At the turn of the 20th Century, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered up a portion of his fortune to build public libraries across the United States. Hoosiers took advantage of his generosity and secured funding for more than 160 libraries, more than any other state in the country. But the Elwood Carnegie Library in Madison County is particularly special and unfortunately in danger of becoming extinct; it is included among Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered sites for 2020.
80 years ago, Elwood native Wendell Willkie was nominated as the Republican candidate to face FDR for the presidency in 1940. And despite giving FDR his closest election, ultimately, his bid was unsuccessful. But one could the Willkie name had far more reaching benefits for Elwood outside of the political arena.
Wendell’s parents, Herman and Henrietta Willkie, were key players in securing a Carnegie Library for the city of Elwood.
“The effort to get this library was extensive and it paid off only after six years of working to get this library here,” said Jessie Russett with Indiana Landmarks.
In August of 1901, Elwood citizens wrote to Carnegie informing the steel tycoon that their current library was so popular, in a matter of months, it would no longer be big enough. The letter went on to say the city of Elwood did not have any citizens wealthy enough to purchase a new building and asked for his generosity.
“After the plans were submitted for this particular library and they reviewed them, they said that this was the ideal standard for library circulations,” said Russett. “The Library of Congress actually recommended the Boston Public Library to model their construction after Elwood’s library here in Indiana.”
The library would go on to serve Elwood citizens for nearly a century before going on the market in the mid-1990s and then remained vacant until 2018, when an out-of-state buyer purchased the property but has done little to make improvements.
“The owner is from out of state and I don’t believe that they appreciate the true architectural value of what it means to the city of Elwood when the great memories we’ve had from residents that have grown up generation to generation,” said Mayor Todd Jones.
Russett says sitting vacant is the major threat to the building, which has suffered water leaks causing mold issues. Chipping paint and broken windows also need to be fixed.
“It’s just sat empty for so long that it’s something that we’ve been working hard to try to acquire the ownership of it so we can get in and fix it up and truly save a landmark in the city of Elwood,” the mayor said.
Jackie Lane, president of the Elwood Main Street Organization says the building could be used in many ways, such as a business, restaurant, or brewery.
“It makes you shiver when you walk into that building. Just the effort that’s gone in there, it’s a very impactful space,” said Russett. “And I’m hoping that, through our efforts and the owner’s efforts and the community’s efforts that we can get this building back to that space.”