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(Credit: Ajay Suresh)


The dark side of the man behind New York's iconic Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, New York City, is one of America’s most revered concert venues. Whilst not quite matching the royal opulence of European venues such as London’s Royal Albert Hall on the other side of the Atlantic, Carnegie Hall’s reputation is still one of grandeur.

Prestigious in both classical and popular music, this is the venue’s true majesty. It appeals to all walks of life, and since its construction between 1889 and 1891, it has been a symbol of America’s very unique idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’. Fittingly adorned with Roman facades, they convey the thinking behind its construction, and in line with its spirit, the venue has seen some of the most important figures in modern music take to its stage. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Nina Simone are just some of the icons to have graced its hallowed spotlight. Furthermore, Bob Dylan made his first New York performance outside of the city’s Greenwich Village scene in the venue’s old Carnegie Chapter Hall. ‘The Bard’ also recorded his seminal record Live at Carnegie Hall 1963 at the venue. 

The list of influential artists that the venue has hosted is innumerable, and it hosts roughly 250 performances each season, showing no signs of letting up. We could spend all day talking about those who have come through its doors. However, our story today is centred around the man who built the venue, the one from whom it takes its name. This is none other than Andrew Carnegie.

One of the richest men in American’s history, this Scottish born businessman is known for how he helped to expand the country’s steel industry. As well as making what equates to billions in today’s money, he became a well-established philanthropist in both America and the British Empire. During the last years of his life, it is estimated that he gave away 90% of his fortune, a figure that totals somewhere in the region of roughly $5.2 billion in 2021. 

For a man who gave so much to communities globally, and a promoter of just causes, you may be thinking what a great man he was, and how the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could learn a thing or two from him, which they could. However, like with every historical figure who is elevated to a status beyond the realms of laymen like you and I, he had a dark side. A walking paradox, you have to remember that he was a businessman before all else.

Long the debate has raged over whether Carnegie was America’s greatest ever philanthropist or just another robber baron from the era of the country’s industrial and economic expansion, there were two events in Carnegie’s life that make us truly wonder: Is Carnegie Hall a symbol of all things good about America’s development, or the opposite?

(Credit: Theodore C. Marceau)

It is critical to establish that it was Carnegie’s business partner Henry Clay Frick, who is at the centre of all of the scandals that tainted Carnegie’s reputation. The first of these was the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

Carnegie was a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in Pennsylvania that Frick had founded in 1880. Boasting many of the East coast’s most prominent businessmen, in 1881, the club bought the South Fork Dam as part of a move that acquired private land for themselves so they could go about their business uninterrupted by the public. 

Before purchasing it, the dam had switched hands numerous times and was functional but in a ghastly state of disrepair. The club paid for modifications to “fix” the broken dam, but as they were more concerned with making it suit their needs rather than adequately paying attention to the work, this was about to end in disaster. Added to the careless repair work, reduction in height, unusually high snowmelt, and heavy spring rain caused the dam to give way on May 31, 1889. This resulted in 20 million tons of water sweeping down the valley. The Johnstown Flood killed 2,209 people.

Although the club managed to fend off lawsuits and helped to rebuild the town, the members never spoke of it publicly, and it damaged all their reputations. It seemed as if money and class had eclipsed sense and the basic human instinct of caring for your peers, something that Carnegie had written about extensively across his life. In short, although he did nothing “directly” wrong, by proxy, this humanitarian disaster made him seem like a great big hypocrite. Unbelievably, this was only minor in comparison to the next scandal. The 1892 Homestead Strike is what truly tarnished Carnegie’s reputation. Centred in Carnegie Steel’s main plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, it became a bloody labour confrontation that lasted 143 days and is one of the deadliest in America’s history.

It stemmed from a pay dispute between the company and its workers who had unionised in the Association of Iron and Steel Workers.

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As Carnegie was seemingly above this, and regardless of the fact he had preached philanthropy for his entire life, he left on a trip to his native Scotland just before the unrest reached boiling point, leaving the dispute in the hands of Frick. Known in business circles for being a staunch anti-unionist, this was a terrible decision on the part of Carnegie. With the union and the company failing to reach an agreement, management stopped the unionised workers from entering the workplace and brought in thousands of strikebreaking workers to work the mill in their absence. Ramping up proceedings, Frick also assembled 300 agents of the notorious Pinkerton agency to protect them. 

The arrival of this paramilitary force resulted in a fight breaking out. Ten men, seven workers and three Pinkerton’s were killed, and things got so out of hand that the governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Pattison (close, but not that one), sent in two brigades of state soldiers to contain the violence. It was such a mess, in the aftermath, the infamous anarchist Alexander Berkman shot Frick in an attempted assassination. Frick survived, and Berkman was arrested. Whilst in prison for the act, he wrote: “…with the elimination of Frick, responsibility for Homestead conditions would rest with Carnegie.”

The company would never give the unionists what they wanted and instead opted to hire cheap migrant labour. This set a precedent for the sort of behaviour we see today from many major corporations, and it was only after the bloody dispute that Carnegie decided to return to the country. Understandably, this cultivated an even greater media image of Carnegie being a hypocrite and one whose philanthropy came across as nothing but contrived. Questions over his charitable legitimacy have abounded ever since. After hearing this information, Carnegie comes across as just another robber baron rather than a man of the people.

Where does this leave Carnegie Hall? Well, New York is covered in architectural reminders of Carnegie and Frick’s legacy. Concentrating solely on Carnegie, though, his legacy is one of so many contradictions that it’s very difficult to come up with a definitive take on the man. In terms of the Hall, it is undoubtedly a feat of America’s early modern development.

Hosting no end of glamorous names, today it seems a far cry away from the man who built it, with the majority of us not aware of its origins.

So, next time you’re there, or if you ever find yourself there, remind yourself of this one key point. Many of our favourite buildings have been built by questionable figures, and out of dubious means, it is a tale as old as time. But then ask yourself, does this affect the building’s legacy?