New York City may have a lot of things Lewisburg, West Virginia, doesn’t: bumper-to-bumper traffic, over-crowded sidewalks, and cabbies, to name a few. But one thing that is most definitely absent from that list? Carnegie Hall.
Yup, that’s right. New York City may play host to a Carnegie Hall, but it isn’t the only city who can tout such a distinction. Nestled in the verdant mountains of West Virginia stands another Carnegie Hall, one of four, in fact, still in continuous use. And Lewisburg, West Virginia, is home to Carnegie Hall, Inc., a not-for-profit arts and education center established almost entirely by the work and funds of local volunteers (well, except those original funds, which of course came from Mr. Carnegie himself).
The story goes that in 1902 James Laing of Lewisburg appealed to Andrew Carnegie for help. Carnegie had changed his fortune since leaving their shared hometown in Scotland, earning a trove of riches as a steel baron. By 1902 Carnegie was already known as a philanthropist, so Laing used their common heritage for leverage and asked Mr. Carnegie for financial help in rebuilding a structure that had recently burned down in Lewisburg. Carnegie’s reply: $33,000 (comparable to a million dollars or more in current value).
Carnegie Hall was initially used as a building of classrooms for the Lewisburg Female Institute, which would later become the Greenbrier College for Women. For seventy years, packs of young women wielding bound books traipsed the elegant halls of the Georgian Revival-style edifice. But in 1972 Greenbrier College closed, making way for Greenbrier Center, a hospital for mental illness. The Center didn’t last long either, and the building fell into decrepitude, the earth struggling to reclaim what Carnegie had built.
As with many successful stories of the South, it was the local community surrounding Carnegie Hall that saved it from ruin. When rumors began to spread of the building’s condemnation and imminent destruction, residents established their own corporation, Carnegie Hall, Inc. With nothing more than intentions and hopes, the community set out to rebuild a landmark. Plans of renovating the building and using it to bring art to the community were dreams that quickly became reality. Since 1983 the organization has grown tremendously. Initially, it took volunteers two years of renovation to return the building to a habitable state. In 1984 they hired their first paid employee, a managing director. Over the years, as word of the hall grew, so did its staff and its programming.
Today Carnegie Hall entertains nearly 75,000 visitors annually. Everything from fine art exhibitions to educational programming for local students, from workshops for artists to its own Lewisburg Music Festival, is welcome in the artistic halls of Carnegie. Even world-renowned artists have set their heels here, like Doc Watson, Asleep at the Wheel, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Vienna Boy’s Choir, and Harry Belafonte. Carnegie Hall is undoubtedly an epicenter of art and beauty for a large community in the very heart of America. And with its programming and popularity growing annually, it’s not likely that this Carnegie Hall will go anywhere anytime soon.
So the next time someone tries to convince you that New York City is the absolute cultural mecca of America, with their claims regarding bagels and Broadway, remind them of the little city called Lewisburg that shares some of those better cultural uniquities—and more.
See More Southern Carnegie Photos Here