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!
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.)
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.