Pea-green with envy.

Kate and Allie (yes, really) finding Nemo.

I give the place a lot of grief, but never let it be said I don’t give Fort Wayne its due, either. The renovation of the main library, a gut-to-the-studs bump-out, was a major project, the centerpiece of an $80 million bond issue for improvements system-wide. A remonstrance, in which the arguments ran from “that’s too much money” to “splutter taxes splutter eggheads splutter a café?!?” failed, and so construction commenced more than three years ago. The entire main branch was relocated a few blocks down the street for the duration. When it became clear we were leaving Fort Wayne for good sometime in 2004, one of my first thoughts was: I’m not going to see the library completed. Damn.

Eighty million smackers is a lot of money. Noted. However, it won’t even buy a middling stadium anymore, a facility that policymakers everywhere are convinced is a veritable golden goose for any city. But I don’t follow most sports, and step into their arenas only rarely, whereas I’m in a library at least once a week. When my child was younger, it was more often. It helped that the Allen County Public Library was such a rich well of resources, a facility that seemed to belong in a city three times the size of Fort Wayne. And it wasn’t the crown jewels — a top-three-in-the-country genealogical collection, a rare-book room with everything from an unopened copy of Madonna’s “Sex” to a complete set of Edward Sheriff Curtis’ “The North American Indian” folios — that I used. They just kept up with everything, from new fiction to kid-lit to internet resources to music and DVDs. The staff was friendly and sharp. I was grateful for it every time I stepped through the doors.

So. Came the weekend, and one of Kate’s playdates fell through, and we had time on our hands. Where to go? No question.

I only took a few pictures. If you want to see pictures, go to the ACPL’s Flickr page, which documents every nook and cranny. My immediate first impression: They were right to aim high. To call Fort Wayne “fiscally conservative” is laughingly inadequate; Midwestern frugality is the bass note of every discussion of spending tax dollars. There’s a main traffic artery on which you drive with your heart in your mouth, so narrow are the lanes. They are the absolute bare minimum allowed by law, constructed to save a few shekels on concrete and land under the administration of a previous, tight-fisted mayor. To drive on Lake Avenue is to experience a literal manifestation of penny wise and pound foolish — it’ll have to be widened at some point, at a cost that dwarfs what it would have been to just make them wider in the first place — but nobody cares. The editorial pages call the old miser not a bullheaded obstructionist but a necessary voice of fiscal restraint. Whatever.

It would have been easy to do the same thing with the library, to address parking and space issues a little bit at a time, settling for good-enough rather than great. But library administrators didn’t, and the public backed the play, and good for them. They bought themselves not just a wonderful facility but a new focal point for downtown. Example: The plan called for the abandonment of one block of Webster Street, even though the building wasn’t going to grow significantly in that direction. Instead they built a wide plaza at the main entry, an outdoor gathering place suitable for everything from political speechmaking to lolling with a good book. (I’m assuming there’ll be some benches there once the weather turns.)

And that’s apart from the other public spaces within — a theater, meeting rooms, acres of study tables and computer work stations. There’ve been some criticisms that the 21st-century design slights the books, but I think it’s more a question of scale; the spaces are so vast now that the books take up less space than they used to. In any event, the new library eliminated one of the odder traits of the old one — storage. There were two basement levels, and if the catalog said the book you wanted was in storage, you filled out a slip and sent it down on a dumbwaiter. An unseen library troll fetched it for you and sent it back up in a few minutes, which was always amusing. (I always wanted to send down a cupcake or love note or something.)

Now all the books are in the public stacks, and the basement levels are underground parking. You swipe your library card to raise the gate.

When the old library closed, Kate mourned the loss of the children’s department, which was cramped but cozy, a place we both loved. The star attraction was an aquarium featuring a single occupant, which we called Mr. Fish. The new children’s section is vast, with several play areas and, well, a big upgrade in the aquarium department — two semicircles of beautiful saltwater tanks, along with a tubular bubble display that drives the toddlers wild with delight. One of the librarians recognized us, and after marveling over the tall girl at my side who has replaced the little storytime regular, we asked whatever happened to Mr. Fish.

