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If these walls could talk: 107 N. Main St.

July 5, 2012

In three short years, the Culver-Union Twp. Public Library will have a major celebration, I'm sure, of its centennial. My intent isn't to jump the gun on telling the library’s story, but in our virtual "walk" up and down Culver's Main Street downtown, we've reached the door of that stately institution. As usual, I'll limit my writing here to the development and changes in the building itself, more than offering a thorough history of anything and everything about the library.

To be technical, to stand at the threshold of today's Culver Public Library is to consider what historically was two separate structures: the original library, which is represented by the old Carnegie portion of the building (the southernmost section), and the next door north, which for half of the 20th century was occupied by the Methodist Episcopal church (replaced in the mid-1950s by today's Wesley United Methodist Church on School Street) and later a variety of businesses, including Norcen Insurance.

For this week, we'll concentrate on the old portion of the building.
The property on which it was to be located went through a series of owners, though Lottie and George Voreis seem to have been long-lasting and later owners of the land. There are sketchy records of a log cabin on the site, which would have been neighbor to the Methodist Church, in one structural form or another, since 1868. The Exchange (later State Exchange) bank building would have bordered it to the south starting around 1907. Early postcards are tough to make out, but by the time both the bank and the church were there, the in-between (future library) lot looks pretty vacant. What would become the library's parking lot, to the west of the building as it is today, was occupied by houses, at least by the later years.

The Culver Citizen of April 2, 1914, announced, "The first step has been taken toward securing a Carnegie Library building in Culver. A committee of seven was appointed at the Commercial Club Meeting the other night to correspond with the State Library Association to get information and to solicit the people of Culver and Union township for donations of books as a nucleus for a library. For an indefinite period the use of three rooms above Dr. Tallman's office will be donated for the library and reading rooms by S. C. Shilling."

Of course, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was already famous for building public and university libraries, a philanthropic endeavor which resulted in 1,689 of them in the United States alone, between 1883 and 1929. Most towns near to Culver either already had Carnegie libraries, or soon would have by 1914, and while Carnegie libraries nationwide varied widely in style, nowadays the architecture of those few that remain often gives them away as Carnegies.

The initial Culver library board was stacked with familiar local names of the day -- Holt, Stahl, Parker, Norris, Easterday, and Osborn -- and their application for a $10,000 grant was approved.

Books were solicited from the community, an unmarried lady sought as first librarian (Zola Moss was chosen), and by the end of 1914, 1,500 volumes already graced the shelves of a temporary library.

In November, $1,450 was spent to purchase the lot, with the aforementioned log cabin bought for $10 (the late Fran Butler is referenced in an Antiquarian and Historical Society newsletter on the subject as saying a bachelor had been living there who frightened local children!). Notably, eight summer residents also pledged to support the library, including members of the Perry, Marmon, Robinson, Coffin, and Mueller families.

Contractors were chosen and bricks from the Western Brick Co. of Danville, Ill. employed. Next time you're in the Center for Culver History museum, head to the north door and take a close look at the bricks. Not uncommon for the day, they were hollow. The original roof was Spanish tile.

The library opened in 1915, around the same time Main Street was paved with brick for the first time.

As was common of Carnegie libraries, the entire lower level was designed to accommodate meetings and gatherings, with a raised stage on the north end of the room, and even a projection window on the south, and a ticket window set up to handle entrance to events, just inside the south, ground level entryway. These components remain today as part of the museum. The upper level of the building was devoted to book stacks and circulation area, as it was through the 1990s, with a tight spiral staircase uniting the two floors.

The first library card was issued to longtime Culver schoolteacher Edna Stahl on Jan. 26, 1915.

The late Mary Powers, in an interview I conducted while working at the library, said the library contained the first public restroom in Culver, and the notion of putting that sort of plumbing inside a building absolutely disgusted her father. Young Mary, however, was fascinated, and said she stopped off at the library every day on the way to and from school simply to flush the toilet and watch the water swirl down the drain!

I'm told, too, that the library's restroom served Culver's Methodist populace as well. The ancient Methodist church next door had no bathroom, so the library's was left unlocked on Sunday mornings for the use of the congregation, something doubtlessly illegal nowadays. The bathroom would become something of a bane to the existence of library staff by the 1980s and `90s. Its drain often backed up, causing very unpleasant overflows and eventually forcing the bathroom to be closed to the public for long stretches at a time.

The auditorium space was quite a significant part of Culver's history. It contained the Red Cross sewing ladies during World War I, served a variety of wartime functions during World War II, played host to the local Boy Scouts, a number of concerts and performances, and helped launch the Culver Bible Church, which met there weekly before it constructed its current building in 1958, as did Trinity Lutheran Church, for the first ten years of its existence, between 1959 and 1968, when it, too, gained a separate building. Catholic Masses were held there on various occasions as needed, as well.

The memorial stone to war veterans which still occupies the front lawn of the library was placed there and dedicated in 1957, a significant event in part because the site then became the center of Memorial and Veterans Day parades through town for some years after, with dignitaries often seated near the stones, high above the proceedings (its notable that the hill rising up to the library's upper floor is the highest site in downtown Culver, and certainly affords the highest-level view of any public spot there).

Diana Williams recalled attending the stones' dedication as a young child, noting a time capsule was placed in the base of one stone, though its whereabouts since the library's early 2000s renovation remains a mystery to me.

In June, 1958, the library purchased a book return box for the convenience of its patrons.

