When Bemidji’s Carnegie library opened in 1910, it cost $12,500 to build. It will take a bit more than that to bring the historic structure back to life: $2.2 million to be exact.
But after six long years, the Friends of the Carnegie are close to their goal, and they hope to reach it soon with one final fundraising push.
Leaders of the organization said last week they’ve passed the $2 million mark, and need between $150,000 and $200,000 to ensure the library’s renovation can get underway in time for a planned reopening as a community center about a year from now.
“Bemidji is not an old town; we don’t have that many historic structures left,” Mayor Rita Albrecht said. “We think it’s important to preserve what we do have left.”
The library actually escaped the wrecking ball some years back, after the City Council wanted to tear it down. But the community rallied and launched the campaign that’s nearing completion.
Local residents didn’t want a repeat of what happened when their old high school and its auditorium were torn down in 2008 after a new high school had opened.
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” Albrecht said. “There was a feeling of ‘Never again.’ ”
The Carnegie campaign has been a homegrown effort, she added.
“A lot of capital campaigns will hire a fundraising guru,” she said. “This has been all sort of novice, learn as you go. A lot of challenges along the way, but we’re really excited.”
The library closed in 1961 but was used for many years as a county office and then as the home of a community arts organization, which moved to new quarters several years ago.
Bemidji’s library is one of about 1,700 that were built in the United States between 1900 and 1920 with money donated by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born steel baron who was one of the world’s richest men.
Carnegie came to the United States as a poor immigrant and wanted to help others improve their lives. To receive a donation, towns had to promise that their library would be free and open to all. They also had to commit a set amount yearly for books and staff.
Nobody is quite sure just how many Carnegie libraries were built in Minnesota, but they number in the dozens. Bemidji’s is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of 30 Minnesota Carnegie libraries on the list, said Denis Gardner, National Register historian with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office.
One hundred or more years ago, a magnificent library was a city’s way of showing it had arrived, Gardner said.
“At that time, we were the West — we didn’t really consider ourselves the Midwest,” he said. “Everything was new. We were maturing. And we were going to show our maturing through the things we built — show how advanced we were becoming.”
The people of Bemidji contributed more than $200,000 to the renovation project in small donations, said Catherine Marchand, treasurer of the Friends of the Carnegie.
“For a town the size of Bemidji, that’s a remarkable accomplishment,” she said. Grants totaling $450,000 came from the state Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund, and the George W. Neilson Foundation gave $250,000.
An Illinois couple with Bemidji ties, Andy and Marilyn Kuhn, gave $250,000 in honor of their late grandson, Jordan Klope, who loved his visits to the area.
And just recently, an anonymous donor who grew up in Bemidji donated $500,000, bringing the effort within reach of its goal.
Albrecht said she hopes the remaining $150,000 will come from the City Council, which so far has not contributed to the project.