She made a face. “Poisoned,” she said, when a kid poured soap into the old tank. “The new ones are a lot taller,” she said. “I don’t think anyone will be able to reach that high.” Or will want to, I expect. It’s all too beautiful.

Finally, the café, a detail that drove the remonstrators crosseyed. The library is a draw for lots of out-of-towners, mostly amateur genealogists. Downtown Fort Wayne can be a dreary place after dark and in certain seasons, and a place to get a sandwich and coffee without going too far was always these visitors’ No. 1 request; the circulation desk used to give out a photocopied list of all reasonably priced restaurants within walking distance. But a restaurant struck many as the ultimate unnecessary detail, a luxury for the sort of Starbucks-haunting layabouts the new place would be sure to attract. Why, there’s a Taco Bell right across the street; couldn’t they be happy with that?

The café shares a space with Twice Sold Tales, the used bookstore run by the Friends of the Library. I ducked in to see if I could score some cheap hardcovers, and found a few, only to see that the Friends’ cash register was unattended. A sign instructed me to take my purchase to the café register and pay there. I looked over. A line had formed that was nearly to the door, at least a dozen people. The lunch crowd, in other words. I put the books back and left empty-handed but heart-full. I’m so proud of the old place. They aimed high and hit a bullseye.

Posted at 9:51 am in News |

32 responses to “Pea-green with envy.”

  1. Connie said on February 26, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Unfortunately one of those remonstrators was a state senator who was so angry he got the bonding/remonstrance law changed to make it much harder for municipal units to deal with the remonstrance process. So in the Indiana Library community we have been saying that everything is Jeff Krull’s fault.

    Administrators of Large Public Libraries in Indiana (I will not overwhelm you with the acronym) will be meeting there for two days in April, and I am looking forward to seeing it.

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  2. Connie said on February 26, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Your Google ads crack me up. Today’s “Pea-green with envy.” brought you ads re massage envy and overcoming jealousy.

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  3. John Brown said on February 26, 2007 at 11:04 am

    I was an unseen library troll during my last two years of high school from June ’72 to June ’74. The whole point to the storage areas was to preserve the books longer by controlling the climate. Many of the books were fairly brittle and wouldn’t have lasted upstairs as long as they have. Also, I was glad to have a quiet place to explore the stacks of books when I had caught up on my work.

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  4. nancy said on February 26, 2007 at 11:07 am

    John, didn’t they also have a flooding problem down there, though? Would seem to defeat the purpose, but I see the argument.

    Connie, was that Bob Alderman? The p.o.’d state senator?

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  5. brian stouder said on February 26, 2007 at 11:22 am

    pointless aside – on several occasions I have dined “with” Alderman at the McDonalds at West Coliseum & Goshen Road. The car with the trick Indiana government plates, and his absurd hair are always unmistakeable giveaways.

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  6. John Brown said on February 26, 2007 at 11:47 am

    The storage rooms were dry. Most of the water problems were from the roof leaking almost from the first day. The damage seemed to be on the main floor, especially in the corners of the building. Lesson from that: Flat roof + Fort Rain= Bad engineering idea.

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  7. Steve said on February 26, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Unfortunate factoid: There are still tens of thousands of books in storage. They aren’t appearing on the catalog yet because an efficient system hasn’t been set-up to retrieve them, but that’s just how massive the collection is. Otherwise, the building is pretty great, isn’t it?

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  8. nancy said on February 26, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    That was a lesson Michael Graves, who grew up in Indianapolis for cryin’ out loud, failed to learn. At least, not when he designed the Snyderman House, which fell into ruin after Dr. and Mrs. fled for more comfortable accommodations. It was not only flat-roofed in Fort Rain, but deep in a woods. “We had to sweep the roof every three days,” Mrs. S. told me once. Otherwise the drains would clog.

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  9. Dorothy said on February 26, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    The pictures look very lovely. What a nice thing for the Fort! I just love libraries. I still miss my first library in Wilkinsburg, PA. It smelled so wonderfully bookish!

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  10. Mary said on February 26, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    I was at the grand opening of the Library several weeks ago and it did my heart good to see so many people interested that the entire building was over flowing with bodies of every age. It is a beautiful edifice and certainly a crown jewel for downtown. (scored a first edition To Kill a Mockingbird for $2!!! at the Friends of the Library story. Its rough, but its a 1st edition!!)

