The Falls of Schuylkill Library turns 100 with Midvale Avenue celebration

Surrounded by historic photographs and artifacts that referenced an earlier age, East Falls residents and visitors celebrated the centenary of the Falls of Schuylkill Library.

Held on Monday, the event marked 100 years to the day of the library’s opening, and was tailored to appeal to all ages, with programs for both school-aged children and adults.

The centerpiece was an evening program featuring a presentation on the library’s construction and a musical tribute to the era, featuring ragtime pianist Don Kawash and bass-baritone Randy Shupp.

An East Falls mainstay

Linda Koons, president of the Friends of Falls of Schuylkill Library, observed that the library has played a pivotal role in the life of East Falls and surrounding neighborhoods since its opening in 1913.

Founded in 1987 to support the library, the Friends group recently celebrated its own 25th anniversary.

“We’ve all heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child,” said Koons. “In this case, it takes the entire East Falls community and other nearby communities working together to build a library that provides programs, books and services so necessary for promoting literacy and lifelong education for all.”

The library’s roots

The origins of the Falls of Schuylkill Library can be traced to the late 19th century, when industrialist turned philanthropist – some would say robber baron – Andrew Carnegie undertook an effort to fund public libraries.

As noted by the East Falls Historical Society, the first such library opened in 1881 in Dumfermline, Scotland, Carnegie’s birthplace.

Twenty years later, an assemblage of East Falls’ leading residents established a lending library in 1901 at the Old Academy Playhouse on Indian Queen Lane.

The lending library eventually outgrew its space and, in 1912, an appeal was made to the Carnegie Library Fund seeking support for a standalone building to be built on land donated from the estates of the Merrick and Warden families.

Ronald Bednar, a city planner who presented details about the building of the Falls of Schuylkill Library, observed that the Warden family donated their land on the condition that one parcel be used for religious purposes – now the site of Redeemer Lutheran Church – and one for education.

The cornerstone was laid that year, featuring a design by Philadelphia-based architectural firm of Rankin, Kellogg and Crane. Bednar noted that the library, which he described as being “Collegiate Tudor Gothic” in design, was built using stone excavated from the site upon which it was built.

Bednar emphasized unique points to the design: The hand-carved timber beams, the expansive open reading room and the high-set windows that accommodate the built-in bookcases.

By fall of 1912, the roof was in place and the building began to take shape. The following year, the grand opening occurred, one of 1,689 public libraries that Carnegie would underwrite in the United States.

Where it goes from here

One hundred year since its founding, work continues to acknowledge the library’s past and ensure its viability for the future.

In 2012, the Falls of Schuylkill Library was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Currently, a project is underway to refabricate doors in the building’s lower entrance on Midvale Avenue. Bednar said that he hoped for a ribbon-cutting on the renovation sometime next year.

Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, observed that East Falls’ library is one of several across the city experiencing a centennial celebration.

“It’s important to know that this library has a fabulous community that continues to help keep us strong,” she said.

Wendy Moody, former branch librarian and co-chair of the centennial planning committee, emphasized the human element of any library. While recognizing the pleasing aesthetics, she acknowledged that “a building is a building.”

“All of you who volunteered here, and supported the library, and used the library are the ones who gave it a heart and a soul,” said Moody. “This library has that, and I think that is something worth celebrating.”

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