Preserving Lorain's Story
That was the intention of the building when philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was creating buildings like this one in the early 1900s. “He wanted to give people an opportunity to learn and to dream and to discover,” says Ron Cocco, president and principal of Clark & Post Architects.
The Carnegie Library served as a space to “broaden and uplift the life of the community in which it stands,” in the words of the first head librarian, Margaret Deming. In 1957, a new library was constructed and the historical building became somewhat of a revolving door for various tenants over the years. That is, until the Historical Society had an opportunity to occupy the building.
“The city approached us and asked if we were interested in acquiring the building, and our board president, Ben Norton, said, ‘If we are going to raise money to renovate this building, we ought to own it,’” relates Barb Piscopo, executive director of the Lorain Historical Society.
“We were interested because it meant more room for the historical society, it meant preserving a building,” Piscopo says.
It ultimately became an urban renewal project, planting the seed for more economic development in a Lorain neighborhood. And it was a testament of Lorain people’s support for their community and for historical preservation — an opportunity to keep telling their story at the Carnegie Center of the Lorain Historical Society.
In August 2013, the historical society purchased the building for $10 from the Lorain Port Authority. That October the organization launched a $3 million Carnegie Library Restoration Campaign: $2 million to restore and renovate the structure and $1 million for an endowment for developing exhibits and programming to engage and educate the community.
On November 22, 2015, the Lorain Historical Society held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the end of construction at the Carnegie Center. “This has exceeded our expectations,” says Norton, who co-chaired the capital campaign with wife, Jane. “There has been great support and a lot of enthusiasm.”
Ben Norton points out that historical society membership rose from 260 members before the project started to more than 600 members today. “That speaks to the interest,” he says.
The Carnegie building’s renovation takes the building back to its roots and affirms a strong community that values its history and stands ready to embrace its promising future.
“We have now come full circle, and the Carnegie is still going to be a building that tells stories — in a different manner, but in a way that will capture Lorain’s history, people and heritage,” Cocco says.
The historical society’s ambitious capital campaign launched in fall 2013, and immediately the community support was evident. By December, the organization had raised $650,000. This allowed them to begin renovations, which included new systems and site improvements to obtain an occupancy permit so the historical society could officially call the building “home.” Renovations began in January 2014.
“People say, ‘In Lorain, we did that?’” Piscopo relates. “Yes. In Lorain, we did that.”
With those initial financial pledges, the historical society approached state Sen. Gayle Manning to inquire about state funding. She was encouraged by the support the project already gained. “Her comment was, usually when people come to her they are looking for seed money, and we were already well-established,” Norton says.
As a result, $500,000 of state funding was allocated to the project. By mid-April 2015, the historical society had raised $1.9 million in private funds and community support, and $500,000 from the state. “We were able to begin the second-floor renovations, which were completed in October of this year,” Piscopo says.
So far, the historical society has raised $2.4 million of its $3 million goal — the remaining $600,000 of which will be used for the endowment for operations and programming.
“There is a great pride in Lorain,” Piscopo says. “There is such a sense of community and a sense of pride that, in spite of the fact that the city has fallen on some really tough times economically, the people have not lost that.”
The Carnegie Center project is a testament to Lorain people’s strength as a community.
“I have never been in a city before where there is such a strong sense of wanting to give back,” Piscopo continues. “There is such a hunger for Lorain to come back in some way, and the current administration is making all kinds of strides along with individuals in the community to help re-envision what downtown Lorain will look like. The Carnegie Center of Lorain Historical Society is a part of that.”
Designed for Storytelling
The Carnegie Center interior resembles the library that many of the older generation in Lorain remember. Much of the original architecture was intact, Cocco says. The original central skylight was recreated, along with detailing in the atrium central space. “That resonates with people,” Cocco says. “The building represents something strong and lasting — it has a timeless character to it.”
Some who remember spending time in the library recall with amusement a librarian/disciplinarian who never allowed children on the second floor. “The library is where we went after school — that’s where I did my research papers for school projects,” Jane Norton relates.
Jane adds, “It was the main library in town for those who wanted to get acquainted with books and what the library had to offer.”
Because the library evoked childhood memories for many of Lorain’s longtime residents, the project was widely supported, Jane Norton says. “Many people saw a need to preserve it.”
Cocco notes that the interior layout was functionally conducive to creating multiple exhibit spaces. Its first floor includes areas to explore Lorain’s early settlers, and the importance of Lake Erie and the Black River to Lorain’s development. An open space will be reserved for community displays and traveling exhibits. A large community meeting room will be available.
The Carnegie Center’s second floor focuses on Lorain’s diverse heritage — with more than 65 ethnic groups in Lorain, Ben Norton points out. “We set aside a cultural area where different groups can come in and set up temporary displays,” he says. A permanent Business and Industry exhibit will tell the story of Lorain’s rise as an industrial center. An interactive children’s history center and reading area are also in the plan.
The programming opportunities are exciting, Jane Norton says. “We have some wonderful collaborations with experts in early childhood education, and many have expressed interest in programming — the library, Metroparks, the city, Lorain City Schools, LCCC.”
The impact of the Carnegie Center will ripple through the surrounding neighborhood, Piscopo says. The project was more than a historical renovation to preserve a renowned city structure. It was more than a construction endeavor. “It is truly an urban renewal project,” she says, hoping it will spur other neighborhood improvements.
Lorain people are proud of their city. “They want to show it in a physical, concrete way, and this is part of that revitalization,” Piscopo says, adding that the Lorain Historical Society at Carnegie Center is one more place in Lorain to attract locals and visitors.
The historical society’s former home base at The Moore House, 309 W. Fifth St., will remain open as a house museum that reflects life in Lorain with treasures, available for tours. The Carnegie Center houses artifacts collected during the historical society’s 35 years in operation.
Once inside the historical society’s new home, Piscopo says, “I think people will be amazed at what we have collected.”
And the building itself tells a prominent story about Lorain’s past, its present and future. Cocco says simply, “The building is going to remain a place for stories.”
A Successful Campaign
Pledges demonstrate outstanding community support for the Carnegie Center project.
A five-year capital campaign to raise $3 million to restore the Carnegie Library building and create an education center and museum to tell the story of Lorain launched in 2013 and will continue through 2018.
$550,000 – First-floor renovations, including new heating and cooling systems, full ADA compliance, interior renovations, exterior and on-site improvements to obtain a city occupancy permit.
$885,000 – Second-floor renovations, including restoring original décor, installing an elevator, site improvements (14-space parking lot), access ramp and new front entrance.
$400,000 – Second-floor exhibit design and furnishings.
$165,000 – Upgrade office and technology for historical society, and for entire building and exhibits.