Content note: The only half-decent shots I have of the Detroit Public Library are of the 1963 extension. I’ve still decided to start a note on this library to collect the information I’m gathering about it, with the hope that I’ll be able to go back one day to take proper shots of the Cass Gilbert building. Historic Detroit has a photo gallery with much better shots than mine.
The City Beautiful movement was a late 19th century urban planning and architecture reform philosophy that had a lasting impact on American cities. Many civic and cultural institutions across the country were built during that time following the stylistic precepts taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Beyond architectural grandeur, the City Beautiful principles sought to promote moral and civic virtue by lifting urban populations from the squalor of their overcrowded tenements and presenting them with leafy avenues lined by colonnaded symbols of culture and progress.
The movement was ushered by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which displayed a grand “White City” of Beaux-Arts monuments, modern transport systems and no visible poverty. In 1904, the Lousiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis further expanded on the City Beautiful principles, embraced by a growing number of architects. Among them was Cass Gilbert, who created the fair’s Palace of the Fine Arts, now the St. Louis Art Museum.
In the early 20th century, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States, experiencing an era of unprecedented growth thanks to easy access to timber, iron and transportation. Concerned by this unbridled expansion, Detroit city planners drew on City Beautiful principles to restore order to the rapidly expanding city. Anchoring their plan was the Center of Arts and Letters across Woodward Avenue, comprising of Paul Cret’s Detroit Institute of Arts and a new Detroit Public Library designed by Cass Gilbert. Replacing an earlier, smaller edifice at Centre Park, Gilbert designed the new library in Renaissance Revival style, its front facade pierced by a monumental arched loggia. The interiors are no less grandiose, with richly painted and gilded ceilings contrasting with an abundance of white marble. The enormous Delivery Room on the second floor is decorated by murals by Detroit artist John S. Coppin.
Construction of the library started in 1915 but its completion was delayed by the onset of World War I and it could only be dedicated on June 3, 1921.
The library was later expanded with a new entrance facing Cass Avenue and two symmetrical wings extending to the west. Inaugurated on June 23, 1963, the Modernist extension was the work of Francis Kealy and Cass Gilbert’s son, Cass Gilbert Jr.
Images shown here date from my visit in April 2018.
- Bishop Eckert, K. (2018). Detroit Public Library. In G. Esperdy & K. Kingsley (Eds.), SAH ARCHIPEDIA. University of Virginia Press.
- Bluestone, D. M. (1988). Detroit’s City Beautiful and the Problem of Commerce. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 47(3), pp. 245–262.
- Cass Gilbert. (2023). In ArchINFORM.
- Detroit Public Library. (n.d.). Historic Detroit. Retrieved March 4, 2023
- Hill, E. J. (2003). AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects guide to Detroit architecture. Detroit : Wayne State University Press.
- Richardson, E. P., & Ferry, H. (1943). Representative Detroit Buildings: A Cross Section of Architecture, 1823-1943. Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts of the City of Detroit, 22(6), pp. 46–64.
- Van Slyck, A. A. (1995). Free to all: Carnegie libraries and American culture : 1890-1920. University of Chicago Press. p. 83
- Woodford, F. (1966). Second Thoughts on Writing Library History. The Journal of Library History (1966-1972), 1(1), pp. 34–42.
- Hille, R. T. (2018). The New Public Library: Design Innovation for the Twenty-First Century. Routledge. pp. 86-87
- Austin, D. (n.d.). Detroit Public Library (old). Historic Detroit. Retrieved March 4, 2023
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!