Friday, September 18, 2015

Denver's Nine Carnegies

After nearly a week of riding through the mountains of Colorado I spent the better part of a day prowling about the state's largest metropolis tracking down its nine Carnegie Libraries, five of which still function as libraries.  Three of the four former libraries have been converted to residencies, a not very common use for these mostly one-room, high-ceilinged buildings.  Ordinarily they end up as an office or business of some sort, such as the Carnegie in Littleton just south of Denver that is now a restaurant, The Melting Pot, specializing in fondue.

It made for a fine appetizer bright and early in the rising sun before my feast in Denver, as I broke camp just as dawn broke after sleeping in Littleton's large cemetery not much more than a mile from the former Carnegie, which still identified itself as a library over the entry into the restaurant.

was up early not wishing to startle the cemetery caretaker.  Someone other than a watchman did cycle by me in the evening dark, but may not have seen me hidden behind a large tree.  I chose not to camp outside of the urban sprawl, as I knew I'd have a full day cycling to all four corners of Denver and wished to get an early start on it.  I was serious enough about an early start to be willing to stay in a motel if I happened upon one.  Dark had descended before I found one.  The fenced-in cemetery presented itself before any urban wasteland that I might have disappeared into.  Fortunately I could slip past a barricade at one of its far corners.

My entry into Denver from the south took me past two still functioning libraries before my first of the inhabited Carnegies and the pleasure of meeting one of the lucky folk who has the privilege of living in one.  The Decker Branch sat on a corner of a large park in a quiet residential neighborhood.  It was built in 1912 and refurbished in 1993, and had been superbly maintained ever since.  Its recessed forty-five degree entrance with wings extending from either side and bright green roof asserted an air of distinction.

The Byers Branch was on busy Santa Fe Drive lined with shops and across the street from a tattoo parlor with the motto "Obey None, Defy All."  It was looking a bit worn, but still added some dignity to the neighborhood.

I passed the football stadium, now known as Sports Authority Field, on the way to the former Dickinson Branch on Hooker Road.  The stadium was adorned with a large painting of quarterback Payton Manning.  Guys all over the city were wearing his bright orange number 18 uniform.  This was game day, as the Broncos had a Thursday night game against their arch rival in Kansas City, where they hadn't lost in over a decade.  One fan took his devotion a step further than wearing a mere jersey with a mannequin of Payton in front of his house flanked by a couple of cheerleaders.

A dog tied up out front of the former Carnegie on Hooker began barking when I pulled up.  The front door opened and out stepped a husky fifty-year old man in a plain t-shirt.  He confirmed that yes indeed this had once been a Carnegie, as did a plaque beside his door.  It had closed in 1954. He had been living there the past eleven years.  The previous owner had gained National Historic status for it for tax purposes.  He was glad to take advantage of it himself.  He could get a tax credit for any improvements he made, even giving it a coat of paint.

He said he had an occasional Carnegie pilgrim such as me, and if he had known I was coming he would have cut the grass, though it was mostly weeds like most of the other yards in this run-down neighborhood.  He thought he was making a joke.  I didn't tell him that this past spring when I'd taken my Carnegie quest across Indiana a library had been forewarned of my arrival and had put up a  welcome on its message board.

He was a Carnegie enthusiast himself, though he had no bookshelves nor many books in his house.  He just borrowed books, trying to read a book a week.  When the library opened in 1914 there had been a fuss that there were no women authors, just men, engraved in the wooden interior of the library, and Harriet Beecher Stowe had to be squeezed in.

This branch was less than three miles from the main central library, also provided by Carnegie, in the center of the city in the shadow of the golden-domed capital building.  The grand multi-pillared building was as regal as any of the state buildings.  It no longer serves as a library, but rather as a Civic Center hosting art exhibits and other exhibitions. As I gazed upon it, an officer on a bike stopped to check me out.  When he ascertained I wasn't a transcient, he advised me to lock my bike if I cared to enter the Civic Center as this was a heroin district.  "They'll steal anything for their next fix," he warned.

I continued east down Colfax, the main avenue bisecting Denver, to the Park Hill Branch in an affluent neighborhood.  There was a steady stream of young mothers pushing baby carriages up the long ramp to the library on a rise.

A few blocks further I picked up Martin Luther King Drive which took me to the former Warren Branch, also in a residential neighborhood.  It fit in as it had been converted into four premium lofts with wooden decks behind it and a well-watered lawn and fence surrounding it.

It capitalized on its heritage, promoting itself as the Carnegie Library Lofts.

Further north was the third Carnegie residence. On the way there I stopped at a small Mexican grocery store that advertised tamales. I had my choice of vegetarian or meat. The nearby former Elyria Branch had been fully converted to a house with sky lights installed in its roof and upraised flower beds in its narrow front yard.  A giant RV was parked beside it.  Only the large curved windows belied its former incarnation.

The final two Carnegies to the west and north on my way out of the city to Boulder were both in large parks and had lost none of their magnifcence.  The Woodbury Branch on busy Federal Avenue had a second story and beds of flowers out front.

The more modest Smiley Branch had just one room along with a basement and a faux fireplace flanked by a pair of den-type chairs that I might have fallen asleep in had they not been occupied.  It was late in the afternoon.   Boulder was twenty-five miles away and I hoped to make it there before dark.  There were eight tennis courts nearby and a lagoon, none of them being used despite the ideal fall weather.

It had been a long but eventful day battling the hectic traffic and trying to find my way.  At least Denver was flat enough that I didn't need my small chain ring for the first time in a week. And the city had a sensible grid system, though the grid was broken at times by arroyos and interstates and railroad tracks.  The ten Carnegies were more than a quarter of those in the state and the most I had ever seen in a day.  My previous best was the seven of Louisville last November.  I have yet to take my quest though to Philadelphia or New York City, who both have much larger collections of Carnegies.

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