In 2002, the Main Library Building of the Free Library of Philadelphia, now known as the Central Library, celebrates its 75th Anniversary. Information in the History portion of these pages documents the planning, design, construction, furnishing, operation, and use of the Central Library building as well as placing this important building in the context of the development of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway neighborhood. The pages are ordered chronologically.
First imagined in the mid-1890s, begun in earnest in 1910, and not completed for 17 years, the Central Library building is a triumph of civic architecture and library science as well as a monument to the fortitude, commitment, and aspirations of the librarians, trustees, local politicians, architects, and general public, who persevered during decades of tribulation including legal and political battles and a world war.
The building can also be understood as the product of intersecting historical forces that included the aesthetic ideals and increasing technological abilities of the architects and engineers, the aspirations of the Library's trustees and other civic boosters, the political wills of several contrasting mayoral administrations, and the conflicting interests affecting an industrial and commercial city at its zenith.
The History pages also explore how the building itself, like the books it housed, was intended to instruct and uplift the general public. Speaking to everyone who enters, the Main Library Building is designed to participate in the education of the general public, the fundamental tenet upon which the American public library movement was founded.
Founding, 1889 – 1898
When librarians from throughout the nation met in Philadelphia in 1876 to found the American Library Association, the Quaker City boasted numerous private, subscription libraries, but no free, public library like those established in many American cities during the preceding decades. After the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania regulated municipal libraries in 1887, Dr. William Pepper, a physician, educator, and the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, launched an effort to establish a free library in Philadelphia. Simultaneously, he launched a similar effort to erect a modern library building at the university. Designed by famous architect Frank Furness, the university's library was quickly completed by 1891; the Free Library's main building, on the other hand, would not be completed for nearly four decades.
In 1889, Pepper convinced his wealthy uncle George S. Pepper to bequeath approximately $225,000 to establish a governing apparatus for a Free Library of Philadelphia, which would in turn raise an endowment to build and maintain a library system. After his uncle's death in 1890, Pepper assembled a group of prominent Philadelphians to organize the library. The following year, on February 18, 1891, they chartered an institution "for the use of the People of Philadelphia, a general library which shall be free to all." But even before they acted, three private libraries filed a lawsuit disputing the will and claiming the bequest.
Prevented by the litigation from founding the library, Pepper persuaded the City to inaugurate a library system with public funds. Directed by the Board of Education, the City's library system, named the Philadelphia Public Library, opened its first of six branches at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in 1892. In early 1894, the courts ruled in favor of the Free Library in its legal battle over the Pepper will, granting it the entirety of the bequest. Freed from litigation and guided by the motto "Liber Libere Omnibus," meaning "Free Books for All," Head Librarian John Thomson opened the Free Library's first central branch at City Hall in March, 1894.
At the end of 1894, the City Councils consolidated the Philadelphia Public Library into the Free Library of Philadelphia under a new Board of Trustees, which, together with the original Board of Directors, continued to operate the library. Until his untimely death in 1898, founder William Pepper headed the library. That year, the Free Library, only in operation a short time, already boasted 160 employees, fourteen branches, and 250,000 volumes. Its circulation, 1,778,387 for the year, was the world's largest. More than a century later, Pepper's words continue to guide the Free Library of Philadelphia: "This is the People's Library, absolutely free to all."
Quest for a Home, 1894 – 1910
Between the inauguration of the Free Library in 1894 and the opening of its present, permanent home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1927, the central branch of the Free Library occupied three temporary headquarters. After less than a year in its cramped rooms in City Hall, the central branch relocated to the Old Concert Hall building at 1217-1221 Chestnut Street. Dissatisfied with the quarters from the start, library officials criticized their new home as "an entirely unsuitable building, where its work is done in unsafe, unsanitary and overcrowded quarters, temporary make-shifts." Surrounded by "a theatre on one side, a saloon on the other, factories in the rear, a store on the ground floor," they yearned for a fire-proof, spacious, permanent central library building.
