Tuesday, July 05, 2005


The psychology of fantastically wealthy robber barons fascinates me. I've only purchased a few hard cover books at full price but one of them was a biography of Rockefeller, and it was worth every cent. My guess is that my interest in these guys is that their wealth allows them to fulfill their character without any constraints - as the Hericlitean quote says "Character is destiny." In most of us, trying to divine one or another's character, such as it is, is hard to disentangle from the quotidian things in our lives that are beyond our control. In other words, when looking at most lives, are we looking at the events that shaped the character with more weight than the inborn character? Not so with the moguls - their freedom to do as they wish allows their character to shine (or more commonly, reek).

The life of Andrew Carnegie more than illustrates this belief. Once known as the richest man in the world, he sold his Carnegie Steel Company to J. P. Morgan for $480 million (I've cribbed these facts from this site) and then devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy. One of the greatest things he did was spend $56 million to build 2,509 libraries throughout the world. It is my guess that only funding massive world-wide vaccinations (which Bill Gates is interested in) and programs to alleviate global hunger can top this in terms of improving the lives of millions. Certainly it is incalculable to determine how many communities and lives have been changed for the better because of the knowledge freely gained from these libraries. I also can imagine my father as he was growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, going to the first Carnegie library built outside those locations like Scotland and Pennsylvania where Carnegie had personal ties.

This brings up a side note. At my last job I worked for a dot-com entrepeneur who was the exact opposite of Carnegie. He would have laughed at Carnegie's quote: "all personal wealth beyond that required to supply the needs of one's family should be regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the community." He was one of the greediest people I've ever known (which isn't saying much as I don't hang around very many of them...), but oddly charismatic and charitable as well. Yes you can be greedy on one hand and charitable on the other - see Bill Gates. But I bring my ex-boss into this discussion because of one of his core hatreds - libraries. I believe it was a philosophical horror to him - that libraries offer their materials for use for free. The notion of the public good being raised by this was not an element of notice for him - but rather the fact that books were not being purchased. I never really got into a discussion about it with him, but my guess is that he identified with the creator who needed to be reimbursed rather than the reader who benefited. But then, he never looked at the really big picture of things - where a society that values education (my ex-boss also loathed teachers - yeah, I didn't understand that one either) and learning will provide libraries, which in a positive feedback loop produces and fosters readers who further the literary careers of those that write the books that end up in the libraries. I also bring my ex-boss into this because his attitude is the one most often associated with capital-mongers and it is remarkable how Carnegie stayed true to his character through his philanthropy.

I believe it is a tribute to Andrew Carnegie that so many of his buildings have remained standing to this day after 100 years. However, few of them are still libraries. The combined social, historical and sometimes architectural significances should make it hard for a community to tear down a former Carnegie library. But then again, the historical Penn Station in New York was razed even though it was a marvel. Bucking this trend, in the Seattle area, the Columbia, Fremont, University, Green Lake and West Seattle libraries are still in their original Carnegie buildings.

Ballard had a Carnegie library on Market Street but it was replaced as a library by another building in 1963. The original building has survived intact - a distinction it shares with a few buildings in Ballard. Currently it houses a French style restaurant appropriately called Carnegie's. I'm glad it's French instead of Scottish (like the real Carnegie), because I don't think I could have handled eating haggis, though the whiskey would be nice.

We went down to Carnegie's on a Tuesday night to celebrate the year-end of school for my wife. We got there about 6:30 and we saw a couple at the bar facing the kitchen (they have an open kitchen against the back wall of the building.). We were greeted by a waiter and shown to a window table in an empty room. The room had very high ceilings and was restored with Victorian decor and trimmings. The room remained empty throughout the evening we were there and soon it was apparent we would be the only diners that evening. While it was nice to have the room to ourselves and pretend we had our grand dining room with servants, it was also sad that this place was not being used as it should by our fellow diners.

The food was excellent. I had coq-au-vin and my wife had a succulent pork dish. We got the prix-fixe specials where you get three dishes for one price. I started with a french onion soup that tasted like it was made in the correct manner with beef stock and slowly braised onions. We finished with the most diverse cheese plate that we've had in Seattle. All in all it was a splendid evening and one we would like to have again - but if it is always that empty, it may take a Carnegie's philanthropy to keep it open.

Imagined Clientele:
4 Cellphones
2 Blue Wigs
0 Hard Hats
0 Ironic Wool Caps


At 8/13/2005 5:00 PM, Blogger Scott said...

Is this a restaurant review site or a memoir? If it's the former, I'd love to hear something about food once in a while. If it's the latter, here's a tip: get a ghostwriter.

(Please tune in to my new blog, "Ballard Bites! Bites!!"! It's the meta-blog with attitude!)


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