The original A. K. Smiley Public Library when it opened in 1898.

The A.K. Smiley Public Library has stood at its location at 125 West Vine Street for 123 years and is a testament to the philanthropic spirit of the citizens of Redlands that continues today. Dedicated to the City of Redlands in 1898, the Moorish Revival style library was listed in 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1990 was registered as a California Historic Landmark.

Before Redlands incorporated into a city in 1888, residents were talking about the need for a public library in the infant town of 2,000 citizens. Then, in 1889, two identical twin brothers arrived in Redlands and began laying the groundwork for the rich cultural and philanthropic heritage of the city that would become known as “the Jewel of the Inland Empire.”

Alfred H. and Albert K. Smiley arrived in Redlands at the age of 61 and soon became prominent leaders in the city. Born in Maine, the Smiley twins had earlier careers in education, and later created the Lake Mohonk hotel and resort at Lake Mohonk, New York. When they came to Redlands, they purchased 200 acres and created a nationally known tourist attraction and private park – Canon Crest Park -- which was their winter residence in Redlands. This area is now known as Smiley Heights.

In Redlands, the twins turned their talents toward developing the city. It was said they made their money in Mohonk and spent it in Redlands. In 1891 Alfred Smiley led a community effort to establish a public library, and in 1894 the City Council adopted Ordinance 170 making the library officially part of city government. The first Redlands Public Library opened as a reading room on the first floor of the newly constructed YMCA building at Cajon and Vine streets. Alfred Smiley was president of the Board of Trustees. It soon became apparent that the library needed its own building.

Enter Alfred’s twin brother Albert, who bought 16 acres in downtown to create a park in which he would build a library.

He borrowed $40,000 to finance the construction, consulting with his local architect T.R. Griffith on the design of the building. In all, the library and park cost him over $60,000 – equivalent to nearly $2 million in today’s money.

On April 29, 1898, more than 500 people came to a dedication ceremony where they cheered as Albert Smiley told Mayor Will Fowler, “I now have the great pleasure of delivering to you . . . these two deeds and the keys to the library building trusting that the present city government and its successors, for all time, will see to it that the building and furniture and the park grounds, are faithfully and liberally sustained.” In gratitude, the City Council named the library the A.K. Smiley Public Library.

By 1906, A.K. Smiley noted that the library had grown so substantially that he contributed another $12,000 to add a reference wing that would also house a children’s room in the basement.

His beloved brother Alfred had died at the age of 75 in 1903, and Albert was to outlive him by nine years, dying at age 84 in 1912. On his deathbed, he apprised his younger brother Daniel of his desire to build a larger wing on the library to exclusively serve the children of Redlands. By 1919, Daniel, who managed the Mohonk Resort, was able to provide $10,000 for the Children’s Room, which was dedicated in 1920, and is now known as the Young Readers Room.

In 1922 the Library board of trustees created the Endowment, which, along with Friends of the Library, have been forefront in partnering with the city of Redlands in maintaining continuity in the library’s operation and keeping it on the path of excellence.

Over the years many additions, extensions and renovations have taken place, but the original vision of the Smiley brothers is still seen in every corner of this magnificent edifice.

Author’s note: Nearly all the facts in this story have been gleaned from the videos and writings of former Library Archivist and later Library Director Larry Burgess, who retired in 2012 after 40 years, and is now director emeritus of the A.K. Smiley Public Library. His booklet, “A Brief History A.K. Smiley Public Library,” is a succinct easy-to-read accounting of the library’s history. Nathan Gonzales, current archivist and head of special collections provided valuable insights in an interview.

Library improvements over the years

1894: Alfred Smiley leads a campaign to establish a public library in Redlands. First library is a reading room on ground floor of YMCA building.

1898: Albert Smiley finances construction of library building on 16-acre park in downtown Redlands and gifts both the park and the library to the City of Redlands. Now known as Smiley Park, the area is home to the A.K. Smiley Library, the City Hall built by the WPA in 1940, the Lincoln Memorial Shrine, and the Contemporary Club building.

1906: Albert Smiley contributes $12,000 ($390,810 in today’s money) to build a reference wing expansion.

1920: Daniel Smiley contributes $10,000 ($158,131 in today’s money) to build the Children’s Room.

1926: Local philanthropist Eldridge M. Lyon provides $16,000 ($247,292 in today’s money) for construction of an administration wing that included the Assembly Room where Redlands organizations such as the Fortnightly Club could meet.

1930: Eldridge M. Lyons provides nearly $19,000 ($311,244 in today’s money) to build the Stack Wing.

1932: Robert and Alma Watchorn build the Lincoln Memorial Shrine and Museum and donate it to the city of Redlands with the proviso that administrative oversight of the museum be vested to the Smiley Library board of trustees. This was the first in what is now known as the Library’s Special Collections.

1936: Library Tower is removed to comply with new state laws enacted for public buildings after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

1937: Fountains and limestone walls bearing Lincoln quotations are added to the original octagonal building housing the Lincoln Memorial Shrine.

1939: Decision is made to paint the library, altering its original Moorish red hues to a cream-colored California mission style.

1972: Former Archivist Larry Burgess starts the Heritage Room.

1990: In celebration of Redlands Centennial in 1988, for the first time in history, the City Council created a bond to expand the library. The project included a renovated Young Reader’s Room, a new downstairs stack and Friends of the Library Bookstore, a new administrative wing, the Scott Conservatory, a new addition for archives and special collections – The Redlands Heritage Room – and two new gardens – the Warren R. Eliott Children’s Garden and the Redlands Federal Savings Courtyard.

1998: Watchorn Lincoln Memorial Association raises funds to add expanded wings to the original octagonal building housing the Lincoln Memorial Shrine and Museum — the only museum west of the Mississippi dedicated to President Abraham Lincoln.

1999: In anticipation of the 1998 Centennial of the A.K. Smiley Public Library, the board of trustees raised money to reconstruct the Library Tower that had been removed in 1936. “What cost $515 to remove in 1936 cost $272,000 to replace in 1999,” said Larry Burgess, retired Library Archivist. Private contributions made the project possible.

2002: City Council approves plan to restore the library to its original red slurry exterior by removing the lead-based paint that had over the years created damage, and to repair portions of the roof that had served for more than 100 years.         

2015: Local philanthropist provides money for the city of Redlands to purchase the Contemporary Club building and add it to the Library’s Special Collections. In addition to Contemporary Club meetings, the library uses it for special events.

2010: Hard work on the part of Friends of the Library revives the Adult Literacy Program, and the City Council agrees to fund a Coordinator position currently held by Diane Shimota.

2021: Watchorn Trustee Dr. Boyd Nies donates a replica of a Civil War cannon – an 1857 Smoothbore Napoleon 12-pounder Field Gun – to the Lincoln Memorial Shrine. Young Readers Room adds Teen Underground downstairs.

Under construction, the Museum of Redlands (MOR) is part of the library’s Special Collections and will eventually house much of the Redlands historical artifacts currently stored in the library’s Heritage Room and basement vaults.