Alameda Looks for Tenants to Renovate the Carnegie Free Library Building

The rebirth of Alameda’s Carnegie Free Library Building may be just around the corner — or not. Renovations carry a big price tag.


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Historic image of Carnegie Free Library by Gary Lenhart at AlamedaInfo.com

The 115-year old Carnegie Free Library Building, at the corner of Santa Clara and Oak streets, which has been closed and vacant for 20 years, may soon get a renovation and rebirth.

The city of Alameda sought in November and December statements of qualifications from companies or organizations interested in restoring and leasing the historic Carnegie Building, just across the street from Alameda City Hall, and  —  if desired  — the adjacent Foster House, the old Children’s Library on Oak Street.

Many Alamedans — including this reporter — remember reading, checking out books, records, and videos, and doing research for term papers in the old venerable stone-and-brick building before space limitations and seismic retrofitting requirements necessitated its closure and the library’s relocation into an interim space in the West Wing of the Central Building of Alameda High School in 1998. The library moved into the new Main Library at Lincoln and Oak streets in 2006. Until 2013, Alameda County Health Services occupied Foster House, but both the Carnegie Library Building and Foster House are now vacant.

Originally constructed as the Alameda Free Library, the Carnegie Building was one of the first three libraries funded by American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to be built in California. Opened in 1903, the Carnegie Building was designed by San Francisco architects William H. Wilcox and John M. Curtis and built by Alameda’s Foster & Son, at a cost of $30,842 ($917,500 in 2018 dollars).

A total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built worldwide between 1883 and 1929, 1,689 in the United States, and 144 in California, including eight in San Francisco, six in Oakland, and one in Berkeley. Today, in California, 36 Carnegie Buildings are still libraries, while 85 have been repurposed as museums, city halls, community centers, art centers, police departments, and other uses, while 59 of the libraries have been demolished.

The Foster House was originally the home of C.H. Foster, the contractor who built the Carnegie Building. C.H. Foster died in 1915, and his house was converted into the Children’s Library in 1926.

The library opened the year after Alameda’s peninsula was separated from Oakland, officially making it an island, and served a population of about 17,000. The total number of books in its collection was 26,794, and there were 4,774 membership cards issued. There were impressive usage statistics, but, in those days, books, newspapers, and magazines represented the main source of factual information and entertainment for the general public.

The Carnegie Building is a Classical Revival temple style building with brick columns, stained glass windows, and barrel vault atrium ceiling, brass hand and guard rails, and an arched skylight. The columns at the entrance have Corinthian capitals and were the first columns of brickwork ever constructed in California. A tympanum over the library’s entrance includes a classic scroll and honeysuckle and a medallion in the center of the design holding it open with a bookmark.

The Carnegie Building is a city of Alameda Historical Monument and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Given the great civic, cultural, and architectural importance of the Carnegie Library Building and Foster House, the city is seeking an entity that will use the building to provide cultural, educational, and/or economic benefits to the community.

Examples of these uses include, but are not limited to, cultural benefits: theater, performing arts center, art museum, art gallery, arts organization, community cultural center; educational benefits: library, science museum, historical society, community educational center; and economic benefits: workforce development center, job resource center, economic development corporation, restaurant, and visitor center.

The city expects any successful applicant to restore and maintain the historic character of the building; provide for public use of the building as frequently as possible; and demonstrate the financial resources and experience necessary to complete the restoration and operate the facility.

In 2001, the city invested over $3 million to seismically upgrade the Carnegie Building, repair leaks, install a new roof, and repair the historic exterior. This work included demolition of existing heating, electrical wiring, and lighting systems, which were not replaced at that time due to limited funds.

In 2007, the city had the Oakland architecture firm of Muller & Caulfield draw up a Master Plan for the Restoration and Preservation of the Carnegie Building, which included designs and costs for three possible tenants: a cultural arts center, planning and building center, or the Alameda Museum. None of these proposed uses came to fruition.

Today, any company or entity that wants to lease the Carnegie Building will face steep renovation costs before it could move in, which may be the main reason that the building has been vacant for two decades and might remain so.

According to the city, the Carnegie Library may require an estimated $6 million in upgrades for occupancy, including: new electrical and interior lighting systems, a new heating system, fire sprinklers, more complete disabled access to the entire building, additional restrooms, and restoration or preservation of historic elements. An old elevator in the building has been decommissioned and its reactivation is not included in the cost estimate. The Foster House may require more upgrades not included in the cost estimate.

The city may offer the preferred user substantial rent credits in exchange for restoration of the building and the provision of community benefits.

The rebirth of Alameda’s Carnegie Free Library Building may be just around the corner, or not. In November, the city held building tours for prospective renters along with interested citizens wishing a glimpse of it. Some people who toured the building and attended an orientation about the buildings included representatives from engineering and architecture firms and other companies.

Statements of qualifications were due Dec. 17, and the selection is expected to take place in winter/spring of 2019. As of press time, no company or entity had submitted a proposal to lease either of the buildings. For more information, visit AlamedaCa.gov/Carnegie.

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