Seeking a suitable home for the central library, President William Pepper and Head Librarian John Thomson had initiated a campaign to raise the funds to purchase a site and erect a building in 1894. After much lobbying, in 1897 Philadelphia voters approved a referendum for a municipal loan that included "one million dollars for library site and building: PROVIDED, Not more than one million dollars shall be expended by the City in payment of site and erection of building." Over the next several years, a library committee charged with erecting a central library building considered numerous sites in downtown Philadelphia including Logan Square and the old U.S. Mint Building, but none was deemed appropriate. In 1902, it solicited "sealed proposals" for a site in local newspapers. Myriad submissions poured into the Library, including one that offered to demolish the Academy of Music to create a site, but the committee rejected all offers and began again the quest for an appropriate location. The next year, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy benefactor of libraries, donated $1.5 million to the Free Library to erect 30 branch library buildings, initiating a library building boom and distracting library officials from their quest to erect a main building. In 1905, library officials returned to their search for a site, but, by the end of the decade, had not yet selected a permanent home for the central library. In late 1910, the Free Library abandoned its inadequate Chestnut Street quarters for the College of Physicians building at Thirteenth and Locust Streets. Much more suited to a library, the stately building served until 1927. Yet, despite the improved accommodations, Philadelphians longed for a central library building designed specifically for library purposes.
Initial Plans for the Main Library Building, 1910 – 1912
Although they relocated the Free Library's central branch to the College of Physicians in 1910, library officials had decided several years earlier that they would eventually erect a permanent central library building on the proposed Fairmount Parkway. Renamed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1937, the diagonal roadway running from City Hall to Fairmount Park was first postulated after the Civil War by famous landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Although Olmsted and Vaux did not draw up plans to accompany their proposal, several civic boosters drafted designs for grand diagonal parkways from the city center to the park during the next two decades. Intrigued by these plans, politicians nonetheless did not act until 1892, when eminent Philadelphians petitioned for the creation of the Parkway. In response, director of the Department of Public Works James Windrim and city engineer Samuel Smedley produced a plan for a tree-lined avenue slicing through the dense city to the bluff where the Philadelphia Museum of Art now sits. Approving the project, the City Councils placed the boulevard on the official city plan, but removed it one year later during an economic downturn.
At the turn of the century, as the leaders of the Free Library searched for an appropriate site for a central library building, Philadelphians began again to agitate for the construction of the grand boulevard. Responding to the growing support for the project, the City Councils reinstated the roadway in the city plan in March, 1903. In response, Head Librarian John Thomson called for "the establishment of the Main Library Building at the city entrance of the magnificent Boulevard proposed to be opened from the City Hall to Fairmount Park." Yet, despite this interest in locating the central library on the Parkway, library officials could not commit to a particular site because the avenue's construction schedule and exact route shifted several times, producing great uncertainty. Finally, the City made what appeared to be the final adjustment to the Fairmount Parkway's path on October 13, 1906. Fortified by the progress, two days later the Free Library requested a prime plot for a central library building on the Parkway between Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Cherry Streets.
To prepare a design for the central library building, trustees commissioned prominent architect Horace Trumbauer. Working swiftly, by January, 1907, Trumbauer "had prepared tentative sketches for a central library building on the Parkway site." Yet, following the completion of the preliminary design, the project stalled because of further uncertainty over the precise route of the controversial boulevard. Seeking to finally establish the precise route, in 1907 Trumbauer, along with Clarence Zantzinger and Paul Cret, prepared an improved Parkway design for the Fairmount Park Art Association, which was placed on the official city plan in 1909. Yet, even after this important step, alterations to the Parkway design impeded the library project. In late 1909 and 1910, the Mayor's newly-formed Comprehensive Plans Committee redistributed plots along the boulevard, shifting the main library site to Logan Square.
