The Other Carnegie Halls

Carnegie Hall Inc. (Lewisburg, W.Va.)

Carnegie’s last two music halls aren’t in New York City or Pittsburgh at all, but in Scotland and, of all places, West Virginia. The Scotland Hall was built in Dunfermline, Carnegie’s birthplace, in 1937, long after its namesake’s death, as an addition to the world’s first Carnegie Library.

The final Carnegie halls in the United States came about because of a terrible fire.

Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall (W.Va.)

Year completed: 1902

Architect: Charles W. Barrett

Carnegie contribution: $26,750

Historic landmark: Yes

Owned by: Carnegie Hall Inc. (Lewisburg)

Seating capacity: 420

Rentable: Yes

Types of events: Concerts, lectures, theater, comedy, other

Organ: No

Liquor license: Yes

Air conditioning: Yes

In 1901, in Lewisburg, W.Va., a women’s college called the Lewisburg Female Institute burned down. College leaders appealed to Andrew Carnegie, a known philanthropist by this time, who pledged $26,750 to rebuild the building if they’d name it after him and if the community could raise $10,000 on its own.

“We said we’d put Carnegie’s name above the front door,” said Philip McLaughlin, a multigenerational Lewisburg resident and marketing director at the town’s Carnegie Hall. “Obviously we didn’t,” he said with a sly smile. (Even though the building is now known as a Carnegie Hall, Carnegie’s name does not actually appear on the building.)

Still, Lewisburg residents coughed up the funds, and a new Carnegie Hall was born, complete with an auditorium for lectures and performances, classroom space, laboratories and studios aplenty. This “hall” is more of a classroom space, but it’s alive today with all manner of community events and classes and performances and more.

Lewisburg, named after one of George Washington’s scouts, isn’t a poor, hollowed out former mining town. It’s in the southeast portion of the state, about a four-hour drive from Pittsburgh, in Greenbrier County, the second largest in West Virginia. Its main drag is populated with cute cafes, theaters and restaurants, as well as an abundance of cemeteries and churches. Architecture is boxy and Germanic. Its population is nearly 4,000.

“We’re a perfect storm here, a real diamond in the rough,” said McLaughlin. “There’s all this old farm money, and I mean serious money, flowing in the area. We’ve got great hospitals, sporting clubs, the state fair — we’re a real hotbed.”

Like its sister halls in the Steel City, funding for the college dried up. The building was sold to the state, which turned it into a mental health facility for special needs patients for a time. In the 1980s, the building was nearly demolished, but a group of residents banded together to form Carnegie Hall Inc. in 1983 and repurposed the space as a performance venue, art gallery and arts education center. Residents raised more than $8 million over the next decade to renovate the space and make it more accessible.

Seating purchased from a historic Chicago theater was installed in 2020.

The hall does have a liquor license, but an old West Virginia blue law stipulates that a bar can’t be operated within 50 feet of a church, measuring from front door to front door. Given the number of churches, the town has gotten creative about this — sometimes side doors are labeled “front door” to skirt around the letter of the law.

It’s not a traditional “music hall” like the Pittsburgh halls, but its purpose as a community center is a deliberate homage to Carnegie’s efforts with such facilities. That said, the hall’s claim that it’s “one of four” Carnegie Halls in continuous use isn’t quite correct.

The center operates with a $1.3 million budget and serves more than 75,000 citizens each year. The main auditorium includes a small lobby area that serves as a gallery with works by local artists displayed with price tags. Between the floor and small balcony, the hall seats about 420 — a Steinway piano (provided by a Pittsburgh dealer, it turns out, and tuned by Pittsburgh piano tech David Barr) takes center stage.

“We get some great acts coming through here, but our education department dwarfs what we do onstage,” McLaughlin said.

The second floor is mostly classrooms with white boards and linoleum floors, and the guts of the building are filled with the stuff of classrooms — ticking clocks, kilns for ceramics work, materials for weaving and drawing, and more. There’s also a dance studio on the third floor, as well as classes for origami, pinewood derby, basket weaving and other traditional crafts.

Lewisburg is a popular tourist destination for its golf courses, shopping and for the Greenbrier luxury resort, with Carnegie Hall serving as the arts center of the city.

This year, a small bell owned by the family of John Wilbank, who cast Philadelphia’s famous Liberty Bell, was repaired and began ringing again to signal that concerts were starting.

The bell must be rung by hand. The piano is another story.

“Yeah, we’re extremely haunted — more than one person has come in with a story about the piano just starting to play itself,” McLaughlin said. Like its Pittsburgh relatives, the hall comes complete with stories about doors slamming and locks locking or unlocking, even after being changed, for no reason.

Ghost hunters have visited multiple times. The town overall made history in the late 19th century for a ghost providing legal testimony. Seriously.

Carnegie Hall, Inc. now owns the building after years of renting it for $1 a month.

Jeremy Reynolds: His work at the Post-Gazette is supported in part by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.

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