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Auburn's proud building for the ages: Community celebrates 100th birthday of historic Carnegie | SLIDESHOW

Robert Smith, the owner of Auburn’s historic Carnegie building, and others have maintained the integrity and life of the 100-year-old structure. The former library, built by a grant from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. - Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter
Robert Smith, the owner of Auburn’s historic Carnegie building, and others have maintained the integrity and life of the 100-year-old structure. The former library, built by a grant from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.
— image credit: Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

If the old Carnegie building could talk, oh, what tales it could tell.

Ah, but heck, the librarians who once held sway in Auburn's first standing library would probably warn it to "hush up there" anyway.

On Sunday there was no shushing the celebration rocking the building, as festivities marked its 100th birthday.

Today, just as it has been for nearly 50 years, the brown brick structure at 306 Auburn Ave., the one with the great trees out front and the distinctive blue doors at the top of the steps, is home for the Auburn Dance and Music Center.

"We're excited about the celebration, which has been a long time in the making," said building and business owner Robert Smith. "In addition to the celebration, we have been completing a lot of preservation projects with the support of 4Culture and other non-profit organizations. It is an amazing building."

According to newspaper clippings, the original library began its life in February 1914, mere months removed from the opening guns of World War I in Europe. The exact day and time when that happened, however, is still something of a mystery, Smith said.

Auburn's pioneer Ballard family, which lived next door, donated the land to the City of Auburn, allowing it to take advantage of the generosity of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and his public buildings initiative.

That the building still draws breath in this world owes everything to the commitment of Smith, his late wife, Mary Margaret Smith, center staff, and to the families who have supported the dance center from its terpsichorean beginnings.

Smith came to Auburn as an 18-year-old in 1954, when the population was about 8,000 people.

"We started off like every dance music school in what we called the fraternity hall above the old Penney's," he said. "Then we made a couple of moves, and at a certain point we grew and were looking for another building."

In the early 1960s, the people of Auburn passed a measure to build a new library, and the old one was shuttered.

Some of Smith's patrons, seeing that the building was vacant and had been for two or three years, suggested he take a look.

Smith said he can't remember exactly what year he made the purchase, only that the building was in ghastly shape when he got it and a "major, major, major production" to whip into shape.

And ever bit of its rehabilitation was on a shoestring budget.

"I wasn't really crazy about it. I thought it was a little bit too big at that time. At first we checked it out to rent it. The place was a mess. At some point the boiler must have blown up; there was soot from one end of the building to the other. We didn't have a lot of money. But the parents of the students we had in those days were so devoted," Smith said.

While Smith was away on a trip to New York, parents came in and scrubbed the building down. Where the old library had been a wall-to-wall affair, they divided the top floor into separate rooms, and put in new floors.

"This," said Smith, tapping the desk in the entrance hall, "is part of the old library desk. Look, here's the old hole that the cards used to fit into. We wanted to keep this desk, but unfortunately we couldn't keep the whole thing because part of the desk went into that other room. So we had to cut it off. People talked about moving it, but I said no."

Smith credits his late wife, the school's pianist, for getting the building registered as an historic building.

"Everything that's happened to this building was thanks to her," Smith said.

Smith estimates that over the years, the dance and music center has put at least 10,000 dancers out into the world.

"We still have people who come back and say, 'This used to be like my second home.' I think we have a nice, homey atmosphere here. That's what people have told me," Smith said.

Those who attended the birthday party enjoyed refreshments, listened to a professional pianist in the afternoon and studied photographs of the building in the old days when it was the Auburn Library.

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RACHEL CIAMPI SLIDESHOW:

 

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