Founding the Free Library of Philadelphia

Marble bust of Dr. William Pepper

1876 Philadelphia hosts hundreds of U.S. librarians who establish the American Library Association. Our city contains numerous private libraries and subscription libraries that require payment for use — but, unlike many other American cities, we have no free public library.

Dr. William Pepper, 1925

1887 Dr. William Pepper — a physician, educator, and provost of the University of Pennsylvania — launches efforts to establish a free library.

George S. Pepper, 1925

1889 George S. Pepper, William's uncle, bequeaths $225,000 to establish a governing structure for a free library, later known as the Free Library Foundation, to raise an endowment for building and maintaining a library system.

"This is the People's Library, absolutely free to all."
– Dr. William Pepper, Founder, The Free Library of Philadelphia
Charter of the Free Library, granted in 1891

1891 Organized by Dr. William Pepper, a group of prominent Philadelphians charters an institution "for the use of the People of Philadelphia, a general library which shall be free to all." But even before the charter is granted, three private libraries file a law suit disputing the will.

Rules and Regulations of the Philadelphia Public Library

1892 In spite of pending litigation, William Pepper persuades the City to establish a library system with public funds. Directed by the Board of Education, the Philadelphia Public Library opens its first branch at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Librarian John Thomson

1894 Courts rule in favor of the Free Library in its battle over the Pepper will. In March, Head Librarian John Thomson opens the Free Library's first branch at City Hall.

Seal of the Free Library of Philadelphia

The City Councils consolidate the Philadelphia Public Library into the Free Library of Philadelphia under a new Board of Trustees. The Free Library boasts 160 employees, fourteen branches, and 250,000 volumes. Its circulation hits 1,778,387 for the year, the world's largest.

The First Central Library Buildings and the Quest for a New Home, 1894 – 1910

Branch No. 1 of the Philadelphia Public Library

1894 Founder Dr. William Pepper and Head Librarian John Thomson, initiate a fundraising campaign for land purchase and building construction.

Mayor Charles F. Warwick's pen
Librarian John Thomson at desk in City Hall library, 1894

1894 The Free Library moves from a few overcrowded rooms in City Hall to the old Concert Hall Building at 1217-1221 Chestnut Street. However, library officials dislike the cramped location because of its unsafe and unsanitary conditions. They also consider the next-door theater and saloon to be inappropriate neighbors for a library.

Watercolor of Concert Hall and Chestnut Street Theater
1897 loan ballot

1897 Philadelphia voters approve a referendum for a municipal loan that includes up to "one million dollars for library site and building." Over the next several years, a library committee considers numerous sites, including Logan Square.

Advertisement for Proposals for a Free Library Main Building Site

1902 The Library's Board of Trustees solicits "sealed proposals" for a site, in local newspapers. Submissions include one that would demolish our Academy of Music, but all are rejected.

Main Reading Room at the Free Library, 1200 block of Chestnut

1903 Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donates $1.5 million to the Free Library to erect thirty branches, initiating a library building boom. Carnegie's generosity opens avenues of literacy to many working-class and immigrant Philadelphians; but this massive campaign forces the Library's Board to lose some momentum in their search for a central location.

Main Library on 1200 block of Chestnut, 1905

1905 Efforts to find a suitable home for a main building are heightened. The School of Industrial Art (Broad and Pine Streets) becomes a prime candidate, but the deal collapses.

Invitation to a preview of the Main Library Building at 13th and Locust

1910 The Free Library moves to the College of Physicians building at Thirteenth and Locust Streets (northeast corner, now a surface parking lot). It remains here until moving to its current location in 1927.

Exterior of the Main Library Building at 13th and Locust

City Planning, the Fairmount Parkway, and the Free Library of Philadelphia

Color plan for an access boulevard from Broad Street to Fairmount Park

1892 Prominent Philadelphians petition city officials to reinitiate plans for a grand boulevard. This diagonal roadway running from City Hall to Fairmount Park was first proposed after the Civil War.

Haupt: best arrangement of city streets
Map of the Grand Avenue to the Park

1892 City engineers produce plans for a tree-lined avenue slicing across the city to the hill where the Philadelphia Museum of Art will eventually be located. A few years later, the City Councils abandon the project during an economic recession.

Bird's-eye view, Park Boulevard
Proposed parkway for Philadelphia

1903 The City Councils restart the Parkway Project. In response, Head Librarian John Thomson presses for "the establishment of the Main Library Building at the city entrance of the magnificent Boulevard." Yet, library officials cannot commit to a particular site because the avenue's construction schedule and route remain uncertain.

