Historic Detroit

Detroit Public Library (old)

“The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of the past centuries.” -Rene Descartes

The old Detroit Public Library downtown - much like a great book - proved it’s often what’s inside that counts. In this case, the building held one of the more stunning rooms ever built in the city.

Today, when Detroit is mired with high illiteracy rates and library branches are being closed left and right, it can be hard to believe how much importance the city once put into education and its libraries. But there was a time when a city in America could be judged by its library - and Detroit wasn’t going to play second fiddle.

Humble beginnings

The history of the Detroit Public Library, as an institution, has always been about space - either too little of it, or today, too much of it.

The Detroit Public Library began in a room on the second floor in the southwest corner of the old state Capitol building in Capitol Park, opening at 4 p.m. on March 25, 1865 - amid the final days of the Civil War. At the time, the city was still tiny, having only about 45,000 people - many of whom couldn’t read.

“The fact that a free library of choice standard and rare works — over 5,000 volumes — has been gathered together in our city, and is ready for public use, in a commodious room and convenient locality, will take many of our citizens by surprise,” the Detroit Free Press wrote the day of the opening. “All classes are interested in the promotion of this institution. Its influences for good cannot be too highly estimated. It opens to many, unknown fields of study in science and literature. Its entire freedom to all respectable citizens of suitable age and condition is a great public boon. Let us mark the event of its inauguration by suitable demonstrations.”

It, like the city it served, would soon set off on a massive growth spurt. In 1867, the library doubled in size, to two rooms. Three years after that, an addition was tacked onto the back of the old Capitol.

By 1870, Detroit had nearly doubled in size itself, to more than 79,000 people. Around this time, it had “became apparent that more room would be needed in the near future,” Clarence M. Burton wrote in his “City of Detroit, Michigan.” A couple of rooms might suffice for a shanty town, but a bustling city needed something more substantial.

When it was “discovered that it would cost almost as much to alter the old building as it would to erect a new one more suitable in design and capacity,” the push was on to build the city’s first dedicated library building.

On March 3, 1872, the city government gave the library a 50-year lease on Center Park, at Farmer Street and Gratiot, to construct a new building. The library board then gave the old building back to the city. While the public wanted a new library, it was not so crazy about giving up the park. A lawsuit challenged the Common Council’s ability to lease the park, and it wasn’t until the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in April 1873 that the council did wield that power, that things got under way.

Gov. John Judson Bagley signed a measure into law on March 27, 1873, that called for raising $150,000 (about $2.7 million today, when adjusted for inflation) to build Detroit a new library. On Aug. 24, 1874, the plans drawn up by the architectural firm of Brush & Smith were selected. Henry T. Brush, a fairly well-known Detroit architect, went with the Second Empire style, which was popular at the time - especially in government buildings. Hugh Smith was Brush’s partner. Incidentally, a young architect named George D. Mason was working in Brush’s office at the time and did much of the detailing on the library. Mason would go on to be regarded as one of the city’s greats - designing such structures as the Masonic Temple and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island - and would be known for decades as the dean of Detroit architects.

The Board of Education, which had become the sponsor for the library, put the contract out for bid in January 1875. The bids ranged from $159,000 ($3.12 million today) to $190,000 ($3.73 million today) - all of which exceeded the amount that had been approved for the job. The board agreed in February 1875 to go with the lowest bidder, builder David Knapp, anyway.

“This action gave the enemies of the project, both open and covert, the opportunity they most desired, and they made the most of it,” George W. Balch, the Board of Education president from 1873-1876, wrote. “Charges of extravagance and even of the lawlessness of the board were freely made. Amongst the most willing listeners to these charges were members of the Common Council. … In short, matters pertaining to the proposed library construction … went rapidly from bad to worse.”

Things were finally sorted out a few days before excavation began “and the threatened danger of the failure of the entire project was averted,” Balch wrote.

Thinking too big

The cornerstone was laid May 29, 1875, but the uproar could not be silenced. Amid all the charges of extravagance, the plan for the building was scaled down. The changes “involved the elimination of such parts of the proposed structure as could be dispensed with, without materially infringing on the space … or without changing in any material way its interior arrangement,” Balch wrote. “In short, the library was to retain its sufficiency of space and arrangement, but the building itself must be shorn of every costly appendage of any sort not actually needful to the uses of the library proper. …

“The structure as originally planned was provided with a fairly ornamental and suitably dignified front elevation,” Balch wrote. Brush’s plans originally called for a curved pyramidal dome, which was scrapped. Columns and pediment along the building’s portico were done on the cheap, in white pine instead of lasting stone.

Likewise, Balch wrote that the size of the building itself was scaled back: “Forward of the library auditorium were sundry apartments suitable perhaps for the purposes of an art museum of moderate proportions, for the historical society, and possibly for the use of a then-existing scientific association, but none of these having been specifically provided for, they disappeared under the hand of the chosen arbitrators” who were put in charge of scaling back the plan. “The contractor being charged with the work of elimination (cut) until finally the last thing to go was the very much-regretted and quite handsome stone entrance steps.”

The building was formally dedicated Jan. 22, 1877 - only five and a half years after the city’s grand Old City Hall opened. Detroit was quickly becoming a grand city with grand public spaces. It should be noted that some sites on the Internet say this building opened in 1872. Burton’s book and newspaper clippings from the time prove that is untrue. The date 1875 was even carved into the archway above the building’s front door.

