Still Standing: The Detroit Public Library

The nucleus of the city's cultural center

Frank B. Woodford chronicled the forbearers of today's Detroit Public Library in Parnassus on Main Street. With painstaking detail, Woodford tracked back to the late 1800s and the early years of the 20th century when the library system was just forming, experiencing growing pains, and its eventual need for a bigger, better, and more beautiful space to hold the requisite 800,000 texts that would serve the growing city of Detroit.

"It is inevitable that before long, either by gift or taxation, a library building worthy of this city will be erected," Dr. John E. Clark said of the city's needs.

By gift or taxation, however, was the caveat. There was no money allotted to the construction of a new library. Ten years went by, with commissioners dragging their feet, before a philanthropic offer by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was accepted.

The offer came with stipulations, which might be one reason why commissioners were hesitant to accept the money. The funds could not be used to procure land, only for the building of the structure. And the city had to promise that it would pay for the maintenance of the structure. Carnegie also wouldn't release the funds until they were to be used. His money wasn't going to be spent willy-nilly.

When the money was finally accepted, it was thought that the city of Detroit would soon have its much-needed library. But it would be years before its doors were opened.

Before its construction, the library commission made this statement: "What is wanted is a plain, substantial structure of pleasing, dignified and impressive appearance. Detroit cannot afford to stand for anything mean or picayunish."

Surely, the Detroit Public Library is neither plain nor picayunish. The impressive three-story structure is built in the Italian Renaissance style. The interior is made with white marble, painted with enormous, impressive murals, and fitted with ornate stained glass. Stepping onto the grand stairs, one thinks she has entered a sacred cathedral or an ancient castle. That such a space exists in Detroit is a wonder.

The location, after much debate, was chosen because of its proximity to the brand-new Detroit Institute of Arts. When the DIA was erected, a group of people hoped to form a cultural center in the city. The library and the DIA would be its nucleus. Again, the library committee made a strong statement about the necessity of creating a grand structure: "What the art museum is doing is intended for all time to come. What this board believes should be done for the public in the way of a library should also be done for all time to come."

But the committee faced many obstacles before the building would stand, let alone open to the public. Structures already stood on the land where they wished to build the library, and so the parcels had to be purchased — and at a high price. Fourteen lots were cleared to make way for the library, and they came at a cost of nearly $1.2 million.

Once the location was settled on, commissioners traveled to the great libraries of the nation. New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Newark, Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Springfield, Mass., were all stops on their month-and-a-half-long trip. St. Louis' library, which Andrew Carnegie also endowed with $500,000, was best liked. Cass Gilbert was its architect.

Upon their return, a competition was held to select an architect. Local designers, including Albert Kahn and George D. Mason, submitted plans, which where then pitted against blueprints from national designers. Eventually, Cass Gilbert was selected to bring the library to fruition.

On January 12, 1915, ground was broken; it took five months to excavate the land. Once it was finished, the framework was built by the American Bridge Company.

Then the money dried up.

The skeleton of the library stood for nearly three years with no work done to it. Congress denied the commissioners any more funds, and progress came to a standstill.

Finally, it was suggested that the building be finished with cheaper materials — that there was no need for such a grand structure.

But this infuriated many commissioners; in particular, Adam Strohm. His response to this suggestion is credited with reinvigorating the mission to bring the majestic edifice to life.

"Mean surroundings make mean people," he said. "Things of beauty cleanse our hearts. True architecture, as any other artistic expression of the human mind, has a social function to perform in the liberal education of mankind. A building should be dignified and proper self-expression of its purpose and of the spirit within. The revelation of one's self is largely by the 'front' we make; one's mode of expression, one's taste revealed and good manners practiced in public and in private."

Eventually, enough money was procured through the issuance of bonds, and funds were allotted to finish the building. In the end, it took three times the initial estimate to build, a whopping $2,775,000.

The façade was faced with white Vermont marble and a broad balustrade terrace made from Indian limestone and pressed brick. The exterior of the second floor featured seven arched openings that form a loggia. The 12 signs of the zodiac were carved under the front cornice, along with the 18 literary immortals of Greece and Rome and 29 carved heads of the prominent literary figures of Western civilization.

A fund of $125,000 was allotted for paintings and interior adornments, and artists included Edwin Blashfield, Gari Melchers, Samuel Yellin, and Frederick J. Wiley. Pewabic Pottery's Mary Chase Stratton supervised the setting of tile and mosaic decorations.

Carnegie, who died two years before the library opened, is commemorated with a bronze plaque inside as well.

When it opened, the floor plan included a book lover's room, children's reading room, writing room, open shelf room, fine arts room, music and drama room, and map room. It also included the magnificent third floor hall named after Strohm and the Burton Historical Collection.

In 1921, when the public finally got a glimpse of this impressive piece of architecture, it was called Detroit's finest public building and the nucleus of the city's cultural center. Surely, it still is today.

About The Author

Alysa Zavala-Offman

Alysa Zavala-Offman is the managing editor of Detroit Metro Times. She lives in the downriver city of Wyandotte with her husband, toddler, mutt, and two orange cats.
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