Blueprint of site of proposed Main Library building on the Parkway, 1906

1906 City officials confirm a Parkway path. During the next few months, library officials request a plot between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets for their main building. Architect Horace Trumbauer is selected to prepare a preliminary design.

Four plans for the Fairmount Parkway
Ceremonial Start of Construction of the Fairmount Parkway, 1907

1907 Trumbauer's sketches are presented, but further uncertainty over the Parkway's route stalls the library project again. In mid-1907, Trumbauer collaborates on an improved Parkway design that will be officially adopted in 1909. However, even after this important step, alterations to the Parkway plan by Mayor John Reyburn's Comprehensive Plans Committee impede the library project.

John Thomson, librarian

1910 Library officials petition for a main building site on the Fairmount Parkway at Logan Square.

Site of the Central Library prior to the demolition of extant buildings, 1909

1910 Library officials receive Mayor John E. Reyburn's agreement to "set aside the piece of land fronting on the proposed parkway as a site for the Building of The Free Library of Philadelphia." The mayor and library officials work diligently, acquiring the plot bounded by Nineteenth, Twentieth, Vine, and Wood Streets for $213,625 by the summer of 1911. In the fall, the Philadelphia House Wrecking Company demolishes the existing structures, clearing the way for the new library.

Map of the streets of Philadelphia
Letter from Andrew Carnegie to John Thomson

1911 At the "First Municipal City Planning Exhibition in America," held at City Hall, an enormous model depicts the replanned Parkway, including a main Free Library building at the new site north of Logan Square.

Portrait of Horace Trumbauer

1911 Mayor Reyburn, in an effort to speed up construction, vetoes a proposed architects' competition and selects Horace Trumbauer as the library's architect. "Trumbauer's designs," the Mayor declares, are "commensurate with the magnitude and importance of the task, as well as practical and beautiful."

Caricature of Clinton Rogers Woodruff, chair of Main Library Site and Building Committee, 1911-1927

1911 In June, the Library Committee officially appoints Trumbauer as architect. Trumbauer declares that he will employ his "best professional endeavors in the preparation of acceptable plans and the erection of a Library building, which will be an architectural adornment to the City and its great Parkway." A jubilant Thomson publicly announces the Library's intentions a few days later, proclaiming that "it will be a very fine building and will be planned with proper regard to the importance and dignity of the city of Philadelphia."

Planning the Central Library: Initial Designs and Setbacks, 1911 – 1915

Caricature of John Ashhurst, assistant librarian

1911 Architect Horace Trumbauer begins work with John Ashhurst, 3rd. The architect and assistant librarian present preliminary floor plans based on a rear, vertical book-storage stack, an important late-nineteenth-century design innovation.

Plan of the basement floor of Central Library Plan of the first floor of Central Library Plan of the second floor of Central Library

Staff of the Horace Trumbauer architecture firm

1911 Horace Trumbauer and his chief designer, Julian Abele, develop plans for the facade of the Free Library's main building. Abele, who heads the project, unveils a design based on twin facades created by the eighteenth century French architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel for buildings that stand on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Show me!: cartoon from Philadelphia record

1911 In the fall, Philadelphians elect Rudolph Blankenburg to succeed Mayor John E. Reyburn. A crusader for fiscal responsibility, the new mayor questions the City's capacity to fund the Fairmount Parkway project. Fearing that the Parkway project will be abandoned, jeopardizing the planned library, Head Librarian Thomson rallies the City's educational and cultural institutions. These groups successfully press for the continuation of the boulevard's construction.

Plan of the first floor of the Central Library, late 1911 version

1912 In the spring, Trumbauer and Thomson win approval for their design from Philadelphia's Municipal Art Jury and plan a ground- breaking ceremony for June. Only days before the ceremony, lawyers counsel that the project's uncertain funding will lead to a court battle. Library officials cancel the ground-breaking and postpone construction.

Plan of the second floor of the Central Library, late 1911 version
Letter from Andrew Carnegie to John Thomson refusing to donate to the building of the Central Library

1912 – 15 The project seems hopelessly stalemated. In early 1915, library officials permit evangelist Billy Sunday to preach from the empty site. Finally, library and city leaders devise a plan to overcome the funding problems with a referendum. Voters approve the measure in the spring of 1915, and the City authorizes construction. Then further legal complications emerge, and ground-breaking is postponed once again.

Evangelist Billy Sunday preaching on March 15, 1915
Women gathered under sign at evangelist Billy Sunday's temporary tabernacle

Horace Trumbauer (1868 – 1938)

Horace Trumbauer, ca. 1890
Born in the Frankford section of Philadelphia in 1868, Horace Trumbauer left school at the age of fourteen and entered the architectural firm of G. W. and W. D. Hewitt as an "errand boy." He was soon promoted to draftsman. Trumbauer's advancement and acquisition of knowledge enabled him to eventually open his own office (310 Chestnut Street) in 1890.