In August, 1968, a long-range plan for modernizing the library via federal grant was presented to the library board. It was noted the often-unused basement space could be put to better use, and there was talk of adding a ground-level wing to the east, which obviously never occurred. Some changes suggested, however, certainly did. The Jan. 9, 1969 Culver Citizen reported some adult materials were expanding to the ground floor of the library, according to longtime librarian Mrs. Norman Scruggs.

It’s interesting to note that the respective entryways – upstairs and down – were effectively used to direct the flow of public traffic in the building according to a schedule which must have made sense to the library at the time, likely to maximize staffing hours.

"The south door next to the bank lounge entrance will be the main thoroughfare to the library," reported the Citizen. "This door will be open at 12 noon and close at 8 p.m.

"The second floor door, facing the east at the top of the steps, will be open at 3 p.m. and close at 8 p.m. Patrons may use the second floor before 3 p.m. by using the inside stairs."

All adult fiction, phonograph records, films and slides, current magazines and new books would eventually move to the ground floor, as they stayed for the next three decades. Remaining on the upper floor were reference materials, children and teenage fiction and non-fiction, and all adult non-fiction. A second circulation desk was added downstairs.

A number of subtle changes took place at the library in the ensuing years. In the late 1970's, as gift and memorial to their deceased daughter and sister, Lela Hildebrandt, the Alfred. J. and Barbara (Thornburg) Donnelly families re-landscaped the library's front grounds.

Longtime Culver Academy artist-in-residence Warner Williams, a devotee of the library, gave a large collection of his sculptures -- particularly animals and birds, though also some medallions -- to the library, which they adorned for some 20 years. His large vulture sculpture, in fact, still resides upstairs there. Art also featured prominently for several years in the building when Culver's Tri Kappa held its rotating exhibit of "Art on the Stairs." Of course in those days, the library actually circulated art prints -- several dozen of them -- for residents to borrow and hang in their homes.

The mid-1990s heralded a sometimes-heated debate surrounding the library. The library board, recognizing a need to expand and modernize the old Carnegie, gave serious consideration to erecting a new building, possibly on the north end of Culver near Park N' Shop. A number of local residents individually, and the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver collectively, lobbied to keep the library downtown and restore and preserve the old Carnegie. The AHS, in fact, decided to fund a feasibility study in December, 1996, to learn whether the Carnegie could be preserved and expanded, when the library board declined to fund it. A number of options were examined, including expanding into the bank building to the south (it was concluded the old second floor of the bank couldn't withstand the weight of book stacks).

Obviously, the "downtowners" eventually prevailed, and so began the long, arduous task of designing and facilitating not only restoration and enhancement of the old building, but fluid, functional expansion into a brand-new structure.

As the new millennium dawned, plans were underway to move the contents of the library to a temporary site at 415 E. Lake Shore Drive, then known popularly as the "Guido's building" for the pizza and sandwich business most recently housed there (today, of course, it's home to Culver Banquets, Gladie's Deli, and Mirar Homes).

Many in Culver likely share your editor's fond memories of the old -- if admittedly antiquated -- Carnegie, with its strange orange and black carpeting; the dizzying descent down the old, plastered stairway; the massive wood circulation desk; the tiny children's area which somehow seemed quite adequate when one was a child; and the echoing scrape of your footsteps on the downstairs floor as you browsed for fiction or records.

It's telling that, right around the time the library began considering modernizing, it received a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation U. S. Library Program Computer Grant and began the digital journey all of us are on today.

Fort Wayne architecture firm Morrison Kattman Menze began planning for the total 18,400 square foot "new" library, slated to be constructed between Jan., 2001, and May, 2002. Tragedy struck during the construction when, in two separate incidents, two workers were killed while on the job, leaving the entire community jolted and stunned.

Eventually the work was completed, however, and what had once been almost the entire upper floor of the Carnegie, of course, became the children's and young adult room. A magazine area with comfortable seats, a fireplace, and that portrait of old Mr. Carnegie was added, as was the carpet depicting Lake Maxinkuckee and the library's location on it. The "new" portion of the library, created following the teardown of what had been the Norcen Insurance (previously Methodist Church) building, included the director's office, circ desk, and of course the stacks. The decision to surround the book space with windows meant that almost no added room for books actually entered the design.

For the first time, an elevator was added to the library, along with a downstairs staff lounge, large lower-level meeting room, and a room at one point planned to be a museum, in conjunction with the AHS. That arrangement fell through, and by 2004, ever-growing computer usage led to the room on the north end of the downstairs being declared a computer lab.

Interestingly, the old Carnegie lower level wasn't developed as part of the renovation, but left unfinished and almost untouched, for future boards to decide what to do with. To its west was the new boiler room, part of which -- circa 2008-2009 -- was converted into a small meeting room. Around the same time, the children's area received a second overhaul, the circulation desk re-situated and a number of changes made in hopes the space would be more attractive to teens and better accommodate children.

The much-discussed (recently) old Carnegie downstairs space, of course, was renovated starting in 2006 by the Antiquarian and Historical Society to act as a museum and research center to house both the library's and the AHS' local and regional history collections among other functions. It appears that by the time the library celebrates its centennial, that space will have reverted back to full library use.

Internally, the renovations of a decade ago also computerized the library's circulation procedures, moving it away for the first time since it opened, from the old system of hand-writing, in pencil, each patron's number on a particular book's card. Many patrons complained they'd never be able to tell which books they'd already read, now that their number wouldn't appear on the book's card inside the front cover!
Your editor can't make that complaint, but I can take you, any given day, to the few volumes of my childhood favorites still in the collection, and show you my number, scratched in pencil, all these years -- and memories and changes -- later.

*This column is sponsored by the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver (http://culverahs.com - historyofculver.gmail.com)*

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