The cost of the scaled-down structure came in at $124,000 (about $2.5 million today) - it was a public works project that actually came in under-budget.

By the time the new building opened, the library’s collection had grown from just under 8,900 volumes to 33,604. Professor Henry Chaney became the first librarian and served until April 9, 1878.

Sometime between the Common Council handing Center Park over for the library and the building’s opening, the area was redubbed Library Park.

One heck of a room

Fortunately, amid all the cost-cutting, at least one room of extravagance was spared. The Reading Room was huge and awe-inspiring, with iron columns rising from the floor to the ceiling with a skylight topping things off. But the real beauty came from the ornate railings and walkways that lined the room.

“Through the arcade on all sides of the room could be seen five stories of book stacks connected by iron catwalks and spiral stairs,” William Hawkins Ferry noted in his “The Buildings of Detroit.” The room proved that “the use of iron for grand architectural effects was not limited to the exteriors of buildings.”

Ferry noted that a similar reading room still exists today in Baltimore, at architect Edmund G. Lind’s Library of the Peabody Institute. As you can see in this photo, much like Brush’s Detroit library, the room is decked out floor to ceiling in decorative iron railings and walkways and is capped by a skylight.

The old Detroit library was a so-called “closed-stack” library, where the books were out of the public’s reach and had to be fetched by librarians who stood behind ornamental screens, much like a bank.

Also, in keeping with the times, the library featured separate reading rooms for women and for children. Many buildings in this era would have separate men’s and women’s lounges, for example.

Still too small

The downsizing of Brush’s plan proved to be a bit too much, and in 1885, an addition of 50 feet by 60 feet was tacked onto the building at a cost of $30,000 ($718,000 today). A reading room in this addition opened March 1, 1886. A second addition was built in 1896.

But the city kept on growing. When the library opened in 1877, the city of Detroit had about 100,000 people. By the time the motor car rolled around - and with it, vast fortunes and surges in population - Detroit had nearly 300,000.

Starting in 1900, the library started opening up branches all over the city, starting with three branches that year, two more in 1904 and a smattering here and there over the next decade and a half. “The buildings in which are housed the various branch libraries of Detroit have all been designed and constructed from the standpoint of beauty as well as utility,” Burton wrote. “Each differs from the other and each is distinctively attractive.” The library also had more than 80 library stations in fire houses, schools, hospitals and even factories.

Going bigger still

It’s often hard to imagine the population boom that Detroit experienced at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the next. Remember that the library was built when the city had about 100,000 people. And remember that it was “built on the cheap.”

Despite the opulence of the Reading Room and the structure’s stately exterior, “the building in Center Park had always been regarded as of makeshift character due to the building restrictions at the beginning, and the proper growth of the Detroit Public Library had been seriously retarded,” Burton wrote. “Other large cities of the country had been provided, or were securing, beautiful and commodious library structures.”

Detroit, especially the Motor City as it began to ride into the Roaring Twenties, was not going to allow itself to be passed up by other cities. By 1910, Detroit had grown to more than 465,000 people. “Detroit,” Burton wrote, “came to be sadly in need of a building which should be a center for the artistic activities of the city, a research institution for people of all classes and vocations, where the spirit of civic growth and prosperity could be nurtured, and a manifestation of the intellectual development of the community.

“As there was no room in Center Park for additions to the old building, the subject of obtaining a new site and erecting a new building came up for discussion in the newspapers and among interested citizens.”

In March 1910, after some surprising opposition, the Common Council voted to accept an offer from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to provide money to go toward improving the Detroit library system. Following two years of court cases and legal mumbo jumbo, the city finally got the go-ahead to start issuing bonds and moved ahead with building a replacement for the structure downtown, a building that was still only 35 years old.

Because Detroit was expanding north, up Woodward, it was decided that the library should be located north of downtown, too. At the same time that a push for a new library was going on, there was a push to build a new art museum to replace the old Detroit Museum of Art. Wealthy citizens had bought two blocks on the east side of Woodward between Putnam and Ferry, and it was soon decided that the new library should be located across the street, on the block bounded by Cass and Woodward avenues and Kirby and Putnam. It would cost nearly a half-million dollars (more than $11.1 million today) to secure just the land alone. Detroit wasn’t being cheap anymore.

Once the land was taken care of, the library commission set out to study the best modern libraries across the country. Then a design competition was held with two rounds, the first being open to only Detroit architects. From the first round, two Detroiters were selected to compete with designs submitted from around the country. In the end, Cass Gilbert of New York - who had designed St. Louis’ library and such landmarks as the Woolworth Building in New York - was chosen “by an impartial jury of experts,” Burton noted. Gilbert would later design such landmarks as the U.S. Supreme Court and the James Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle.

The new Detroit library’s cornerstone was laid Nov. 1, 1917, and the building finally opened in March 1921 - more than two decades after talk began about replacing the old library downtown. The price tag: nearly $3 million (nearly $38.45 million today) - nearly 20 times more than was spent on the old building.

By 1921, the main library was home to more than half a million books.

The old library became the Center Park Branch library. In 1931, in the height of Art Deco mania, the stately old library was demolished to make way for what is today known as the Skillman Library branch. Deemed to be less old-fashioned than the old building, the new structure opened as the Downtown Library on opened Jan. 4, 1932.