Grey Towers by Horace Trumbauer
According to Trumbauer-historian Frederick Platt, the architect received $171.75 for his first commission, a house near Narberth, Pennsylvania. Soon afterward, he landed his first major commission, a mansion in Glenside, Pennsylvania, for sugar baron William Welsh Harrison. When Harrison's mansion burned to the ground in 1893, he commissioned Trumbauer to rebuild it. This second home, called Grey Towers (now part of Arcadia University), marked the architect's rise to prominence in the profession. Its castle-like design instilled the estate with a distinct architectural style that was unique to Trumbauer's work.

The Free Library of Philadelphia from the southeast, 1912
After Grey Towers, Trumbauer's firm became known for creating elegant homes for America's elite. For several decades, Trumbauer enjoyed what his stepdaughter called "the big money years." In the 1890's, Trumbauer planned large country houses for the wealthy, smaller suburban houses for developments, like Overbrook Farms, and, several buildings for Willow Grove Amusement Park.
First floor plan, Central Building of the Free Library of Philadelphia
While working at the amusement park, Trumbauer developed relationships with its proprietors, the Widener and Elkins families, for whom he would complete numerous commissions. Significantly, traction (trolley cars) magnate Peter A. B. Widener, vice president of the Free Library's Board of Trustees, was instrumental in Trumbauer's receipt of the main Free Library commission in 1911.

In the first years of the new century, Trumbauer's firm expanded its scope, designing not only mansions in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport, Rhode Island, but also apartment houses and other large structures. Trumbauer married Sara Thomson Williams in 1903 and soon erected a home in the Wynnefield section of the City. By 1904, when the prominent Architectural Record published a lengthy account of Trumbauer's works, he had become one of the country's most distinguished architects.

Over the next decades, Trumbauer and his staff received more than 1000 commissions, including offices, schools, hotels, and medical buildings. With collaborators Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, he created the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Among Trumbauer's most important commissions of this period was the Gothic Revival Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina.

Trumbauer worked exclusively in period styles, reviving the architecture of distant times and places. For this reason, his work lost favor when the popular pendulum swung toward European Modernism. Because of this trend and the Great Depression, Trumbauer's practice dwindled in the 1930s. His staff fell from a high of thirty members down to his longtime associate Julian Abele and a few others. He died on September 18, 1938.

Julian F. Abele (1881 – 1950)

Julian Francis Abele, one of the first university-trained African-American architects, received little recognition during his lifetime despite his many significant contributions to the profession. Although declared "certainly one of the most sensitive designers anywhere in America" by Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Abele remained virtually unknown outside Philadelphia's architectural community for many years. Today we appreciate Abele as one of the early twentieth century's most seasoned designers of revival buildings, who rejuvenated long-dormant styles as vital forms of architectural expression.

Born in Philadelphia in 1881, Abele lived most of his life in the City. As a boy, he attended the Institute for Colored Youth (900 block of Bainbridge Street) and Brown Preparatory School. As a student in evening classes at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in 1898, he won the Groff Prize for Architectural Design. That same year, he enrolled in the prestigious architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he won several awards and served as the president of the Architectural Society. In 1902, Abele became the first African American to graduate from that program. He subsequently studied design at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and worked for noted architect Louis C. Hickman. After leaving Hickman in 1903, Abele traveled extensively. In Europe he encountered eighteenth century French architecture, which he favored throughout his career.

In 1906, Horace Trumbauer recruited the young architect to work at his celebrated Philadelphia firm. Abele quickly proved himself. When a local architect asked whether Abele might be released from his contract, Trumbauer replied: "I of course would not want to lose Mr. Abele." In 1909, Abele was appointed chief designer, a remarkable feat for one of his age and race. In 1925, he married Marguerite Bulle, a French woman. They had two children, Nadia and Julian, Jr.

As Trumbauer's chief designer, Abele worked on designs for dozens of important residential, civic, and commercial landmarks. Trumbauer's stepdaughter remembered that Abele was "invaluable in consultation" with her father. The "brilliant" Abele once stated that the "lines are all Mr. Trumbauer's, but the shadows are all mine." Despite his high profile within Trumbauer's firm, the designer did in fact remain in the shadows outside the firm. After Trumbauer's death in 1938, Abele signed his own designs for the first time, but never received the credit he deserved. At his death in 1950, few knew that architect Julian F. Abele had forever changed Philadelphia's skyline and American architecture.

