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The Carnegie Library was given in 1904 to Lebanon Valley College by the Carnegie Foundation. The vast majority of Carnegie-funded libraries (1,679 in North America), however, were given to towns and cities, and during the first decade and a half of its existence, the Foundation routinely refused to grant requests from colleges and universities. The first request of Lebanon Valley College, in March 1903, in fact was denied. The foundation's reply read: "Mr. Carnegie . . . has not been able to enter upon the limitless field of the need of educational institutions." But the college persisted, and ultimately received one of only 108 libraries eventually given to North American colleges and universities. It even managed to elicit another $5,000 above the original grant amount from the Foundation, without which, ". . . the building would suffer much in beauty," according to Hervin Roop, the president of the college at the time. Though modest in scale, the building became the jewel in the growing crown of the campus.
Deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts classicism and Italian Renaissance revival, the library's Palladian symmetry determined almost every aspect of its overall design, from its rusticated stone base to its tile roof. But a playful melding of other stylistic features gives the building's exterior an unexpected lightness of touch: the deep Craftsman-style eaves, the Arts and Crafts period script, and the Dutch bond pattern brick that covers most of the wall surface. It is only an assumption--the school has no written evidence--that the choice of Dutch bond for an Italian Renaissance inspired building was a nod to the school's nickname, "The Flying Dutchmen," or the "Dutch" still widely spoken in the Lebanon Valley, where the building's architect was born and began to practice. Be that as it may, the result of that choice is a formal Palladian structure with a delicate sparkle and warmth.
The floor plan conforms in large measure to the building's exterior symmetry, and also reflects the Beaux-Arts principles underpinning the design of many new libraries of the period. The radial book stacks on the main floor not only used space efficiently but also they allowed for the easy supervision of that space by library staff. Reading rooms were well lit, the original furniture simple and commodious, the librarian's office ample enough for the work of a new breed of professional. Smaller study areas were sequestered upstairs, away from the relative hustle and bustle of the main floor, and the basement was laid out functionally for storage, binding, book repair, and other behind-the-scenes tasks. The visual appeal of the building inside and out was also seen as an important tool for "cultivating the aesthetic sense" of the building's users. As president Roop argued: "In an educational institution . . . an essential . . . is a library not only well-equipped, but also showing beauty and harmony in its architecture and furnishings. Ugliness is as expensive as beauty."
The Carnegie Library originally housed the entire inventory of books, special collections, and periodicals, and provided quiet study areas for its growing student population, which in 1903 was 450 students. By the early 1950s, however, the building had more than outgrown its space as interior photographs reveal, and the college's administration and faculty thought hard about putting it to another use, or even razing it.
Fortunately, a new, larger library was built on another site, and in 1958 the Carnegie Library became the College's first student/faculty center. The exterior was left untouched, but the interior was modified. The floor plans of the second floor and basement were reconfigured. Although the main floor's overall structure and detailing were preserved, suffered other losses, which fortunately were all able to be restored in later years. Other changes occurred: the two-story radial book shelves in the semi-circular stack room and all the original lighting fixtures were removed. Massive wood trim in all rooms was refinished with golden oak replacing dark fumed oak, and the walls were painted, and wood floors carpeted. Even with these changes, however, the main floor retains much of the calm and grandeur it possessed when it was first built.
In the mid-1970s, the admissions office moved into the building, where it still resides. For hundreds of visitors each year, the Carnegie Library is their first impression of Lebanon Valley College, and it serves as a visual lesson in American architecture.
The building's architect, Abner A. Ritcher, was born in 1872 in North Annville Township, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He trained and worked for twelve years in the offices of two Lebanon-based architects. Ritcher practiced independently from 1900 until his death in 1929, with offices first in Lebanon (1900-1920), and then, with his partner, Howard Eiler, in Philadelphia and Reading (1921-1929). A master of several architectural styles and adept at creating stylistic hybrids, Ritcher practiced widely in the mid-Atlantic region, designing major public buildings and private homes in Lebanon, Reading, Allentown, Wernersville, Coatesville, and Wyomissing, among others. He won a competition with Paul Pelz, the co-designer of the Library of Congress, for a church (as yet to be identified) in Washington, DC. Research into Ritcher's life and work is still under way.