Adopting the Mayor's plan to situate the Free Library central building on the Parkway at Logan Square, library officials worked diligently, acquiring the plot bounded by Nineteenth, Twentieth, Vine, and Wood Streets for $213,625 by the summer of 1911. While securing the site, library officials also searched for an architect. After considering and then rejecting the idea of an architectural competition, in May, 1911, they again selected Horace Trumbauer to plan the central library building. At the same time, they created a committee, chaired by Clinton Rogers Woodruff, to oversee the enormous project. In May and June, 1911, Trumbauer collaborated with Assistant Librarian John Ashhurst, 3rd, to define the library building's layout. By June, they had drawn up plans for the three main floors. Though preliminary, this design shared much in common with the final design of the early 1920s. As in the later design, the June 1911 plan was based on a rear, vertical bookstack and situated the children's and newspaper departments along with an auditorium and bindery on the ground floor; administrative offices, reference and periodical rooms, library for the blind, and cataloguing department on the first floor; and the stately main reading room and Pepper Hall, along with a music room and print department, on the second floor.
In 1911, Trumbauer's library building, with its rear, vertical stack and reading rooms on the second floor, fit precisely into a sequence of monumental City Beautiful library buildings culminating with the New York Public Library. Designed by architects Carrère & Hastings, New York's library served as a model for Philadelphia. Both libraries include a majestic entrance hall and grand stairway to the piano nobile, main circulation corridors parallel to the main facade, two central light courts, and a main reading room atop the rear bookstack. Opened on May 23, 1911, at precisely the moment when Trumbauer and Ashhurst began their design, New York's immense library inspired and influenced Philadelphians with its grandeur and convenience.
During the months after preparing the initial floor plans for the Free Library's central library, Trumbauer and his staff of designers, including the gifted Julian Abele, one of the first university-trained African American architects, devised an exterior for the library. In October, 1911, Abele, who headed the project for Trumbauer, unveiled a design for the facades based on French architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel's design for the twin facades of the Ministère de la Marine and Hôtel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde in Paris. Both Trumbauer and Abele greatly admired France's eighteenth-century classical architecture and especially that of Gabriel, King Louis XV's chief architect from 1742 to 1775, who created the influential Style of Louis XV. Depicted in a masterful perspective rendering, the design proposed an elegant, classical structure adorned in the Style of Louis XV. Set behind a low, enclosing wall, the library building was projected to stand on a solid base, proudly overlooking Logan Square and the Fairmount Parkway beyond. Wide flights of steps link Vine Street with entrance portals, which occupy the middle three bays of the 11-bay central section of the rusticated first floor. Flanking the central section, projecting pavilions, each three bays wide, terminate the main facade. At the second-floor level, above a horizontal band, colossal Corinthian columns support an entablature as well as pediments at the pavilions. Behind the screen of columns, enormous round arched windows light the main reading room in the central section of the building and the east and west special reading rooms in the end pavilions. Finally, a robust classical balustrade tops the grand building.
Delays, 1912 – 1919
In the fall of 1911, while Trumbauer and Abele enhanced the library plans, Philadelphians elected reformer Rudolph Blankenburg to succeed Mayor John E. Reyburn. A crusader for fiscal responsibility, the new mayor questioned the City's capacity to fund the extravagant Fairmount Parkway, the site of the new library. Fearing that the Parkway would be abandoned, jeopardizing the central library, Head Librarian John Thomson rallied the city's educational and cultural institutions, which successfully pressed for the continuation of the boulevard's construction. With the Parkway back on track, in the spring of 1912 Trumbauer and Thomson won approval for their French-inspired design from Philadelphia's municipal Art Jury and then planned a groundbreaking ceremony for June. Only days before the ceremony, lawyers counseled that the project's uncertain funding would undoubtedly lead to a court battle. Library officials canceled the groundbreaking and postponed construction.
During 1912 and 1913, library and city officials struggled in vain to finance the project. Plans to erect the library in sections were unsuccessful. Disheartened, Thomson admitted to benefactor Andrew Carnegie that "We are in very great trouble in Philadelphia as to our Main Library." In late 1914, frustrated library officials briefly abandoned their quest, granting evangelist Billy Sunday permission to erect a temporary tabernacle on the building site. By early 1915, when Sunday preached his fiery sermons, library officials had lost faith in their project, which had seemed all but assured three years earlier.
Then, at the darkest moment, library and city leaders devised a plan to overcome the funding problems with a referendum. Voters approved the measure, and the City authorized the Library to commence construction. Library officials rescheduled the groundbreaking for September 16, 1915. But further legal complications emerged, prompting officials to postpone the ceremony yet again. Library supporters looked forward, hoping that a new mayor would bring luck to the derailed library project.