Ground-Breaking to the Completion of Exterior, 1916 – 1924

Why not keep at the good work and let the ashcart drive on?

1916 Newly elected Mayor Thomas B. Smith pushes the library building campaign forward, authorizes the awarding of contracts, and approves $2,460,000 for the erection of the main branch.

1916 Trumbauer's updated plans are approved by the Art Jury on December 29, clearing the way for the next phase of the project.

1917 City officials accept construction bids on the immense project. Before they can award a contract, the project encounters more legal problems. Local masons and the Indiana limestone industry file opposing lawsuits that dispute city stone cutting ordinances and seek to block construction. The stone cutting litigation drags on for more than a year, limiting progress on the construction to initial excavation of the foundations.

Groundbreaking ceremony, May 12, 1917
Excavation of the site of the Central Library, 1918

1917 – 19 On May 12, 1917, library officials disregard pending legal action, as well as war in Europe, and hold their twice-postponed ground-breaking ceremony. World War I causes shortages of materials. In 1919, library officials suspend construction. Local children raft in the muddy water in the excavation pit.

Why not keep at the good work and let the ashcart drive on?
American Library Association World War I poster

1920 Wartime restrictions and shortages ease, and library officials again restart the construction project. New Mayor J. Hampton Moore requests cost reductions. In response, Trumbauer decreases the library's size from seven to six million cubic feet and consulting engineer Percival M. Sax replaces the load-bearing masonry walls with a modern steel frame. With an updated design and adequate funding for the smaller building, library officials contract with the Standard Construction Company to lay the foundations.

Free Library of Philadelphia sign soliciting books for soldiers

Lt. Brooks Lister, Philadelphia, D.W.
Construction of the foundation, October 6, 1921

1921 Laying of the building's foundations is completed in November.

1922 Trumbauer and his designers complete revised working drawings and specifications for the Main Library.

1922 On March 1, city officials award the contract for constructing the superstructure to the P. H. Kelly Construction Company, which submitted the low bid of $1,367,000. Construction work begins in April.

1923 The enormous library's skeletal structure now dominates Logan Circle.

Mayor J. Hampton Moore laying cornerstone, January 24, 1923

1923 On January 24, library officials and local dignitaries lay the limestone cornerstone. Following the ceremony, the contractor accelerates the construction pace. Within six months, the steel frame is completed and the limestone facade rises as high as the roof line.

Engraved silver trowel from cornerstone laying ceremony

1924 and 1925 Stone carvers employed by the John Donnelly Company sculpt the ornate limestone decoration, including seventy columns. Working 100 feet above the ground, artisans from Europe and the United States carve the white stone into delicate architectural ornaments. With the carving finished and the doors and windows set in place, Trumbauer's agent at the site declares the exterior complete in the spring of 1925.

Outfitting the Interior, 1925 – 1926

1925 On June 11, Trumbauer publishes "The Specification of Interior Finish and Decoration of Building of the Free Library of Philadelphia."

Construction in the Government Publications Room
Construction in the Periodical Room

1925 – 26 The F. W. Mark Construction Company is awarded the contract to finish the library's interior. Over the next two years, their subcontractor, the H. W. Miller Company, decorates the interior spaces with cast plaster figures drawn from ancient Greece and Rome and from medieval Europe. Among the many figures depicted in plaster relief are Athena, Zeus, Hercules, and Athenian horsemen. Several rooms — including the entrance hall — are enriched by ornate, coffered-plaster ceilings.

H.W. Miller plaster book on Central Library Building
Main Entrance Hall

The highlight of the grand staircase is a bronze statue of Free Library founder Dr. William Pepper by artist Karl Bitters. Numerous classical elements carved by the John Donnelly Company in marble and limestone grace the staircase, reading rooms, and hallways. Carved marble lamps flank the grand staircase. Interior floors are of pink Tennessee marble banded with green marble; terazzo floors of pink Tennessee, pink English, and black Belgian chips: and Welsh Quarry tiles.

Sculptor from the John Donnelly Company
Art Metal Windsor chair

The Art Metal Company of Jamestown, New York, is awarded the world's largest metal library equipment contract to supply the library's furnishings and equipment. Their products employ no wood or other flammable materials, ensuring that the furnishings are fireproof. Virtually all of the building's original lighting fixtures will eventually be replaced with fluorescent and other more modern lighting devices. However, a later portrait by Robert Susan of John Ashhurst, who oversaw the design and construction of the library building between 1916 and 1927, will show one of the original green-globed brass reading lamps.

