Before books were letters: Drama preceded construction of Carnegie Library

PHOTOS SUBMITTED The original library: This photo shows the library reading room in 1898, in a house which was at the location where the Carnegie Library would be built. The Tiffin Library Association purchased the property and used the house there as a library until the new one was built in 1913.

A piece of Tiffin’s history is set to be sold to the highest bidder Tuesday when the Carnegie Library building goes on the auction block.

What people don’t see when they look at the building at Jefferson and East Market streets was brought to life by former library Director Pat Hillmer and staff as they celebrated the library’s 125th anniversary in 2005.

According to several sources, the library was founded in spring 1880. It first was located in a building where City Hall now stands from 1880 until 1886, and then it moved to the basement of former courthouse where it remained until the library association was bequeathed money. The funds were used to purchase a lot and a house at Jefferson and East Market streets in 1898.

The house on the association’s property remained the library until 1911, when the association learned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was giving away money to build libraries.

In honor of the 125th anniversary, Hillmer and staff put together a program recounting the entire history from original documents in the library archives. Here is a portion of that history that focuses on the drama that was part of planning the Carnegie building.

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Patricia Hillmer opened with a brief history, and then Tiffin’s first librarian, Hattie Campbell Hattie Campbell, recounted her story and the ups and downs of the early years.

Hattie Campbell: The heart of our story today, however, is the major step forward that occurred in 1911 when the library board of trustees decided to appeal to the great Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for funds to build a library building on the site of the house the library then called home — on the corner of Jefferson and Market streets across from the new Columbian High School. The library had purchased the property using a legacy, and had moved there in 1898. I know many of you will remember the “old library” — now the home of probate and juvenile courts.

Now, I don’t know about you, ladies and gentlemen, but when I thought about Andrew Carnegie and his gifts to communities to build libraries I expected that the city saw the need, asked Mr. Carnegie for funds, he thought about the need and then sent the money with some ideas as to what the library might look like. This turns out not to have been the case in Tiffin.

A central player in this drama is the president of Library Board, the Honorable J.F. Bunn, former judge of the probate court, who undertook to approach Andrew Carnegie with the trustees’ request for funding for a library building. I have even heard that Judge Bunn journeyed to New York City, accompanied by Miss Louisa Fast, a sophisticated traveler, to make the initial plea for funds.

Anyway, the happy news was conveyed to Tiffin that Andrew Carnegie would, indeed, finance a new library. Mr. James Bertram, Andrew Carnegie’s Scottish and eccentric private secretary, conducted the correspondence on behalf of Mr. Carnegie.

What followed was an interesting series of letters between Mr. Carnegie and Judge Bunn. It seems that the Board of Trustees had exciting and dramatic ideas for the new library. Unfortunately, these ideas ran headlong into the stone wall that was James Bertram, Esquire – as you shall hear.

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Judge Bunn: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the trustees. I am very happy to report that Mr. Carnegie has agree to provide funds to build a library in Tiffin on the site of the current library. There is, however, a slight problem. Mr. Carnegie’s secretary, Mr. Bertram, advises me that according to his calculations $25,000 should be sufficient to build a library for a town our size.

Do we really think this will do? Our city is burgeoning, our needs will grow over the next 20 or 30 years. Tiffin’s present population of 12,500 may well double in just a few years. I think you will agree that $25,000 will not be sufficient. I flatter myself that I can persuade Mr. Bertram that according to our best judgement (and who should know our needs better than ourselves?) at least $40,000 would be required to do justice to Tiffin’s new library. In fact, I have conveyed this to Mr. Bertram in a recent letter, and will expect to have a reply by our next board meeting. I am confident that Mr. Bertram will see my point.

Hattie Campbell: Mr. Bertram, however, was not easily persuaded. Here he is in a letter to Judge Bunn on Jan. 16, 1912:

James Bertram:

Dear Sir,

Do you propose to use the real estate valued at $8,000 as a site for your proposed Library Building, or is it to be sold and a new site purchast?

Please give particulars from the will of Mr. Rawson.

… You state in one of your letters that $40,000 would be needed to erect a suitable Library building for Tiffin. According to our standards, not much more than half of this amount is necessary, and unless the amount could be considered on that basis, there is no use corresponding further.

Respectfully yours, Jas. Bertram, P. Secretary

Judge Bunn:

To Mr. James Bertram, Private Secretary, New York City. January 19th, 1912.

Dear Sir:

In reply to your favor of the 16th instant, I will say: The real estate which we own is to be used for the proposed library site. There is no more suitable site in the city for that purpose and we have no intention of selling same, at any price.

The library received under the Rawson will $8,000, and this was used in the purchase of the real estate named. Are we to understand that Mr. Carnegie objects to more money being spent in constructing a building than the standard you have adopted? We understand that you allow only $2 per capita of population, but we feel that we could raise an additional amount among our people to be spent on building or held as an endowment for support of the library.

Awaiting further desires, we are, Yours respectfully, J.F. Bunn, President

James Bertram:

January 23rd, 1912

Dear Sir:

Yours of January 19th received. Unless an amount not exceeding $25,000 would be considered sufficient for erecting a Library Building for Tiffin, Ohio, there is no use in corresponding further. This is not a promise; only an inquiry.

