History: The Oak Cliff library’s wealthy heritage

An interior shot of the library, which opened in 1914.
An interior shot of the library, which opened in 1914: Courtesy of the North Oak Cliff Library

Andrew Carnegie funded the city’s first library branch, which opened in 1914.

Some spots around the neighborhood have surprisingly rich histories. The intersection of Marsalis and Jefferson is one of them.

Dallas’ first free library, funded primarily by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, opened its doors Downtown in 1901, where Oak Cliff artist Frank Reaugh donated his “1883 pastel on paper” to the second-floor room he strongly suggested be redesigned as an art gallery. The gallery grew, later becoming what we now recognize as the Dallas Museum of Art. In addition, renowned botanist Julien Reverchon donated 167 volumes of French literature. His father, Maximillian Reverchon, had brought the books to Texas when he joined some fellow Francophiles who had immigrated to Oak Cliff to found the old La Reunion colony.

The library was off to a great start!

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A woman helps students at the original Oak Cliff Library, June 13, 1933: Courtesy of the North Oak Cliff Library
A woman helps students at the original Oak Cliff Library, June 13, 1933: Courtesy of the North Oak Cliff Library

However, as the main library soon became crowded, the staff found it difficult to handle the number of Dallasites needing extended library services. A Boston study revealed that branch libraries could distribute/loan two times the books at one half the price. Making the obvious decision, Dallas proposed building its first branch: the Oak Cliff Library — a library dedicated more to community needs than the research-heavy Downtown facility.

The Dallas Library board of directors again petitioned Carnegie for funds to construct the new building, but Carnegie turned them down. However, the board president himself sent a personal letter to the multi-millionaire philanthropist, and this time Carnegie agreed. According to a Dallas Morning News story published Nov. 23, 1914, the day the Oak Cliff library opened to the public, Carnegie responded by writing: “I would be pleased beyond measure to get rid of $25,000, thereby coming a little nearer to the dream of my life — to die poor.” (Thank you, Andrew Carnegie! Glad Oak Cliff could oblige.)

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The Oak Cliff branch library, on the southwest corner of the intersection, opened with Miss Ella E. Packard as head librarian. Packard had a private office on the second floor, which the same Dallas Morning News article touted as “equipped with a kitchenette where the librarian can prepare tea and a light lunch for herself and a few friends, should she so desire.”

The gray brick and concrete building featured a cream and green interior color palette where, aside from three specialty items, every piece of furniture was Dallas-built. With the main library space on the first floor, the basement offered a 235-seat lecture hall and a “committee room for the use of the mothers club and kindred organizations,” each designed with its own private outside entrance. Dallas citizens contributed $3,000 for books, providing 4,000 volumes for the new facility “with almost every reference book students needed.”

Constructed only a few blocks from what was then Oak Cliff High School (now Adamson), the library’s location punctuated the community’s efforts to enhance educational opportunities. According to Oak Cliff historian (and Adamson alumnus) Bob Johnston, “the original call for a library in Oak Cliff came from W. H. Adamson, who said the schoolchildren of Oak Cliff did not have the advantage offered the children of Dallas because of Oak Cliff’s location.”

“The original call for a library in Oak Cliff came from W. H. Adamson, who said the schoolchildren of Oak Cliff did not have the advantage offered the children of Dallas because of Oak Cliff’s location.”

The children’s books and reading room were housed in the basement, a space where windows were placed high on the walls to allow light coming in from just above ground-level outside. With shorter bookshelves and smaller furniture, at least two generations of Oak Cliff children enjoyed the library’s cozy basement atmosphere. Many of the 1950s and 1960s mothers took their first-graders by the hand to this underground children’s library, exactly like neighborhood elementary teachers had encouraged.

I, along with many of my friends, remember our moms driving us to the Oak Cliff library and the excitement of walking up to the building, then down the separate outside side entrance steps and into the basement, immediately noticing the difference in temperature. During summertime, the underground space was considerably cooler than the also non air-conditioned upstairs. To many Oak Cliff kids, the experience was somewhat “magical.” (As you can see, it didn’t take much to amuse us in those days.)

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The building was razed in 1967 and replaced. Then, in 1987, the new North Oak Cliff branch opened at 302 W. 10th, and the 1967 building closed. Later, a Dallas Park and Recreation office relocated from the Kiest Park Clubhouse to the vacant library facility, a location now known simply as Turner Plaza. One remnant of the old library does remain, however: a now non-functioning drinking fountain on the corner.

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Although the simple presence of the old drinking fountain certainly reflects a bygone era, there are even more stories surrounding the history of the fountain, the benefactor who donated it, and its original three bubbler head drinking stations. Plus, there’s even more to tell about this old Oak Cliff intersection.

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Next month’s column will finish the picture, with the story of a historic church’s unusual positioning, a pastor who was also a successful businessman, a red tamale cart, a female Oak Cliff visionary and a life-changing traffic accident. Stay tuned.

