Monday, November 19, 2012

The Oxnard Carnegie

"So where are we heading today?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"No.   I want to see the Carnegie Library down there.  It's a beautiful one and now an art museum, showing California artists."
"I don't get it.  What is it about you and these Carnegies?"

Oxnard Carnegie Art Museum

 And so I begin this post with a remarkable two-part essay that appeared in the North American Review in June and December of 1889.  Entitled "Wealth" and written by Andrew Carnegie, it created quite an uproar among his fellow robber barons.
The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.

The main theme of his essay was the administration of wealth.  Vast wealth can be bequeathed three ways:  To the family, to charity, or it can be administered during one's lifetime for public benefit.  It is this third alternative that Carnegie took to heart. 

 Building libraries became not only a passion, but a second business.  He set up standards and procedures for municipal governments to follow.  A town applied for a grant after proving it had a suitable site and could provide funds for books and maintenance.  A formula was devised according to population.  The larger the town, the more money it received.

Carnegie also approved the building design before money was granted, and it was this stipulation that makes his libraries so great.  He hired the best known architects of the time.  If these libraries were going to have his name on them, by George, they were going to be architectural gems.  And indeed they are.

More than 2,000 libraries were built, not only in the United States but in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdon.  Even the islands of Fiji and Mauritius benefited from his largesse.  Virtually all the states ended up with at least one Carnegie Library.  Indiana received the most, with California coming in second.  Sadly, many of them are now gone.

This beautiful Neo-Classical building was opened in 1907 and served as a public library and a city hall.  It was designed by L.A. architect, Franklin Burnham.  Over the years this dignified structure was also home to several municipal offices, a Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce.  It was the first building in Ventura County to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is now an art musuem and I spent a wonderful hour admiring the bold, colorful paintings of Michael Pierce, chair of the art department at California Lutheran University.  The paintings seemed so at home here.  They were dreamlike and mysterious, a mixture of ancient myths and contemporary culture.   My favorite painting was of three gorgeous young people at the beach, not looking at the sea, but at their cell phones.  Isolation.  It occurred to me that I, too, was all alone, walking among white Greek columns and pale gray walls.  An exquisite space for art.

Carnegie wanted his libraries to benefit all mankind.  He would be pleased with this one, I think.  And yet . . . where was everybody?   I couldn't help thinking of the men who labored at his steel works twelve hours a day, seven days a week.  These libraries weren't for them, were they?  Just who were they for?  


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