Andrew Carnegie transformed a Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood when he donated the money to build the Argentine Library in 1917.
Some 95 years later, Argentine community members are paying it forward to the next generation.
The South Branch Library, which officially opens today on Strong Avenue, will be celebrated as a learning resource and treasured as a building that Argentine residents helped build penny by penny, leaders say.
Nearly $2 million of the $6 million building effort was raised by residents who collected loose change, washed cars, wrote grants and met weekly to come up with new ideas. It all came together during one of the worst economic times in modern history.
The financial situation made the library seem more important by the day to the longtime Argentine residents.
“There has been a library in this neighborhood since 1917, and it has provided a resource,” said volunteer Sally Murguia. “It was important for those who grew up here to see that tradition continue in a way that is appropriate for the 21st century.”
The old library wasn’t meeting modern needs.
For starters, the grand staircase — a symbol of how learning could elevate — had instead become an imposing barrier for the disabled. The stairs seemed especially cruel given the large retirement community just blocks away.
The building also was difficult to wire for technology, and the small layout made it hard to adapt to modern conveniences that users demand from libraries.
There was little space for computers, and the lines of people waiting to use them often stretched four or five deep.
The library that Carnegie built would have cost millions more to update or expand.
So a small group of volunteers — made up mostly of Murguia and her husband, Ramon; Janey Humphries; and Victor L. and Delia Hernandez — began meeting every Saturday morning. They were joined by many along the way.
There was never a lack of enthusiasm, Sally Murguia said.
“All we can do is try,” she said. “You just have to step out in faith sometimes on a project.”
They kept at it for years. Each week they’d come up with new ideas for grants and donations.
The Kansas City, Kan., School District, which operates the KCK library system, agreed to pay the rest of the library cost if residents could raise $1.5 million to $2 million. The board checked in regularly to hear about progress.
Pennies were collected at area schools. Middle school students pitched in dollar bills in exchange for a jeans day. Neighborhood kids held a car wash. Some residents gave $5. Others threw in thousands.
When the group had taken in about $500,000, the school board bought an old grocery store at 3104 Strong Ave. and started demolition.
The news spread rapidly along Strong Avenue.
There was no turning back.
Years later, the library is opening for business just blocks from the old building at 2800 Metropolitan Ave. The school district plans to repurpose that two-story building but has no immediate plans.
The library is growing from 7,000 square feet to 21,000. The old library had 22 computers; the new building will have 22 laptops alone, plus 20 desktop computers for children and 24 more for adults. Nook e-book readers will be available for checkout.
Inside, library director Carol Levers spread her arms wide to express her excitement.
“It’s a dream come true for the community,” said Levers, who once worked as the Argentine branch manager and helped to raise money.
Her Argentine staff has never had offices or a reading area for young adults.
The library was renamed South Branch to reflect the area beyond Argentine that it serves.
Just as the Carnegie library’s neoclassical architecture represented its era, the South Branch library stands squarely in the modern day.
The simple box architecture was easy on the pocketbook in a time of financial stress. But inside the open space is filled with light from massive windows. The space isn’t flashy, but its functional and practical design should make it user-friendly. Artwork inside and out adds a playful and creative feel.
“The old (library) reflects its time. The new one reflects its time,” said branch manager Jack Granath.
The collection is bigger and easier to browse. There are several meeting and study rooms. Half of the space is dedicated to children’s books and programming. The crown jewel is a large children’s activity space designed for story time and other programs, Granath said.
The library is all on one level, making it accessible to all, including the retirement community directly behind the new building.
KCK school board President Gloria Willis said she’s already heard from several excited senior citizens.
“They can’t wait. They cannot wait because they are saying, ‘We can walk to the library,’ ” she said. “ ‘We don’t have to worry about climbing steps.’ ”
The volunteers, who are about $200,000 shy of the $2 million goal, will be there for the scheduled 11 a.m. ribbon cutting to dedicate the building. They will be celebrating as well and hoping that the building stimulates redevelopment elsewhere in Argentine.
“We feel like it’s really important because many of our neighbors here have limited transportation and the library is a window on the world,” Murguia said. “It’s a place to apply for jobs. It’s a place to teach computer skills. It’s a place for students to have homework resources.
“There’s so many ways that this facility can support the success of everybody who lives here.”