An exterior photo of the original Oak Cliff Library, which was Marsalis and Jefferson.
An exterior photo of the original Oak Cliff Library, which was at Marsalis and Jefferson: Courtesy of the North Oak Cliff Library
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  • Katherine Spinks

    Thanks Gayla and Bill for some wonderful memories! My mother used to walk to that library almost everyday, beginning in 1920, from Lamar & Smith Funeral Home on Jefferson where she lived. Then she married my dad and they were OC Methodist members for over 65 years. My kids are 4th generation at OC United Methodist. Thanks for the memories!

  • Angeline Churchill

    Gayla, you’ve done a wonderful job, as always. I remember going to the library and downstairs to look for those big, flat books that were full of words and stories to fill our minds. The one thing I distinctly remember is the smell of the children’s area. I have never smelled it again, anywhere else in the world, but it and the cool dimness were some of the most inviting things about the library. Thank you for the article.

  • Benita Moore Burchfield

    My Mom was always into genealogy so that library was her favorite place (mine too!) Each week we would go and I would check out as many books as possible. My second grade teacher at MB Henderson held a contest in our class to see who could read the most books and I won which of course inspired me to read more! I remember Mom taking me but also my friends in the summer and we would spend hours in that basement! Thanks for the memories everyone!!

  • Kay Mann Bowser

    Wish I had a nickel now for every time I visited that Jefferson library while growing up, especially in the summer! I don’t recall being able to check out more than 6 books at a time, however (maybe the older kids got fewer?). And at the end of the allotted 7 days (or whatever), I eagerly looked forward to trading the ones I’d just read for new ones!

  • Bill Melton

    As always Gayla, you are right on top of the story! Many thanks.
    And keep up the Great work you do for our mutual community!

  • Benny Kirtley

    Definitely a asset to Oak Cliff. My choice as I wasn’t in the library much as I should have been. Good article Gayla, thanks.

  • Gayla Brooks

    I’ve got your folks’ story included in the follow-up column due out next month (as a part of the OC Methodist Church portion). Stay tuned! And thanks. Great to see you at the Lions Club last week.

  • Bill Melton

    Gayla- Congratulations on yet another great Oak Cliff history article. And one that particularly hits close to home for me. My Mother was a Librarian at the Jefferson Library and actually met my Father there. He was very active at Oak Cliff Methodist Church, right across the street from the Library. After they married, they spent their
    lives as Members of Oak Cliff Methodist, with Dad teaching the Melton Class for 59 years.

  • Laurie Duran

    I remember going to the Library when my family moved here from New York in the early sixties…correct me if I am wrong but I remember running my fingers over the plaques at the library fountain and wondering why there were separate ones for the different races…thankfully times have changed

  • Raenell Horn Davis

    I remember going to the Oak Cliff library as a small child but also remember going to the library to work on high school projects including the famous “senior paper”. I was in high school when I35 open through Oak Cliff. Mother would let me drive to the library to get the items I needed but I was not supposed to get on I35. I was to take the back roads. Well, you know the rest of the story….I would take I35 but would never tell what I did. I35 was quicker and I was able to drive faster.

  • Penny Newnam

    In the 50s, I remember a library that looked like a big house. (or is that my childhood imagination?) Yes I believe the children’s books were in the basement. The grounds had a large lawn and a large fountain surrounded by individual drinking fountains. Where was that?

  • Jane Little

    If you come across any interior pictures of the first floor, I would love to see them. Once in a while I would venture there. Besides the outside stairs, there was a little alcove inside with more stairs. Checked out Joan Foster Freshman. There were many Joan Foster books, dreary in the extreme by today’s standards.

  • Jane Little

    When was was in elementary school, we went to the Marsalis library every summer Saturday. It was a ritual. In the morning we got on the bus at “Boundary”, and rode downtown. First stop was the DAC where we went swimming, and had lunch-hot roast beef sandwiches! Those elderly waiters were so sweet and kind to us; usually we were the only people in the dining room. From there we walked to whatever movie was playing, and rode the bus home afterwards. Of course, it was mandatory to get off at the Marsalis Library. As little children we were allowed to check out 13 books, and you can bet we got 13 each week, and lugged them home on the bus. How we loved that basement library!

    Summer was so hot that we weren’t allowed to play outside from one to four. That’s when we read our 13 books, usually in my family’s living room. Such wonderful memories of those days. Occasionally we stopped at Mr. Ball’s Candy Store. Have you ever heard of that, Gayla? It was on a side street near Jefferson, maybe Zang. Old storefront. Wooden floors. Old-timey candy jars, and best of all: Penny Candy! Mr. Ball was very old then. His store would have been eaten up by 35.
    When I did my study/library (see FB wall), I went downtown to archives in the big library. They have quite a few pictures of both the 1901 library, and the Marsalis branch. I bought copies of some of them, framed them, and they are hanging on the bookcases in my study.

  • Gayla Brooks

    I know many of those reading this column remember this cherished building. Please leave your comments for others to enjoy…and for me to read!!!