Not many would imagine that the legacy of unrequited love would result in the oldest continuously operating library and the first city library in Texas…but it actually did. So it’s only appropriate that we stop in for a visit just in time for Valentine’s Day.
The Dr. Eugene Clark Library in Lockhart was built in 1899, and dedicated on July 6, 1900. It’s the oldest library continually operated in the same building in the state of Texas. (There are other libraries in the state who claim the “oldest” title with other criteria, of course.)
The beautiful two-story red brick Classical Revival dome-topped, original building was designed in an ingenious Greek cross plan with a corner entrance. It was built by local contractor T. S. Hodges, who was also known for his work on other projects such as the Tyler County Courthouse, Luling’s Walker Brothers Building, Lockhart’s First Christian Church and the castle-like Caldwell County Jail.
The pressed-tin ceiling, woodwork, lighting fixtures and perimeter shelving you’ll see on your visit here are all original. The eastern arm is accented with a stained-glass window above a stage.
Until 1956 when the seats were removed, the building also served as an auditorium. Local productions and traveling shows performed in the room now filled book shelves and reading tables. President William Howard Taft gave a speech from the stage, which still exists beneath the striking window.
When actress Dorothy Sarnoff performed there, she told the audience, “If you’re bored with my performance tonight, you can just reach over and grab a good book to read.”
To the rear of the main room are two iron, spiral staircases that lead to a narrow upstairs gallery. Though this area is not open to the public, I was given access so that I could share these photos with my readers. Now mind you, it was a bit unnerving since the unstable brass railing barely reached the height of my knees…but those are the lengths I’ll go to in order to experience history!
The room behind this gallery is the home of the second oldest chapter of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs. The organization began as a lyceum club, which was a club for women interested in the arts, professions, science, contemporary issues and lifelong learning. The space still has many of the original furnishings, including Dr. Clark’s collection of medical books and a photograph of him.
It’s this room dedicated specifically for use by women that leads us back to our love story and why Dr. Eugene Clark founded the library that bears his name.
Clark was born in New Orleans, but was orphaned by the age of six – his father dying on a Civil War battlefield, and his mother passing away three years later. He was raised by friends of his parents, eventually attending Tulane Medical School.
Upon his graduation in 1883 he moved to Lockhart to practice medicine with the local physician, Dr. Lancaster. The elder doctor soon left his practice though, leaving the 21-year-old Clark to handle the practice alone which he did for 13 years.
During those years he met a young lady named Mamie Steele, a member of the local lyceum club, and fell in love with her. Unfortunately Mamie’s heart belonged to another man.
The heartbroken doctor went to Vienna, Austria in 1896 to study the specialities of ear, nose and throat, and chose San Antonio as his new home when he returned.
Dr. Clark became seriously ill soon afterward and stopped in Lockhart to visit friends on his way to New York to have surgery. While he was on the east coast it was determined that his condition was terminal, so he returned to his native New Orleans to spend his remaining days. During that time he dictated his will, leaving $10,000 to build a library for Lockhart. He specified that it should always include a meeting room for the local women’s lyceum.
He died in 1898, leaving a last token of his affection in honor of his feelings for Mamie. One wonders what Mamie’s reaction was to the tribute, as she still lived in Lockhart with her husband John Jarratt at the time.
The story of the library is even more interesting since it expanded in 1996 to include the 1850 Masonic Temple next door. The refurbished temple houses a second-floor technology room providing internet access and educational courses.
The only visible clues that it was once a Masonic Temple are a tile inlay on the ground floor, and an unadorned stage on the third.
You can visit the Dr. Eugene Clark library at 217 South Main Street in Lockhart.