Detroit Public Library Main Branch
Location Name: Detroit Public Library Main Branch (Detroit, Michigan)
Location Type: Building (Library)
Year Completed: 1921 (Library system organized in 1865)
Architect(s): Cass Gilbert (original building); Cass Gilbert, Jr. and Francis J. Keally (1963 addition)
Boasting a collection containing more than 7.5 million books, the Detroit Public Library operates the second largest library system in the state of Michigan (by volumes); second to that of the University of Michigan. The current system of twenty-four branches grew from a single reading room at the Old Capitol High School (which has since been demolished). Though the Detroit Public Library was established in 1865, it was not until 1872 that the first actual library building opened. That building, the Centre Park Library served as the system’s main library as branches began to proliferate across the city. Though that building has also met its fate, the Downtown site is still occupied by a library; the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch. Coinciding with the 1872 library’s growth was Detroit’s plan to build a cultural center just north of Downtown along Woodward Avenue. With funds donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1910, plans to build a new main library were drawn. The onset of World War I delayed the construction of the building and the cornerstone of the structure was not laid until 1917.
Architect Cass Gilbert was chosen to design the Italian Renaissance building. Faced with Vermont marble with a serpentine Italian marble trim, the library was built to impress. The massive Adam Strohm Hall featured a mural depicting Detroit’s early history by Gari Melchers and painted glass by Frederick J. Wiley. The grand barrel-vaulted hall and main stairway featured white marble walls adorned by murals by Edwin H. Blashfield. At a cost of nearly $3 million, the building opened on 21 March 1921. A major expansion in 1963 added two wings to the original building; both designed by Cass Gilbert, Jr. and Francis J. Keally. Some artistic additions to the building were also a part of the 1963 work on the building. A triptych mural depicting a history of transportation by local artist John Stephens Coppin was added to the Strohm Hall’s west wall. A mosaic by Millard Sheets entitled The River of Knowledge was added to the exterior of the building near the rear entrance on Cass Avenue.
Today the Detroit Public Library Main Branch is an architectural and historic treasure. In addition to housing the library system’s administrative offices, this branch is also home to many important collections. The Burton Historical Collection focuses on the history of Michigan and Detroit. The E. Azalia Hackley Collection focuses on African Americans in the performing arts. The Ernie Harwell Collection focuses on sports history and memorabilia. The Rare Book Collection contains several original manuscripts; including one written by Mark Twain.
The Detroit Public Library Main Branch was added to the National Register of Historic Places, as part of the Cultural Center Historic District in 1983.Sources