Rebirth in Homestead: the Carnegie Library

Old building given new life as multipurpose facility for a reinvigorated community

Comedian Paula Poundstone will be there Friday. Patti Smith showed up in 2007 just after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. David Crosby and Graham Nash recently played to a sellout crowd, as did Nickelodeon's "iCarly" star Miranda Cosgrove.

Is there a glitzy new entertainment venue in town?

Not exactly, unless you consider the century-old music hall at the Carnegie Library of Homestead to be glitzy, with its terrific acoustics, a thousand seats of burnished wood, a coffee shop (whose grand opening is Friday during the Paula Poundstone performance) and a wine bar.

The recently renovated hall, along with a new fitness center, reading room and other amenities have transformed the Homestead library -- located in Munhall -- from an antiquated white elephant of a building in a faded neighborhood into a self-sustaining multipurpose facility for a newly reinvigorated community.

At a time when nonprofits and other "community benefit" organizations are reeling from cuts in public funding, the Homestead library is a textbook example of social enterprise and reinvention, experts say, using revenue from the music hall and its fitness club memberships to stay viable. The library's core mission has been preserved, and then some: you can check out a book or use a computer, take a Spinning class, have a cup of coffee or see a show.

There's more to come: a swimming pool in the basement -- the longest continually operating heated pool in Western Pennsylvania, complete with marble columns reminiscent of ancient Rome -- will be renovated, as will an old bowling alley, which may become an indoor baseball training facility.

"They've captured the spirit of the original Andrew Carnegie vision for libraries in building and renovating what he originally saw as a community center with multifunction outreach, updated for the 21st century," said Marilyn Jenkins, executive director for the Allegheny County Library Association, which comprises 45 libraries -- including the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which isn't affiliated with Homestead.

"If we had told people in Pittsburgh that we were going to take a 113-year-old library and turn it into an engine for economic development that would drive business to the Waterfront and surrounding communities, they would have said we were crazy -- but most people think I'm crazy anyway," said Dan Lloyd, a Munhall insurance agent who is widely regarded as the driving force behind the library's renovation.

Mr. Lloyd, who chairs the library's 11-member board, may have ruffled some feathers when he first joined in 2004, but few people are complaining now except, he noted, for some who said they were shocked -- shocked -- that alcohol was being served during music hall performances.

Bookings have dramatically increased thanks to the efforts of Brian Drusky, a local concert promoter who took a chance on Homestead when others wouldn't, Mr. Lloyd said. When he first started contacting entertainment promoters about bringing acts to the music hall six years ago, he was told "it will be a cold day in hell when we bring a show to Homestead."

"Who's sorry now?" he asked a visitor, only half-jokingly, adding that when Ms. Cosgrove, then 17, appeared at her sold-out show in January, 100 young fans paid extra and lined up an hour beforehand in the old shuffleboard room to meet the young star.

Mr. Lloyd's "aha" moment, he says, came in 2006, when he attended a seminar led by Michael Kumer, executive director at Duquesne University's Nonprofit Leadership Institute, who talked about the ways "community benefit" organizations could survive.

"What we do is coach organizations, to assume that they have hidden assets and can creatively look and explore ways to leverage those assets to create new and diversified income streams," said Mr. Kumer, who said he was aware of Mr. Lloyd's subsequent efforts.

The library was designed by the architectural firm of Alden & Harlow, which designed the Duquesne Club, and is believed to be the third library in the United States built by Carnegie after those in Braddock and the North Side.

"I totally admire what they're doing in Homestead. Libraries have to change with the times," said Vicki Vargo, executive director of the Carnegie Braddock library -- Mr. Carnegie's first library. While in a more economically depressed community than Homestead's, Braddock's library is renovating its own music hall and has transformed what used to be a bathhouse in the building into a ceramic studio.

While a $1 million endowment established by Carnegie helped the Homestead library stay afloat during the 1990s, the 2008 recession meant a $300,000 drop in its worth, forcing the board to lay off its executive director, library director and a music hall employee.

"Many corporations lay off at the bottom end of the ladder, but we could not do that because it would have meant a cut in services," said Mr. Lloyd. Instead, he and other board members are managing the facility themselves until they are able to afford to hire an executive director.

The library's operating budget is $850,000, not including capital expenditures -- of which only $161,000 came from government funding in 2010. Last year, $150,000 from a community block grant was used for infrastructure improvements, along with $50,000 from the Allegheny Foundation to renovate and enlarge the children's and teen areas.

The children's library, across from the new adult reading room, is a marvel. Its upper walls and ceiling were hand-painted by artist Elizabeth White, while the lower walls, columns and trompe l'oeil fireplace was painted by artist Ian Green, who also did the teen area -- called "the Sky Room" -- in shades of dark blue.

The adult reading room was also restored to its original design. There's a marble fireplace, discovered after a flimsy bookshelf was ripped away during demolition.

Professionals were hired to do much of the work, but Mr. Lloyd and a number of other volunteers spent nights and weekends stripping floors, sanding and painting to reduce costs.

They even laid the tile themselves in the coffee shop -- named after Mr. Lloyd's Aunt Betty Jane Lloyd, who donated $10,000 to complete it.

On Friday, music hall patrons for the first time will be able to go to Aunt B's coffee shop for a cup of joe, unless they're in the mood for a glass of wine.

And while they're imbibing, they're helping their local public library survive.

"It's all about people stepping up to the plate," Mr. Lloyd said.

Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949. First Published June 1, 2011 4:00 AM


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