In 1898, the idea of seeking funds from Andrew Carnegie for a new public library was in the mind of Racine’s organizations and individuals. In 1901, the City of Racine secured a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation on the following conditions: that the city of Racine furnish a suitable site and guarantee annual support equal to 10% of the donation – in this case, $5,000.
John Laurence Mauran (1866-1933) of St. Louis, MO was selected as the architect. Mauran had worked on both the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Art Institute. The library building was designed in Renaissance Revival Style. Architectural elements used in the construction included Bedford Stone to a height of 7 feet, topped by St. Louis granite. Pressed brick with strong horizontal lines were used with terra cotta clayware for decoration and facing. Racine’s A.P. Harcus and Company was contracted to build the building and construction began in February 1903.
After seeing the completed plans, the Western Library Association designated “the Library Beautiful.”
In 1904 the 12,000 square foot Racine Carnegie Library was completed. The three inscriptions on the exterior of the building read: “Free To The People” (west side); “Intelligence Is The Foundation Of Prosperity And Social Order” (north side); and “Ye Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Make You Free” (south side). When it opened on March 16, the library served a population of 29,000 and was home to over 97,000 volumes.
As the library continued to grow in use and number of volumes, it became clear a new building was needed. The city council approved construction of a new, central library building and in May 1958, over 2,000 people helped move the old building to the new.
For four years the building sat idle. Debate on possible uses for the Carnegie building included tearing it down, making it part of a University of Wisconsin – Racine campus, using it as administration offices for the Racine school district, or a museum: by 1957 the Historical Society was in need of a new home, as the historical room at the Courthouse had become too small to accommodate the Society’s growing collection. In 1960 the Racine County Historical Museum, Inc. organized and renovated the building for use as a new museum.
In May 1962, the Racine County Museum opened to the public. The Historical Society and Historical Museum both provided separate services within the site until 1982, when they merged to form the Racine County Historical Society and Museum, Inc., known today as the Racine Heritage Museum.
The museum building is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings (1981) and also is a Wisconsin Registered Landmark, number 118. In 1977, the building was designated a local landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and confirmed by the action of the Racine Common Council.