Historic Detroit

Detroit Public Library

The Detroit Public Library began in a single room of the old state Capitol building in Capitol Park, opening March 25, 1865, as the Civil War wound down. Detroit had only about 45,000 people — and many of them couldn’t read.

But as Detroit blossomed into a metropolis, its library grew with it. Moving into a gorgeous, albeit small, building downtown in 1877, and then finally this Cass Gilbert-designed masterpiece.

The library at Woodward Avenue and Putnam Street was more than five years in the making, with the land being bought in June 1913, mansions cleared away for it in 1914, and ground broken in January 1915. The cornerstone wasn’t laid until November 1917. The building was formally dedicated June 3, 1921, though had been open since March. The library cost some $3 million to build, about $41 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

By the time it opened, its shelves were home to more than half a million books. By comparison, the old library had opened with only 33,000.

Nearly 200 employees scurried around the new building, not counting those staffing the library’s 13 branches scattered throughout the city at the time this one opened.

“It is a stone mountain, or seems so, out of which man has whittled a something the like of which, one is persuaded, must have lived with the Caesars or stood on the same street with Babel,” the Detroit Free Press wrote the morning after the formal dedication.

On Aug. 13, 1958, ground was broken on a modern addition on the library’s west side, more than doubling its size. The addition was designed by Francis Kealy and, in a nice touch, Cass Gilbert Jr., son of the architect who built the original section. Among the rooms tacked on was a new home for the Burton Historical Collection, a resource used heavily by this website.

Nearly five years later, on June 23, 1963, the mammoth addition was dedicated.

More on this building coming soon.