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  11. Dave said on February 26, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    We just came back from our second trip to the new library, we were there the day it opened, too. It was great seeing the turnout but our trip today was much better, we could appreciate it more. Makes me happy I supported it and I always wonder that Fort Wayne could have such a library and in this backward state.

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  12. MarkH said on February 26, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Dorothy, that reminds me of the Carnegie Free Libraries throughout western PA. Andrew himself endowed them. Some of my fondest childhood memories were visiting Grandma’s house in McKeesport on Saturdays, and spending hours in that great big old stone building at the corner of Library (what else?) and Union Aves. It’s gotta be 100+ years old now; still there in all its glory. Have a look:

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  13. brian stouder said on February 26, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    I believe that Fort Wayne’s old-old library – the one that was replaced in 1968 by the old-new library – was indeed a Carnegie library.

    This may or may not be related, but I remember my dad (a lifelong Fort Wayne resident) grumbling about filthy rich people like Carnegie going around the country and donating their money, just so long as their name got attached to these memorials to their virtue

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  14. MarkH said on February 27, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Awfully curious of your father, Brian, considering Carnegie didn’t have his name on any of the libraries. Although, of course, he couldn’t avoid taking credit, as communities had to apply with him for the endowments.

    Speaking of those communities, do you know which state had the most libraries? Yep, you’re there: Indiana with 165. So you’re likely correct about yours in Fort Wayne. Interestingly, Carnegie’s adopted home state, Pennsylvania, had only 59.

    I admit I was ignorant of much of the libraries history, but here’s a good source:

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  15. brian stouder said on February 27, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Interesting article, Mark – thanks! Depending how much credence we give to wikki truthiness, it seems there was indeed a social/political cross-wind with regard to Carnegie’s patron-sainthood of libraries.

    Suffice it to say, I happily supported the county-wide library construction/renovation bond issue, as I will also support the FWCS construction/renovation bond issue.

    Leaving aside the occasional possibility of ‘pennies from heaven’ (such as the pile of Salvation Army money from the McDonald’s fortune, which Ft Wayne missed out on) – I believe the hard work of maintaining and advancing a community over the long term falls squarely on the shoulders of the citizens who live there (and if they skitter into the suburbs, then annex ’em!)

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  16. Kirk said on February 27, 2007 at 9:01 am

    the library in my southern ohio hometown, which was endowed by anmdrew carnegie, was and remains known as the Carnegie Public Library.

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  17. Kirk said on February 27, 2007 at 9:01 am

    and that’s andrew, not anmdrew

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  18. nancy said on February 27, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Most of the Carnegie libraries I’ve seen say “Carnegie Library” over the door, big as you please.

    But how can you dislike the guy for endowing libraries? I prefer his kind of plutocrat to the new-style variety with their million-dollar Sweet 16 parties.

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  19. brian stouder said on February 27, 2007 at 9:25 am

    Actually, I never really ‘got’ what my dad’s beef was, either; struck me as sort of sullen (for lack of a better word).

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  20. Connie said on February 27, 2007 at 9:41 am

    Carnegie took no part in what the local libraries for which he provided funding were named or how they were run. His only requirement was that the local municipal body had to commit to an annual operating budget for the library equal to 10 % of his gift.

    I’ve had the interesting experience of putting computer cable in a 1906 Carnegie. Later we did an expansion and renovation that I am still very proud of, even with the addition that was put on it last year.

    There are several books and web pages about Carnegies, most recently this one: “Temples of knowledge : Andrew Carnegie’s gift to Indiana” by McPherson, Alan. Kewanna, IN : Hoosier’s Nest Press, c2003. It contains pics of most, most particularly those which, like Elkhart, were demolished. Elkhart’s was demolished in a sort of overnight fait accompli fashion that caused a community uproar. The parking lot that was built on its site is my view from my office window.

