April 08, 2020

Andrew Carnegie donated UM’s first library

The construction of the University of Maine’s first library building – funded completely by a gift from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie – was the most notable event in the institution’s 40-year history. So declared an editorial writer for the Bangor Daily Commercial after the dedication of what is known today as Carnegie Hall was covered on Nov. 2, 1906, a century ago this Thursday. Up to then, the library was kept in cramped quarters in Coburn Hall and Alumni Hall. This strikingly designed neoclassical edifice with its massive columns was going to help transform a technical school where cows grazed into something approximating its recently acquired university designation.

The year before, in the depths of winter, President George E. Fellows had summoned a campus meeting in the chapel at Alumni Hall. He had called the president of the trustees, Henry Lord, on the telephone at his Bangor ship broker’s office, asking him to come up to the campus immediately. When Lord asked what the meeting was about, Fellows mysteriously deferred comment. Lord made the journey with a sense of foreboding, he later recalled, fearing some great calamity. When he entered the chapel the entire student body, then numbering nearly 700 students, was assembled. “The faces of all showed anxiety,” Lord recalled.

President Fellows gave a short speech. He said that when he had come to the university four years before he had found many “crying needs,” according to the Bangor Daily News account on Feb. 10, 1905. He had found inadequate classroom and laboratory space, insufficient student housing, and too little cash to cover expenses. He recounted some of his accomplishments including the building of five fraternity houses and Lord Hall, named after Henry. Then came the bombshell news: “And now I have the pleasure of announcing that I have this morning received a gift of $50,000 for a new library building.”

“Cheer after cheer resounded. The students leaped to their feet and forgot the usual restraint imposed by the presence of faculty,” according to the newspaper account. Lord took the podium and gave full credit to President Fellows. “The trustees knew nothing of the scheme,” he said. “It was promoted and carried to a successful conclusion by Dr. Fellows, to whom we owe one of the greatest debts in the history of the institution.” More cheers followed, and the students “marched out singing the Maine song to ‘Our Director.'”

Fellows’ accomplishment was astonishing. These were perilous times for UMaine. Its state appropriation varied greatly from year to year, as political forces tried to limit its mission to training farmers and engineers. Despite this financial insecurity, Fellows had been able to convince Carnegie to donate his money with no strings attached. Later, he successfully solicited an additional $5,000 to outfit the building. Perhaps Carnegie, an immigrant who had worked himself up the hard way, was impressed with the battle Fellows was waging on behalf of a plebian land-grant university against the forces of privilege. The grant was all the more surprising because the Pittsburgh philanthropist gave most of his donations to town libraries.

The building was to be placed “just south of the President’s house, on the slope fronting the main road and the [trolley] car line.” With its copper-covered dome, Carnegie Hall would be the first building people would see coming from Bangor. It would enable the university to increase its library collection from 29,000 volumes to 73,000.

Twenty train-car loads of granite from the Hallowell Granite Works were deposited at the site by Jan. 22, 1906. The cornerstone was laid in June. When dedication day arrived a great cast of characters appeared including the governor and the U.S. commissioner of education. A large photograph of Carnegie was in the BDN. But the new library was the star of the show.

The Industrial Journal noted, “On entering the building one passes from the spacious front hall into a large rotunda, which like the rest of the interior is finished in Flemish [weathered] oak. The rotunda is lighted by a number of incandescent lamps and a large light well extending to the dome of the building.”

Upstairs, “a spacious gallery surrounds the light well and on the walls around this will be hung the pictures of the art guild of the college.” The second floor also contained seminar rooms and a lecture hall that would seat more than 100. The basement contained a newspaper reading area and a room for club meetings. A three-story stack was situated off the back of the building, separated from the rest of the library by fireproof doors.

“The location of the new building is sightly and its copper-covered dome will be a conspicuous object for many miles around,” commented the newspaper. That school year, the UMaine catalog described it as “the most striking building on the campus.”

Despite all these tributes, however, today this architectural gem has been carved up and dismantled. The dome was removed in the 1960s because of leaks. The much-vaunted Flemish oak that covered the walls has disappeared as has the two-story rotunda that served apparently as the university’s first art gallery. A dozen other touches that made it the pride of the campus have been removed. Only the massive pillars remain, causing a casual passer-by to wonder what manner of grandiose structure this once was. How all this could have happened to one of the most architecturally impressive and historically important buildings on campus is worthy of further investigation. Determining how such occurrences can be prevented in the future is even more important.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net. Architectural historian Sara K. Martin contributed information to this column.

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