Quintessentially Lowcountry: Carnegie-funded building first permanent library in Beaufort

June 11, 2010 

  • 14: Carnegie-funded libraries in South Carolina; five still serve as libraries 1,679: Carnegie libraries in the country, mostly in the Midwest. Indiana has the most with 164. $40 million: Amount Carnegie donated to build libraries between 1886 and 1919.

The brick building at the corner of Carteret and Craven streets is vacant. A sign on the door indicates its last tenant, the city of Beaufort Codes Enforcement department, moved out in May 2009.

But the stamp the regal structure put on the city endures. It was Beaufort's first permanent library, funded in part by a steel magnate from the East, Andrew Carnegie. It now stands amid a collection of buildings that signify the growth of the county library. Like a timeline, one can walk from the Carnegie building constructed in 1918, across Craven to the next version that opened in 1964, to the latest addition, completed in 1992, that sprawls behind it.

It was the Carnegie building that first provided a stable home for the library that had endured a tumultuous history that included fire, seizure and fire again.

The Parish Church of St. Helena started the community's first library in 1755 for its members. The Library Society opened another library in 1857 with 3,000 books housed at the College of Beaufort.

Union troops confiscated the collection in 1862 and sent it to New York to be auctioned off as rebel property. The plan was met with an outcry, even among northerners. U.S. Treasurer Salmon Chase halted the sale, saying, "The Union does not make war on libraries." He ordered the books to be stored at the Smithsonian until the end of the war. But a fire there in 1865 destroyed the collection. Beaufort eventually received a token payment for the books -- in 1950.

In 1902, the Clover Club, a women's group, started a circulating library that operated out of the Masonic Building. The "great fire" of 1907 destroyed that building; luckily, all but 50 of the library books were saved.

The Clover Club launched a drive for a permanent library in 1911. The city of Beaufort donated land at Craven and Carteret streets, and the Carnegie Foundation of New York donated $7,500 in 1914 for construction.

The library, designed by local architect James Hagood Sams, opened in 1918.

Its life as a library ended when the new library opened next door in 1964. From then until May 2009, the city used it for office space.

Now, its future is unknown.

Several ideas have been floated for the building, including office space for the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and more recently, a plan for the University of South Carolina Beaufort to collaborate with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. That idea fell apart after the New York entity declined last year to pay for renovations, which would be at least $350,000, said Jane Upshaw, USCB chancellor.

USCB had envisioned the center as a partnership among the university, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the Carnegie Council, Beaufort and other nonprofit organizations.

While USCB works to bolster its presence in Beaufort, Upshaw said other possibilities in town have arisen.

She said the library "is lower than other opportunities we have, but I don't want to take it off the list completely. I'm not ready to say, 'no we have no use for it.'"

In the meantime, the building, "public library" etched above its door, waits.

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