Art Metal advertisement featuring the Central Library

John Ashhurst 3rd John Ashhurst 3rd, Librarian: Portrait Details

Beautiful hand-wrought iron gates flank the three front portals on Vine Street and the two side stair doorways on the second floor. Unique hand-wrought decorations embellish the main elevator entrances. Although their maker is unknown, the ironwork is very similar to contemporary work done by famed Philadelphia artist Samuel Yellin.

New Technologies at The Free Library of Philadelphia

1925 Contractors install numerous advanced technological devices to facilitate the storage and retrieval of almost two million volumes and to coordinate activities throughout the enormous building. Experts agree that the new library is the most technologically sophisticated in the world. The most important feature is the freestanding, six-tier, metal bookstack. Like a building within a building, this self-supporting stack holds more than one million volumes. By 1927, its capacity will be exceeded only by the stacks at the British Museum, New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress.

Step 1

1926 The new library's book retrieval system is designed to work like this: When a patron requests a book, a librarian in the Reading Room transmits the request to the stacks via a Teletype system. An employee stationed in the stacks: 1) receives this request via a recording typewriter; 2) retrieves the book from its place on the more than 20 miles of shelves; and 3) places it on a conveyor system for a long, circuitous trip to the requesting librarian. The entire process requires only two to four minutes.

Pneumatic tube station

1926 A sophisticated pneumatic tube system with dozens of stations throughout the library is installed. This will enable librarians and administrators to communicate rapidly and effectively.

Borrower’s card for the Free Library of Philadelphia

1926 The new building also houses an advanced book-processing facility, which includes a cataloging department and bindery. Here, new acquisitions will be both bound and cataloged. Once processed, a new book will be placed in the stacks, and its author, title, and subject cards will be placed in the Free Library card catalog in the corridors on the second floor. The book’s movements can be tracked with in-house circulation records and the borrower’s library card.

Catalog card for Franz von Reber, History of ancient art

Opening Day, June 2, 1927

Putting the finishing touches on the Music Room

1926 On October 30, the old central library at Thirteenth and Locust Streets is closed. Meanwhile, workers put finishing touches on the enormous $7 million structure on Logan Circle.

Moving books into the new Central Library

1927 On January 20, teams of movers transport the first books from the old building, as well as from other storage facilities in the City, to the newly finished building. Throughout the winter and into the spring, Head Librarian John Ashhurst, 3rd, oversees the move. By May 25, when library officials host a preview tour of the new building for local officials, the move is complete. The press applauds the majestic new library building, which has undergone thirty years of planning and fifteen of construction.

Moving books into the Children's Room

1927 On June 2, librarians, dignitaries, and trustees officially open the new building with a ceremony on the lawn along the Fairmount Parkway. In a dramatic moment, Head Librarian John Ashhurst opens the front doors to thousands of Philadelphians. The public fills the grand entrance hall, climbs the marble staircase, and tours the majestic new library. Throughout the day and well into the night, visitors marvel at the structure, one of the most spacious and dignified in the nation.

Moving books into the Children's Room

Memorabilia from the Central Library Opening

New Public Spaces

The Central Library's rooftop terrace

The impressive collections housed at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library have enriched Philadelphians educationally, culturally, and economically over the last 75 years. Its riches include many treasures, ranging as far as Sumerian cuneiform tablets that are 4,000 years old. In addition to its holdings, the Central Library offers a multitude of programs and public services for children and adults.

The Central Library on opening day, June 2, 1927

The Central Library sits on Philadelphia’s Logan Circle, one of the City’s most dignified and noteworthy public places. Along with its twin, the adjacent Family Court Building, and other nearby architectural gems — including the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, Moore College of Art, and the distant Philadelphia Board of Education building — the Central Library is part of an important communal gathering place midpoint on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Aerial view of Logan Circle
Three plans for Logan Square in Philadelphia

Central to the enhancement of Logan Circle is Swann Fountain, designed by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder and architect Wilson Eyre, Jr., which began operation in 1924. The fountain is a monument to Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, the founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society. Other public sculptures, including Calder and Eyre's Shakespeare Memorial, also add to the area's grace and attractiveness.

Calder's Fountain of three rivers
First Prize design, Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument Competition, never built

Today's panoramic view from Logan Circle of the Central Library — framed by the grandeur of the Art Museum at one end of the Parkway and City Hall at the other — confirms the vision of the library's founders in locating the building here, as in many other decisions more central to the library's mission. Despite all the seeming dead-ends that they faced and all the repeated conflicts among so many factions that they endured, the building now stands as a testament to William Pepper's singular dream of establishing a world-class palace of learning, which is still "the People's Library, absolutely free to all."

Knee-Hi, the Free Library of Philadelphia mascot