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The history of Bemidji’s lakeside public library

The building is located on the banks of Lake Bemidji in Library Park.

photo of bemidji library building
Bemidji Carnegie Library (426 Bemidji Avenue, Bemidji).

For five decades, Bemidji’s public library operated in a one-story, brick-and-stone neo-classical structure designed by Haxby & Gillespie and built in 1909. It is a well-preserved example of the libraries throughout Minnesota—and the United States—that were financed by Andrew Carnegie.

The first Bemidji library was housed in the city’s old courthouse. After a new courthouse was constructed in 1902, the library was moved to the lower level of that building. The Bemidji Public Library Association was formed in 1904.

After three years of fundraising, the Bemidji Public Library was established on February 25, 1907. In 1908, Bemidji Library Board Chairman A. P. Ritchie wrote to Andrew Carnegie to inquire about the possibility of funding for a new library building. On March 23, 1908, the city council commenced proceedings to vacate Fifth Street east of Bemidji Avenue to make room for a construction site.

The library’s original design included porches on either side of the building, overlooking the lake. The board and the architects intended for these porches to be used in the evening, when the sun shines into the building from the west. Carnegie, however, thought they were unnecessary, and the porches were dropped from the plans, lowering the cost of the building to within the amount of Mr. Carnegie’s donation of $12,500.

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Thomas Johnson of Bemidji was the construction project’s lowest bidder and was awarded the contract for the sum of $11,300 on August 7, 1909. The building was to be completed by January 1, 1910. Johnson completed the work on time, and the building was occupied during the winter and dedicated the following June.

The building is located on the banks of Lake Bemidji in Library Park, on a fifty-foot-by-sixty-foot lot of Block B. It is a typical one-story, rectangular, brick-and-stone library structure, Neo-classical in style. The exterior is made of brown brick with Bedford limestone trim. It is covered with a low hipped roof and is set upon a high (five feet above grade) basement. The basement is the full size of the building.

Inside, a stone staircase led to the library’s main-floor circulation desk (in the building’s center, under a low dome) and two reading rooms; book stacks and stock rooms offered storage and work space behind it. varnished oak woodwork provided decoration throughout the elegant main floor.

Although the porches the architects designed were never built, doors were installed on the library’s eastern (lakeside) façade, perhaps to allow for the future construction of reading porches. While an appropriation was never made for such an addition, it remained feasible.

Work crews thoroughly remodeled the building in 1940. The story of the remodeling, complete with pictures, made the pages of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. City improvement projects in the 1950s widened Bemidji Avenue in front of the library, increasing traffic and making it more hazardous to cross the street.

The building stopped operating as a library on November 28, 1961, when the Bemidji Public Library moved into a larger building. It was recognized as a historic property and placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 25, 1980. The Beltrami County Welfare Board occupied the space for a time, and the Bemidji Arts Council installed an art gallery inside it in 1983.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.