Let’s go back in time, you and I, to a world long ago. Turning back 108 years ago, Charleston was growing. Recovered from the War Between the States, it hadn’t yet plunged into the Great War of 1914.
It was a time before a free public library was established in the state of South Carolina. To borrow books in Charleston, one visited the Charleston Library Society at the corner of Broad and Church streets. From its founding in 1748 to 1910, the Library Society served as a mainstay of Charleston’s cultural life. Children went to the Library Society for school projects. Parents borrowed books from the growing circulating collection. Art, history, culture were all on display, overseen by the faithful eye of a legendary librarian, Miss Fitzsimmons.
From its inception, members of the Library Society had seen enough warfare, hurricanes and fires to recognize that its existence in an old building, adapted to hold a library, was at risk. In a single moment, members knew all too well, the entire collection could go up in flames.
Had fire ripped through the Charleston Library Society building of 1910, it would not have been the first time its collection burned. In 1778, a fire destroyed all but 100 volumes of the fledgling society’s collection. Fortunately, strong support from its many members enabled the society to rebuild. A sister organization, the Apprentices’ Library Society was not as lucky. In 1861 a fire destroyed it, a disaster from which it would never recover. To survive, the Apprentices’ Library Society merged into the older, bigger Charleston Library Society and lost its own identity.
Thus it was, in 1910, that community leaders realized safeguarding the Library Society’s collections was imperative to ensure a literate, educated Charleston for centuries to come. The decision to rebuild the Society involved the whole community, sparking debates that ended only with the creation of the Italian Renaissance-inspired masterpiece that sits atop King Street to this day.
It began with a single meeting at the Library Society. More than 50 members (or “more than a quorum”) met to discuss the important issue of “procuring a site for a library building which will be at once appropriate for the library and its members and secure from the risk of loss by fire,” according to handwritten minutes of the meeting on February 18, 1910.
“The library contains stores which it is absolutely impossible to replace if destroyed,” the notes went on. “The files of its newspapers run back to the year 1731, nearly 180 years. No other library in the United States possesses such a file … impartial dealers in valuable books have placed the value of our files of newspapers alone at over one hundred thousand dollars.” That would exceed $2.4 million in today’s dollars.
Moreover, “The building itself is fireproof in no sense of the word … the Honorable William A. Courtenay was so convinced of the unsafe condition of the property that he required that the portraits and the valuable collection [which he bequeathed to] the library should be kept at the Art Gibbs building on Meeting Street and not in the Library building.”
Sites for the future building were debated during many meetings, as were building materials. A site on Tradd Street, known as the Boyd Property, was purchased first, but sold when a more attractive location on King Street was acquired. The design of the building was completed by a firm from Philadelphia, Goodwin & Hawley. Their original plans called for “slow-burning building materials;” these were quickly tossed for fireproof materials like concrete, marble, stucco and brick.
None of these decisions came easily, however. Entire pages of The News & Courier were dedicated to editorial letters debating the location (North of Broad? South of Broad? Definitely not as “far away” as Calhoun!), the cost and the importance of giving decisions their due gravity.
“There has never been anything before the society during the long period of its existence of more vital importance to the welfare of the Library,” wrote one editorialist. Robert Wilson, the Library Society President in 1910, added, “You will confirm or reject it [the proposed location of the new building] … In either case your trustees will accept your decision with a grateful sense of responsibility removed and a common purpose to give their best services to the library in the future as in the past.”
The next challenge, then, was to fund the new building. Though the Library Society membership raised enough funds annually to support the ordering of new volumes and its day-to-day upkeep, a whole new building was far beyond their means.
A campaign was born. Challenge grants came from two major donors, each promising $10,000 if the library could raise the same amount from the community. The community answered with hundreds of gifts, large and small. Each donation is carefully recorded in old Library Society ledgers. The first gifts were large — $500, $450 — but by the end, the money that was needed to build a new Library Society came in droplets. Five dollars; three dollars; a dollar. People gave what they could afford.
All told, the building of the property at 164 King St. cost upwards of $62,000 (more than $1.3 million in today’s dollars). Much of its cost was subsidized by average donors who couldn’t bear to see their beloved institution risk being destroyed by fire.
Today, the handsome Beaux Arts building at 164 King St., completed in 1914, with its architecturally splendid elements, remains a vibrant and much used facility. Unfortunately, the ravages of time and elements have done their dirty work. Once again, a little more than 100 years later, the Library Society needs to protect its historically significant collections and the society’s life. Once again, the Library Society must turn to its community for support. Perhaps the debates regarding location and building materials will be less intense. Perhaps the editorial columns won’t be quite as long. But the issues facing the Library Society are every bit as important and there is no doubt this 270-year old organization, under the dynamic leadership of its present board and dedicated outreach into the community, will find a way to thrive.