main and side entries, and the fluted Doric columns flanking the front door over which “Public Library” is carved out of the sandstone lintel. The triangular window-lights, creating a diamond-shaped pattern, are representative of Craftsman or Prairie influences. Further evidence of this style is noted in the interior - the strong horizontal lines created by the high windows ganged across the north and east walls, the golden oak used for wainscoting in the vestibule and for the trim and furnishings throughout the main floor, and the exposed wood beams that divide the high ceiling in thirds. Visible just beyond the large swinging double doors of the vestibule, the central feature of the interior is a rubble stone fireplace made of stones collected from the nearby beaches of Lake Superior. (Painted white at some point, we stripped it clean and restored the natural stone surface a few years ago.)
On the original floor plans, the three rooms downstairs are labeled: “gentleman’s smoking room”, “community room”, and “classroom”. Though evidence of “gentlemen smoking” was found under the stairs when doing some repair work recently – part of a cigar band was lodged between the old steps -- the gentlemen’s smoking room as such seems to have been short-lived. By 1913 it was used by the Keweenaw Historical Society for their collections. They continued to use it for almost 60 years. In the 1970s, it became the mailroom for the Library’s Books-by-Mail program and eventually the children’s library’s picture book room. Today, the Houghton Keweenaw County Genealogical Society maintains the former “gentlemen’s smoking room” as a reading room.
Sometime in the 1970s, the “community room” was turned into the children’s library. In 2013, with a generous gift from Houghton’s Rotary Club, we transformed the former children’s library back into its original purpose: a community room. We removed the bookcases and suspended acoustical tile ceiling and constructed a grid of large beams to carry the utilities. We removed the worn carpet and refinished the original maple floor. We installed light fixtures reminiscent of those found in a photograph from the early 1970s as well as adding track lights to illuminate exhibits on the walls. Finally, we repainted the entire room. Beginning in early 2015, we will continue the renovations throughout the downstairs hall and stairwell. We also received a grant from UPPCO’s foundation to purchase audio / visual equipment which will be installed by the end of 2014.
Upstairs, we stripped layers of paint from the stone fireplace and removed an office that was added in the 1990s. In order to maintain the architectural lines of the original design, we left the perimeter bookcases intact and inset our display boards into them. We are currently having all the clerestory windows removed and reconditioned.
Through a grant from the Keweenaw National Historical Park, we hired an architectural historian to analyze paint chips from the painted metal cornice that crowns the building in order to determine the original color scheme. In the summer of 2012, we had the cornice repainted based on his work. The front door was stripped of its cream paint and stained. Beginning in the summer of 2014, we are having all the storm windows removed and repainted black to match the original color scheme.