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  21. Dorothy said on February 27, 2007 at 9:55 am

    I’ve never been to the McKeesport Carnegie Library, Mark, but I went to the Squirrel Hill branch often with my kids (that’s where I discovered my Wednesday night quilting buddies). My favorite was the Oakland branch next door to the Carnegie Museum. I could close my eyes and still see the revolving door and the long, cool hallways stretching out on either side of the entrance. If you went to the right, you’d get into the children’s department. To the left you’d get to the rest rooms and eventually, the side entrance to the museum and the dinosaur exhibit.

    BTW how do all of you pronounce “Carnegie”? We always put the emphasis on the middle portion. But I’ve heard others put emphasis on “Car”.

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  22. Bob said on February 27, 2007 at 10:47 am

    Before I knew better, I used to put the emphasis on the “Car”. Since then, I’ve observed that my friends and acquaintances in Pittsburgh and Cleveland always put the emphasis on the middle syllable. They should know.

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  23. LA mary said on February 27, 2007 at 11:08 am

    You must have seen an episode of that MTV show about sweet sixteen parties, eh? How horrible is that stuff?

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  24. brian stouder said on February 27, 2007 at 11:49 am

    You must have seen an episode of that MTV show about sweet sixteen parties, eh?

    No no no!! I haven’t watched more than 6 consecutive seconds of MTV (and then – only if there happens to be a bikini scene) since about 1982!

    But – I HAVE watched the “reality” show about the moms in Beverly Hills (or wherever) – so I get your drift!

    Anyway – rich folks have always been gaudy. Is a sweet-16 extravaganza different from a debutante ball?

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  25. nancy said on February 27, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    “My Super Sweet 16” finally explains the enduring popularity of “Scarface.” All those people who count it among their favorites must have internalized Tony Montana’s taste in personal expression and, of course, interior decorating.

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  26. MarkH said on February 27, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Brian, I hear ya about Wikipedia. I’ve read enough articles about afrementioned “truthiness” to make me a skeptical browser. But most of the entries I’ve seen on subjects I am familiar with are accurate.

    Interesting that some of report that Carnegie’s name is on your local library after all. Maybe after his death the locals thought it was a good idea and made sure it was added.

    Connie, leave it to you to straighten us out on all things library, Carnegie. Thanks for the tip on the McPherson book.

    Our family always pronounced car-NAYG-ee. We even had a family physician in Pittsburgh with the Carnegie name, so we could practice :).

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  27. Dorothy said on February 28, 2007 at 7:51 am

    There is even a borough in Pittsburgh (just a bit south of the city) named Carnegie. I’d forgotten about that.

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  28. LA mary said on February 28, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    Do you mean the real housewives of Orange County Brian? That show amazes even those of us who live here. I don’t live behind the Orange curtain, actually, but I have passed through those parts.
    What I want to know is: how so such stupid people become so rich? I know it’s an age old question, and I’m not looking to become a gazillionaire, really, I just want to know who pays these people so much money?

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  29. brian stouder said on February 28, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    THAT’S the one! Yes! the show cracks me up, although I haven’t seen it in awhile. Money never seems to be an issue at all – and leaving aside the show-biz part of the show – the women clearly seem to be very sharp operators (the one seems to own? – or at least manage an insurance brokerage)

    Another show that I like is Bridezilla. Certainly, they have their over-the-top hellcats on there (necessary to give the show its cachet) – but usually at least a few of the women seem genuinely to be simply trying to orchestrate their “big day” successfully – and they have a clear idea of what they want and they are assertive in pursuit of their goals……which strikes me as somewhat hot!

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  30. Connie said on March 1, 2007 at 9:40 am

    OK, sorry for the delay, Yes, the Fort Wayne state legislator to whom I refer above is Bob Alderford. Actually was, because I believe he is now a muckety muck at the transportation dept.

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  31. Jay River said on March 2, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    You seem to be a fan of Edward S. Curtis, so you will find the following to be of interest.

    THE INDIAN PICTURE OPERA, a new film on the works of Curtis is a re-creation of a 1911 Curtis Slide show and lecture. The dvd can be searched out on .

    This production goes way beyond the images themselves. It’s a virtual vignette on E.S.Curtis’s observations from a century ago.

    The film probes the foundations of native American deitys, beiliefs, and the quest for food.

    I’m sure you will enjoy!

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