Bainbridge House, home of the Historical Society of Princeton, is the former home of Princeton’s municipal library. Princeton was not one of the 1689 cities to which Andrew Carnegie donated a library building. As the story goes, the university asked Carnegie to donate, not a library building, but a lake for its rowing team. Result: Carnegie Lake, hand dug.
A just-aired NPR story by Susan Stamberg reveals that Carnegie (some compare him with Bill Gates) was a self-made steel magnate. Fresh from Scotland, as a 17-year-old worker, he petitioned the Pittsburgh library to let him borrow books and was at first refused, but prevailed until the policy was changed. An indefatigable worker, he sold U.S. Steel for half a billion dollars to JP Morgan and then, as Stamberg said, “gave it all away,” or at least $350 million of it.
Carnegie money paid for impressive buildings in the style of the time. What would Princeton have looked like with one of those? Perhaps it would have been built on campus? In any case, the eager readers of Princeton had to find their books stuffed into an 18th century home, getting a purpose built building only in 1966. Now Princeton has its Taj Mahal building, adored perhaps even worshipped, called “Princeton’s living room.”
Perhaps it is a double blessing that we don’t have a Carnegie building. We might not have had the gumption to tear it down to build our three-story Taj Mahal.
(This post is part of the Scripture Tour of Princeton series, inspired by a tour I gave to Ohio’s Peddling Parsons when they visited us at Princeton United Methodist Church. But I haven’t decided on the Bible verse. Suggestions?)
We can’t hear this story without two codas. Carnegie famously built his empire on the backs of the steel workers, provoking the bitterest union fight in the history of this nation. And, supposedly Ellen Wilson, wife of the university president Woodrow Wilson, entertained Carnegie in her home (now Prospect House) and importuned Carnegie to give Princeton a library. Carnegie’s answer: “Madam, I gave you a lake.”