In 1916, newly elected Mayor Thomas B. Smith pushed the library building campaign forward, authorizing the awarding of contracts and approving $2,460,000 for the erection of the main branch. Trumbauer submitted updated plans to the Art Jury, which were approved on December 29, clearing the way for the next phase of the project. With high hopes, in early 1917 city officials accepted bids on the immense construction project. Before they could award a contract, the project was again beset by legal problems. Local masons and the Indiana limestone industry filed opposing lawsuits disputing the City's archaic stone cutting ordinances and seeking to block construction. Disregarding pending legal action as well as war in Europe, resolute library officials, who had waited years to begin construction, held their twice-postponed groundbreaking ceremony on May 12, 1917.
The stone cutting litigation dragged on for more than a year, limiting progress on the construction to initial excavation for the foundations. World War I likewise impacted the troubled project. Not only did wartime shortages obstruct the procurement of building materials, but the war itself cast a pall over Trumbauer's office. Alfred Brooks Lister, a young architect who had been hard at work on the Free Library design when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, was killed while fighting in the Argonne. In 1919, with the construction hopelessly stalled, library officials suspended construction. The only sign of progress, a large excavation pit, provided a dangerous diversion for local children, who rafted in the muddy water.
Meanwhile, Fairmount Parkway, the grand diagonal boulevard upon which the library would reside, was the site of great success. The Fairmount Park Commission, which oversaw the boulevard's construction, commissioned French planner Jacques Gréber to update the 1907 design for the avenue. Although Gréber's new design respected the earlier plan, he transformed Logan Square into a circle, similar to that at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The circle provided an apt setting for the library, the design for which was based on the buildings bordering the Place de la Concorde. With the updated design and a $9 million bankroll, the Parkway project advanced extremely quickly. Excepting a few refinements, city officials declared the grand boulevard open on October 26, 1918.
Construction, 1920 – 1926
As wartime restrictions and shortages eased, library officials again restarted the protracted library project. In early 1920, new Mayor J. Hampton Moore, a fiscal conservative, requested that library officials cut their costs, which had skyrocketed with inflation following the war. To reduce the library's price tag, architect Horace Trumbauer decreased its size from seven to six million cubic feet and consulting engineer Percival M. Sax replaced the load-bearing masonry walls with a modern steel frame. With an updated design and adequate funding for the smaller building, library officials contracted with the Standard Construction Company to lay the foundations, which were completed between February and November, 1921. The P. H. Kelly Construction Company, which had submitted the low bid of $1,367,000, was hired to construct the superstructure of the library building. Despite numerous delays in the delivery of the steel, which was fabricated by the American Bridge Company, by the start of 1923 the enormous library's skeletal structure dominated the skyline at Logan Circle.
In a cold, driving rain on January 24, 1923, library officials and local dignitaries ceremoniously wielded a silver trowel to lay the limestone cornerstone, which encases a time capsule containing telephone and city directories, flags, a set of presidential bronze medals, postage stamps, annual reports, and plans and photographs of the building. Following the ceremony, the contractor accelerated the pace of construction and, within six months, had completed the steel frame and raised the limestone facade on its granite base as high as the roof line.
During 1924 and into 1925, stone carvers employed by the prestigious John Donnelly Company, which executed important commissions at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, carved the ornate limestone decoration, including seventy colossal Corinthian columns. Working 100 feet above the ground, daring artisans from Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, England, and the United States hewed the white stone into delicate architectural ornamentation. The Donnelly Company's masterpieces at the library include sculptures in the pediments depicting the history of writing and printing. With the carving finished and the doors and windows set in place, Trumbauer's agent at the site, who oversaw the construction, declared the exterior complete in the spring of 1925.
On July 29, 1925, library officials awarded the $2,417,241 contract for the interior of the Free Library central building to the F. W. Mark Construction Company. In spite of great progress, the library would not be ready, as Philadelphians had hoped, in time for the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1926.