Respectfully yours, Jas. Bertram

Judge Bunn (to the trustees):

Well, Ladies and Gentlemen – I regret to inform you that Mr. Bertram appears quite firm, indeed, I might say stubborn, over the matter of the size of the library. I very much fear we have no choice but to agree to his demand.

There is also a requirement that the City of Tiffin furnish 10 percent if the building cost annually for its upkeep and the purchase of books. I have written to Mr. Bertram as follows:

To James Bertram, esq.

Your favor of the 23rd instant duly received.

While you do not answer our question directly we understand you that Mr. Carnegie desires the cost of the library building limited to $25,000.00. That being the case we will be very grateful to him for such a building and feel that there will be no trouble in having our council guarantee the requisite support. We will, under the circumstances, devote any other donations we may receive to endowment for additional support.

Following is the resolution passed by our library association last night:

“Resolved by the Board of Trustees of the Tiffin Library Association that we do hereby pledge ourselves not to enter into any contract for the erection of proposed Carnegie Library building until the bids for same have first been submitted to James Bertram private secretary of Andrew Carnegie, and that we will in no event enter into a contract for erection of such building to cost more than $25,000.00 including equipment and furniture.”

I have also the resolution of Tiffin City Council in response to Mr. Bertram’s demands:

City Council Spokesman: “The City Council approves the continuance of the Library Association as the governing body and agrees to appropriate and contribute annually, in perpetuity, the sum of $2,500 for the use and maintenance of the public library, and that the faith and credit of the city of Tiffin is hereby pledged to the faithful carrying out of this agreement.”

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Hattie Campbell: But now comes further complication in the form of – well – a busybody from the State Library of Ohio, Miss Mary E. Downey. This lady visited Tiffin, discussed the library situation, and came up with a splendid new idea which I have to report the library trustees endorsed with enthusiasm:

Judge Bunn:

To Mr. James Bertram: February 26, 1912

Dear Sir:

I am enclosing herewith a copy of a resolution introduced in our council last evening. Am writing to ask whether it is satisfactory to you.

In the meantime, we have had a visit from Miss Mary E. Downey, State Library Organizer. She is, of course, enthusiastic in her work and anxious to accomplish results, and insists that this is the time, before building a city library building, that we should organize a county library and erect a building suitable for such county library work, or at any rate attempt to do so. She says that this kind of work is now being done in Van Wert County, that efforts in this direction are not being made in a number of counties in the state, and that you have at this time under consideration the question of allowing for the erection of such county library buildings.

This county (Seneca) has a population of about 45,000 and taxable property valued at about $70,000,000. We believe the people of the county could best be served by two libraries – one at Tiffin serving about two-thirds of the population and one at Fostoria serving about one-third.

I await your pleasure in regard to the resolution before our council and also your ideas in regard to the county library.

Yours respectfully, J.F. Bunn

James Bertram:

Dear Sir:

Yours of February 26th received with copy of resolution, the terms of which are appropriate.

As to the County Library matter, please do not introduce any complications in connection with this correspondence, or it will have to be dropt. We are dealing with a Library Building for Tiffin.

Hattie Campbell: So down went another idea for the pleasure, education, and improvement of the minds of the citizens of Seneca County. Mr. Bertram was a man of few words but very firm ideas. So the trustees and the Judge swallowed their pride, gritted their teeth, and accepted a $25,000 building for Tiffin. Back goes a letter from Judge Bunn, this one ending on a hopeful note:

Judge Bunn:

Dear Sir:

I enclose herewith certified copy of resolution passed by our city council accepting Carnegie library. I also send by same mail under separate cover sketches of Basement and First Floor plans of the proposed Library Building also perspective of same. Several changes have been made since perspective was made – witness bay window and door under same.

We trust you will be able to approve the plans. Between the new Ohio Building code and the narrowness of our lot it has taken a good deal of work to reach satisfactory results.

We are not informed as to your practice in making payments and will be pleased to have you advise us.

Respectfully yours, J.F. Bunn

James Bertram:

To J.F. Bunn, Esq. Trustee April 13th, 1912

Dear Sir:

Yours of April 11 received with plans. You have evidently paid no attention to the notes on Library Building sent you. Your building is too much cut up by partitions; the entrance feature is too wide; librarian’s room should be at the back of the building; the building itself is not the one-story and high basement building recommended, but frankly a two-story building.

After you read the notes on Library building accompanying the letter of promise and reflect on same, shall be glad to see amended plans.

Respectfully yours, James Bertram

P.S. When you reply, give the cubical content of building in amended plan and also in plans which have been returned to you. … it does appear the building could not be completed ready to occupy with the $25,000. JB

Hattie Campbell: Ladies and Gentlemen – I hesitate to even suggest what Judge Bunn must have said to his colleagues when he received this missive – One would understand his exasperation with Mr. Bertram and other New Yorkers like him who simply did not understand what was needed in towns like Tiffin, Ohio. No doubt the Judge was careful with his language before the ladies of the meeting of the library board, but certainly within the masculine confines of, say, the Elks Club, he may well have expressed his true feelings in words which would have curled the ladies’ hair. If only the library did not need Bertram’s money … they would certainly have told him a thing or two!

