Like all good Kentucky sagas, the Carnegie Center’s story begins with a place, a conflict, and some epic characters.
The place: the old Lexington Public Library on Gratz Park in March 1989. Movers had just trucked the last of tens of thousands of books to a sparkling new Library on Main Street. Back at Gratz Park, they left a wreck. Holes in the walls, peeling paint, leaking pipes, exposed asbestos.
They also left a conflict: Who should control the tired remains of the old stone building?
On one side of the conflict was a handful of developers who envisioned the building as elegant law offices and up-scale lofts. The history, location, and physical beauty of the building – all would be preserved and appreciated, they promised. And think of the tax money!
On the other side was then-Lexington Mayor Scotty Baesler and a group of cutting-edge educators and historic preservationists. They saw an opportunity not only to protect a spectacular building for public use, but to enhance the building’s mission as a place committed to learning. They envisioned a state-of-the-art literacy center that inspired curiosity in children while offering innovative classes – in computers, languages, and especially writing – for adults at every stage of life.
“For over 80 years,” Baesler wrote at the time, “the Carnegie Library has served the people of Lexington by providing a place where literacy is cherished and nourished. It is our hope now that the Center can help to make Lexington one of the most literate cities in America.”
Eventually, Baesler’s vision won the day. And with financial help from Lexington horseman Will Farish, the Carnegie building was renovated from 1990-1992. Finally, on September 11, 1992, then-First Lady Barbara Bush cut the ribbon that officially opened the Carnegie Center. A few days later, the first season of writing classes launched with two young instructors, Frank X Walker and George Ella Lyon. Both would later serve as Kentucky Poets Laureate.
From that bold beginning, the Carnegie Center has been the fortunate recipient of extraordinary leadership. After creating the Center, Mayor Baesler turned over the planning to education innovator Robert Sexton and other reformers. Baesler then hired another visionary, Laurie Bottoms, as Carnegie’s first director; Bottoms, in turn, brought in Jan Isenhour, Phyllis MacAdam, Rene Matthews, and Theresa Maynard – all of whom would have a sustaining impact on the Center.
It’s been 25 years since the Carnegie opening. Hundreds of thousands of people have roamed through the still-public building, appreciating its architecture and history. Tens of thousands have stayed to enjoy a reading, attend an art exhibit, practice writing, tutor a child, or learn another language.
We invite you to continue to participate in this Cycle of Literacy. You can enter anywhere – as a child in our tutoring program; as an adult writer at any stage; even as an instructor sharing your knowledge or as a volunteer. The goal remains the same as it ever was: To help make Lexington one of the smartest cities in America.