CAYUGA COUNTY: Osborne Library

99 South Street, City of Auburn

Threats: Deterioration, Lack of Funding

The Osborne Library is an early twentieth-century classical-style building significant for its architecture and association with the Osborne-Wright family. PACNY has selected the library for listing as a threatened property because of the need to raise awareness about its threatened condition as well as its planned rehabilitation as the Osborne Center for Social Justice. The building is an important part of Auburn’s significant history of social reform.

The Osborne Library showing damaged masonry cornice, 2018. (Bruce Harvey)

Members of the Osborne-Wright family served important roles in New York State politics, civil rights struggles, and penal reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The family home on South Street was built in 1872 by David and Martha Coffin Wright, who were active in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, and were close friends and supporters of Harriet Tubman. The Osbornes founded Auburn’s largest manufacturing company, D.M. Osborne & Co., which became part of International Harvester. The company was carried on by their son, Thomas Mott Osborne, a well-known Progressive who is widely recognized for significant achievements in politics, philanthropy and social reform, notably in penal reform. A major benefactor of the arts, he built the Osborne Library in ca. 1910.

Rendering of a proposed elevation of the Osborne Library by architect Julius Schweinfurth, ca. 1910. (Osborne Center website)

The Osborne Library is a steel and reinforced concrete fireproof building designed by Auburn native Julius Schweinfurth, the chief artistic director for the renowned architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns. It is the only remaining building from the Osborne-Wright family compound at the corner of South Street and Fitch Avenue. The Osborne mansion was torn down in 1936, but the library that was connected to the rear of the mansion was spared and used by the Osborne family as a residence. The First Methodist Church was built on its site of the mansion in 1957, and the church acquired the library in 1991. The church received a state preservation grant to repairs years of deferred maintenance that had resulted in significant water damage, but was unable to come up with the required match. In 2017, the city of Auburn’s code enforcement department placed a demolish or repair order on the building.

The Osborne Library was acquired in 2016 by the Osborne Center for Social Justice, which plans to rehabilitate it for use as a research and educational center devoted to carrying on the legacy of the Osborne-Wright family. While the Osborne Library is a contributing resource in the National Register-listed South Street Area Historic District and is protected under Auburn’s landmark preservation ordinance, without funds for repair, the building remains at risk. As a young non-profit, the Osborne Center does not have the significant funds necessary for rehabilitation. PACNY hopes that listing the Osborne Library as a threatened resource will help to elevate the visibility of this important project, which will not only preserve a piece of Auburn’s architectural heritage, but also perpetuate the city’s legacy of social reform.

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