Contractors installed numerous advanced technological devices to facilitate the storage and retrieval of almost two million volumes and to coordinate activities throughout the enormous building. Experts agreed that the new library was the most technologically sophisticated in the world. The most important feature was the freestanding, six-tier, metal bookstack. Like a building within a building, the self-supporting stack holds more than one million volumes. In 1927, its capacity was exceeded only by the stacks at the British Museum, New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress.
Originally, main reading room librarians transmitted patrons' book requests to the stack with a teletype system. Pages stationed in the stack received each request via a recording typewriter, fetched the book from its place on the more than 20 miles of shelves, and placed it in a conveyor belt box for the circuitous journey through the stack, across the first mezzanine, into a dumb waiter, and up to a waiting librarian in the reading room. The entire process required only two to four minutes. Librarians and administrators also communicated through a sophisticated pneumatic tube system with dozens of stations throughout the library. Like a scene from a science fiction movie, small, torpedo-like tubes rocketed around the library, delivering messages and bulletins.
The library building also housed an advanced book processing facility including a cataloguing department and bindery, where new books were received, bound, and catalogued. For example, the Free Library received its first of six copies of author Franz von Reber's History of Ancient Art, as the accession log explains, from the Lippincott Company for $2.33. Reber's History of Ancient Art was assigned accession number 7344 to track the copy and Dewey Decimal System number 709 R24 to track the title. Once processed, the book was placed in the stacks and its author, title, and subject cards placed in the Free Library card catalogue, which resided in the corridors on the second floor. The book's movements were tracked with in-house circulation records and the borrower's library card.
In addition to installing book processing and storage systems, the F. W. Mark Construction Company and its subcontractors decorated and furnished the grand interior spaces of architect Horace Trumbauer's central library building. Like the extensive collection of books it houses, the classical building educates, illuminates, and entertains with its eloquent embellishment and munificent ornament.
Cast plaster allegorical figures drawn from ancient Greece and Rome and medieval Europe, created by the H. W. Miller Company, adorn the soaring stair hall, striking reading rooms, hallways, and other spaces. Among the many figures depicted in plaster relief are Athena, Zeus, Hercules, and a band of Athenian horsemen. Several rooms, including the grand entrance hall, are enriched by ornate coffered plaster ceilings trimmed with key patterns and egg and dart moldings and punctuated with rosettes, pateras, and medallions.
The highlight of the interior sculpture, a bronze statue of Free Library founder Dr. William Pepper by famed artist Karl Bitters, sits on the landing of the grand staircase, overlooking the entrance hall. Numerous classical columns and pedimented doorways, as well as carved griffins and other decorative elements executed by the John Donnelly Company in marble and limestone, ornament the elegant staircase, reading rooms, and hallways. Stone carvers also executed exquisite, sculpted marble lamps, which adorn the grand staircase. The interior spaces sport pink Tennessee marble floors with green Tinos marble banding, terrazzo floors of pink Tennessee, pink English, and black Belgian marble chips, and Welsh Quarry tile floors.
The Art Metal Company of Jamestown, New York, was awarded the world's largest metal library equipment contract to supply the library's furnishings and equipment. Their products employed no wood or other flammable materials, ensuring that the furnishings were fireproof. All of the furniture, from tables and Windsor chairs to lamps and cabinets, was fabricated of metal and other noncombustible materials.
Painted by artist Robert Susann in 1935, the portrait of Head Librarian John Ashhurst, who oversaw the design and construction of the library building between 1916 and 1927, includes a depiction of one of the beautiful brass table lamps with green globes that adorned the reading rooms. Sadly, virtually all of the building's original lighting fixtures, including the sinuous chandeliers that once graced the main reading room and Pepper Hall, have been replaced with fluorescent and other more modern lighting devices.
Finally, beautiful hand-wrought iron gates adorn 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, especially the quatrefoil motifs, is very similar to contemporary work executed by famed Philadelphia artist Samuel Yellin.