Instead – cool heads prevailing – Judge Bunn replied in a long letter that states the trustees and architect believed they were following at least the spirit of Mr. Bertram’s notes. The Judge had now asked their architect, Mr. Marriott of Columbus, Ohio, also to reply to the letter. The good Judge ended by urging Mr. Bertram to give the library board “as specific instructions as possible in regard to changes you wish made.”

So next comes a three page closely typed letter from Mr. Marritt of Messrs. Marriott, Allen and Hall, Architects, addressed to James Bertram. Judge Bunn will read from this letter, giving you a few of the salient points.

Judge Bunn:

Dear Sir:

I was somewhat surprised to note that you are of the opinion that we have not studied your notes on library building and had not adhered to same. On the contrary, both the Library Trustees and myself not only have given these notes very careful study, but also visited several libraries in this vicinity in order to familiarize ourselves with the best types of modern library construction …

The book stacks divide the room into sections, as suggested by your notes. … Our object in placing the librarian’s room in front is because the librarian wishes this room near the front entrance and also because it worked very nicely with the design of the front vestibule and provides a mezzanine story over. If our building is not the one story and high basement effect you suggest, we do not understand what you mean by this requirement. As for cost of this building – 1450 cu. Feet x17 cents = a total cost of $24,658.50. We have designed this building in English style of architecture and expect to use inexpensive but very good material. … We have had considerable experience in library work, having already built four. I would like to add that we have had wide experience in all classes of public work.

James Bertram:

Dear Sir:

There should be really no occasion for us to reiterate or explain what is written in letter of April 13th. Of course, if you or the architect write disingenuously, no progress will be made. For instance, you argue that the entrance feature occupies less than 6% of the whole area. In your case this hall space or delivery space is 40 ft. wide and the traffic radiating throughout this space will prevent any of it being used effectively for reading. There is in this plan about two-fifths of the building taken up by the entrance feature from front to back which results in an abnormal amount of the building being merely hall space where there will inevitably be traffic all the time. Your architect figures 145,000 to 150,000 cubic feet at 17 cents a foot. A library building of the area of the one planned and with its cubical content, according to our experience, could not be erected of proper materials for less than 50% more than the architect’s statement.

The plans presented will be past.

You will observe from the enclosed from the Chief Librarian of Cleveland Library System that we have taken the pains to get his opinion upon the plans. Please return his letter when you have taken a copy of it.

Yours respectfully, James Bertram

Hattie Campbell: We do not need a copy of the Cleveland Librarian’s letter to know that it did not support Tiffin’s plan. The board, of course, realized that with or without a letter from their architect, they were not in a position to argue. If they wanted the $25,000 they would have to agree to everything Andrew Carnegie, via James Bertram, demanded. It must have been very trying for all concerned. And then came further acerbic comments from Mr. Bertram in a letter dated May 13th.

James Bertram:

The building is not complete, ready for occupation, without fixtures and furniture. Please give us the ultimate cost of the building complete, and ready to occupy, with your assurance that the sum promist by Mr. Carnegie will not be exceeded. When we receive that assurance the plans will be approved.

Hattie Campbell: So the Board of Trustees regrouped and finally was able to respond to Mr. Bertram with an architect’s estimate of final costs that included: building, $22,000; furniture, $1,750; architect’s fees, $1,250, for a Grand Total of $25,000.00.

In the end figures show that the entire project cost $23,981.40.

Judge Bunn: My fellow trustees: I am very pleased finally to be able to report to you that on June 19th, 1912, I received a letter from Mr. R.A. Franks, Mr. Carnegie’s Financial Secretary, stating that with the assurance that the Library building would be built complete and ready to occupy within the amount promised by Mr. Carnegie, we should now proceed with the bidding! We will receive the $25,000 in payments of $5,000 as required. I might add that Mr. Franks seems a pleasant gentleman to deal with. A very nice change!

What a profound relief it was to receive this letter. It has been a long, hard task, highly exasperating many times, as you all know. If the citizens of Tiffin only knew what troubles we have had in our endeavors to obtain for the city the finest possible public library! Not that we can proceed with the bidding process I look forward to our magnificent Library being built and occupied sometime in 1913. I know it will be a wonderful addition to our town. And only we will know what might have been!

Patricia Hillmer: And indeed the new library building was occupied in September 1913. We have no record that Mr. Bertram was present for the celebration.

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Today, the library is 139 years old and is housed in the “new” library building built in 1975-76. The Junior Library and Jane Frost Kalnow Community Room were added in 1988, and the latest improvement was a renovation that was completed in mid-2017.

“Today’s public libraries certainly look different than they did when the Carnegie library opened its doors in Tiffin,” said Director Matthew Ross. “The mission, however, remains the same: providing access – to information, technology, people and resources. What we choose to emphasize may vary – right now, that means a greater focus on early literacy, programming and the library’s role as a social connector – but that core will always be there.”

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