Billion Pennies Project: historic Braddock Carnegie Library raising $10 million one penny at a time

The Braddock Carnegie Library/Wikimedia Commons

The Braddock Carnegie Library/Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that one billion pennies would fill five school buses? That’s how many pennies The Braddock Carnegie Library is aiming to raise in its biggest fundraising campaign to date.

Built in 1888 and dedicated by Andrew Carnegie in 1889, the Braddock Library was the first Carnegie Library to be  built. The building housed various amenities including recreational facilities like a pool, bowling alley, bathhouse and a 964-seat Music Hall.

The National Historic Landmark operated continuously from 1889 to 1974, when it was forced to close due to lack of repair. Slated for demolition in the late 1970s, it was saved by a group of citizens led by its last librarian, David Solomon. The group bought the building for $1 and began the long and difficult task of restoring the building to its former glory.

In 1983, they reopened one room—the children’s library—and from there began the slow restoration. Today, the library’s operations include a ceramics studio in the basement, a print shop and an art lending service. The library has also been the site for multiple film productions and for local theater performances.

But the library continues to need repairs and through the years has raised funds from private donors and foundations to make progress.

Residents, both current and past, are also passionate about saving what was an integral part of their childhood. Janet McDonnell, a former resident who attended Braddock High School, would bring her penny jars to the library, and on a Facebook page for those who grew up in the area, asked people to do the same. Joe De Marco did just that and was the first donor in what would become the inspiration for the Billion Pennies Project.

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The Billion Pennies Project goal is to provide reserves that will bring stability to the library’s operations as well as make significant progress in restoring the library to its original state.

Vicki Vargo, the library’s executive director and John Hempel, president of the library’s Board of Trustees, are taking the lead in the initiative. Both have been tireless in their dedication to keep the library’s doors open.

“It was just a small idea but then we all just loved it. The way we look at it, everyone has pennies—young children, senior citizens. And yet many also don’t find use for them. We ask everyone to bring them here, because pennies turn into dollars. Dollars that make a difference,” says Vargo.

“The pennies are a metaphor for the fact that everyone can contribute to this historic endeavor,” Vargo adds. “We’ve received individual donations in the thousands to an envelope from a little boy, giving us all his pennies—all eight cents of it. That meant everything.”

Last year the library celebrated its 125th anniversary and embarked on a strategic plan that would form a vision for the library’s future. The staff and trustees began their outreach to supporters. Vargo shares that they learned a lot in one year. “We learned that people do want to give and we just need to reach out. We also learned that we need to start going global—there are a lot of people who grew up in this area. We just need to reach them.”

The campaign launched a website to do just that—to reach not only the 14,000 in the communities they serve but beyond.

“We have come a long way and we still have a long way to go. And this is what it is about—we want everyone to get involved. This is your library.”