Opening Day, June 2, 1927
On July 8, 1926, architect Horace Trumbauer completed the last revisions to his design for the Free Library's central building. Later that year, workers put finishing touches on the enormous $7 million structure. With the closing of the old central library at Thirteenth and Locust Streets on October 30, 1926, preparations began for the colossal move into the new building. On January 20, 1927, teams of movers transported the first books from the old building, as well as other storage facilities throughout the city, to the newly finished building on Logan Circle. Throughout the winter and into the spring, Head Librarian John Ashhurst oversaw the enormous task of packing, transporting, unpacking, and shelving the library's numerous collections as well as records, furnishings, and other material. By May 25, when library officials hosted a preview tour of the new building for local dignitaries, the move was complete. The press applauded the beauty and utility of the majestic new library building, which, contemplated for more than thirty years, had taken fifteen to construct.
On June 2, 1927, librarians and trustees officially opened the Free Library Central building with a dignified ceremony on the lawn along the Fairmount Parkway. While the Police and Firemen's bands played and newsreel cameras rolled, Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick, City Council president Charles B. Hall, and other dignitaries including former U. S. Senator George Wharton Pepper, a descendant of the library's founder, praised the new building and the many people who had devoted years and, in some cases, decades to its erection. Capping the ceremony, which was broadcast live on the radio, Clinton Rogers Woodruff, the chair of the Committee on Main Library Site and Building, presented the keys to the building to Board of Trustees president Cyrus Adler, who, in turn, passed them to Head Librarian John Ashhurst. After the head librarian took possession of the building, he threw open the front doors and thousands of Philadelphians pressed into the entrance hall and up the great staircase to inspect their imposing new library building. Throughout the rest of the day and well into the night, awestruck visitors marveled at the structure, one of the most spacious and dignified in the country. All agreed that the new Central Library would quickly repay the tremendous effort and expenditure required to erect it.
The Central Library and Logan Circle: New Public Spaces
The impressive collections housed at the Free Library's Central Library have advanced Philadelphians educationally, culturally, and economically. The imposing library building itself, besides enriching viewers with its instructive architecture and ornamentation, has contributed to the significant civic center at Logan Circle. Along with its twin, the adjacent Family Court, and nearby Franklin Institute buildings by architects John T. Windrim and W. Morton Keast, the Free Library building forms an important communal gathering place at the midpoint of the Fairmount Parkway.
Until the late teens, Logan Circle had been a square. In 1917, the Fairmount Park Commission appointed Jacques Gréber, a landscape architect and associate of Horace Trumbauer from Paris, to update the design of the diagonal boulevard. Although he respected the 1907 Parkway plan by Trumbauer, Clarence Zantzinger, and Paul Cret, Gréber made several significant alterations to the boulevard design. Most notably, he converted Logan Square into a circle similar to the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Since the late nineteenth century, Logan Square had been advanced as the site for a monument to Philadelphia's war heroes. In 1902, a jury selected a 250-tall obelisk by New York architects Lord & Hewlett as the winning entry in a competition to design a Soldiers and Sailors Monument for the square, but it was not erected. In 1914, the New York architects revised their design, proposing instead a winged victory atop a stout pedestal. It too was not erected. Finally, in 1921 Lord & Hewlett collaborated with sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil on two colossal, upright stone slabs. These were raised, not on Logan Circle, but flanking the Parkway west of Twentieth Street.
For the prominent spot at the center of the circle, the Philadelphia Fountain Society erected a monument to its founder, Dr. Wilson Cary Swann. Designed by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder and architect Wilson Eyre, Jr., the monumental Fountain of the Three Rivers, depicting the Delaware, Schuylkill, and Wissahickon, began operation in 1924. The Shakespeare Memorial by Calder and Eyre, located directly across Vine Street from the library's principal entrance, was dedicated in 1929. Despite the addition of the Vine Street Expressway after World War II, the home of the Free Library remains one of the city's most dignified and noteworthy public places.
In early 1927, before the new library building opened, a local newspaper proclaimed the potential of the great structure that had started as a dream more than three decades earlier:
"The transfer of books to the new Free Public Library has begun. An institution whose importance and usefulness have not been fully appreciated is about to begin its work. The building at Logan Circle is far more than a book storage, to which the public can go to read and borrow. It has unique facilities for the spread of culture. Properly supported, it will perform service of incalculable value."
For 75 years the imposing, elegant library building on the Parkway at Logan Circle has more than satisfied that ambitious prediction.