Hubbell Library history

The library at 725 Pelican Avenue first opened on 28 December 1907. At the time, New Orleans was the 12th largest city in the United States. With a population of just under 300,000 it was bigger than Detroit or Washington DC. Martin Behrman was mayor. Teddy Roosevelt was president.

The Algiers Branch, as it became known, was one of five libraries in New Orleans established with money from Andrew Carnegie. The others were the main library on Howard Avenue, the Napoleon and Royal branches, and several years later the Dryades branch. Of those, only Hubbell and Napoleon survive today.

African Americans were not allowed to use the Algiers Branch or any of the other neighborhood libraries except Dryades, which was intended as the city's "Negro branch". Andrew Carnegie had stipulated that libraries built with his money be available to all citizens. Like many cities, New Orleans sought to satisfy this rule by using additional Carnegie money to open a separate branch for black patrons. A second "Negro branch" was added after World War II, but even then black Algerines had to cross the Mississippi River to use a public library. This policy remained well into the 1950s.

For almost sixty years, ours was the only public library on New Orleans' west bank. It survived massive hurricanes in 1915 and 1965, continuing to serve the Algiers community with books and community programs. There were no electronics, of course, and no air conditioning—not even a telephone, at first! And not much of a budget. New Orleans was repeatedly criticized for spending less than half per capita on libraries than did other large American cities. By the 1960s, the lack of investment was becoming evident in the poor condition of the Algiers Branch. Neither the building nor the collection was being maintained properly.

Closure #1

The Algiers Branch was closed for many years beginning in the mid-1960s. A commonly-accepted myth is that it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Betsy (09 September 1965) and therefore had to be closed. This is not true. Patrons and employees had complained for years about the deteriorating condition of the building. The roof leaked. Large chunks of plaster were falling from the ceiling. Floor sections were buckling.

That was before Hurricane Betsy. After the storm, the branch librarian reported only one window screen damaged or missing, and 58 books lost to water damage, out of a total of perhaps 8,000 books. It's not surprising that a few books got wet, given that the roof had been leaking even before the storm.

But the city was building a newer, larger Algiers Regional Branch approximately 6 kilometers (4 miles) away. The Algiers Branch was closed on 23 April 1966—more than seven months after Hurricane Betsy, but just a few days after the opening of Algiers Regional. Although a sign on the front door read "closed for repairs," the library in effect had been replaced.

Library administrators and consultants considered a library like ours to be an anachronism, an embarrassment. It was too old, too small, too stuffy... and it didn't have off-street parking. But neighborhood residents, led by Cita Dennis Hubbell, disagreed. Among other arguments, they pointed out that the Algiers Branch served a community with many people—the poor, the elderly, the very young—who were not served by an automobile-oriented library.

At the same time, there was a resurgence of interest in the 19th- and early 20th-century architecture of the old Algiers neighborhood. Many neighbors wanted the branch reopened because it was a notable piece of architecture and a historic Carnegie library.

Mrs. Hubbell and her volunteers waged a telephone, letter and community action campaign to have the library repaired and renovated. The campaign was successful! Over the objections of the city librarian and other prominent city officials, our library reopened on 14 October 1975 as the Algiers Point Branch, with a capacity of 20,000 books.

After Mrs. Hubbell's death in 2001, New Orleans City Councilmember Troy Carter proposed renaming the library for her. It was rededicated as the Cita Dennis Hubbell Branch in 2002.

Closure #1.5

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Most of the population evacuated, many others lost their lives, tens of thousands of homes were ruined—and the New Orleans Public Library was forced to shut down and let go 90 percent of its employees. Fortunately, the Hubbell Library escaped serious damage. Two windows were broken and some roof tiles were displaced.

The Hubbell Library reopened (again) on 31 October 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina. Although the brave little library made it through the storm intact, with no materials lost, there were concerns (predating the storm) about the structure, and specifically about the roof. Large timbers forming the roof structure had both moisture and termite damage. Tentative plans called for the library to be closed in late 2008 or 2009 for repair and renovation.

Closure #2

But in mid-May 2008 inspectors from the city's Department of Safety & Permits decided that the roof was "in imminent danger of collapse". Curiously, the city did not close the supposedly hazardous library immediately, instead ordering it to close about a week later. It closed on 24 May 2008, before concrete plans had been made for repairs, or an architect or contractor chosen, or money allocated.

Were there any doubt among city officials about public support for the Hubbell Library, that doubt was quickly dispelled by a barrage of phone calls and e-mails to City Councilmembers and to administrators of the New Orleans Public Library. The hastily organized public campaign was reminiscent of the phone and letter-writing campaign of the early 1970s, mentioned above. Patrons, friends and neighbors of the Hubbell Library wanted the city to allocate the necessary funds and get the library repaired without delay.

Within days, district City Councilmember James Carter was working with the city administration to assure that the repair and renovation project was on a list of projects for immediate action, and city librarian Donna Schremser and her staff were looking for "temporary space in the neighborhood to provide library services while our historic building is being repaired".

Eventually a temporary branch was opened, but repairs to the permanent building were delayed.

BACK HOME

After what seemed like an eternity, repairs were finished and our library moved back into the historic Carnegie building at 725 Pelican Avenue in July of 2013.

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