A Date at the Detroit Public Library

by | Mar 27, 2016 | History, Michigan

Chuck took me on a date to the Detroit Public Library over the Christmas Holiday. It was everything he promised it would be and then some; A beautiful afternoon packed with Michigan history, architecture, art, books, and unfortunately a few detour signs. (I suppose this was the adventure part of the date.) Anyone who has been close to Detroit’s Woodward Avenue can attest, it is complicated to navigate but don’t let this deter you!

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Yes, a date at the Detroit Public Library sounds a bit nerdy, but for a Michigan History nut it was a perfect choice. If Chuck was hoping to woo me, he certainly accomplished it. I bet you’ll be wooed too by the end of this post. (And looking up the word “wooed” to be sure it doesn’t mean something dirty.)

Detroit Public Library

Do your homework before you arrive, especially if you’re not taking one of the free one hour docent led hours, which are offered two Saturdays a month at 11:00 am. And please note, registration is required for the tours. Private tours are also available. When we visit the Detroit Library again, we are definitely having a private tour. We barely scratched the surface in our self-guided tour.

Here are my cliff notes just in case you don’t feel like doing any homework:

The Detroit Public Library opened in 1865 in a single room of the old Capital High School on State St. and Griswold with a collection of 5,000 books. It has grown considerably and in 1921 the main branch was built on Woodward and is now the fourth largest library in the U.S. with over 7 million volumes. Cass Gilbert was the architect awarded the contract in 1913 and he collaborated with the interior designer Frederick Wiley. Both names are thrown around a lot in connection to the library and I was a bit confused. I thought I’d clear up this confusion for you ahead of time. Adam Strohm was the chief librarian when the library finally opened in 1921.

The Detroit Public Library is open to the public and although its treasures are similar to those of a museum, it’s research collections are available to the public. There are many options for accessing the collections: search the digital collection from your home, submit questions to a librarian electronically, call (313) 481-1300 or make an adventure of it and visit the library.

Stuff you shouldn’t miss:

  • Grand staircase made of marble leading to the arched-ceiling of the second floor
  • Painted glass windows
  • Strohm Hall’s Detroit Historical Murals
  • Pewabic tile fireplace in the Children’s Library
  • The Loggia*

*Loggia was a new word for me. I kept stumbling over it and I was certain it was something fancy. I finally “Googled” it and according to the internet is “a covered exterior gallery or corridor usually on an upper level, or sometimes ground level. The outer wall is open to the elements, usually supported by a series of columns or arches and can be located either on the front or side of a building and are not meant for entrance, but as an out-of-door sitting room.” So in other words, it is a fancy name for covered porch. Insert cute smiley face here 🙂

Grand Staircase

The grand staircase made entirely out of marble leads to an arched Italian Renaissance ceiling, painted windows and murals.

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Here is a fun fact about the painted windows I found on the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum blog:

“Due to financial concerns, the windows originally installed in the grand staircase consisted of plain glass. Cass Gilbert wrote chief librarian Adam Strohm to object and requested they be replaced with stained or leaded glass. Installed in 1921, these quarry windows are made of painted glass cut into squares. Strohm later commented in a letter to Gilbert that the windows “were like an illuminated title page from the 17th century.” Due to their popularity with the public, the Library Commissioners approved the installation of additional quarry windows in the delivery room.”

The murals over the Grand staircase inside the Woodward entrance were painted by Edwin Howland Blashfield in 1921 and symbolize music, graphic arts, poetry, prose and an allegorical representation of Detroit’s past and present.

Stunning Ceilings

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You’ll probably spend most of your time staring at the ceiling. These were all designed by Frederick Wiley.

Detroit Historical Murals

Don’t miss the murals in the Adam Strohm Hall.

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Man’s Mobility” painted by John Stephens Coppin, depicts 3 eras of transportation, 1855 and 1905 and the future, 1965.

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The mural on the far left is the “The Landing of Cadillac’s Wife, 1703.” It represents the arrival of Madame Cadillac and Madame Tonty at Fort Ponchatrian. The mural in the middle is “The Spirit of the Northwest” and represents the advance guard of American exploration of the Northwest and Great Lakes country with figures of the trapper, pathfinder and Saint Clare. On the far-right is The Conspiracy of Pontiac, 1763”  and it represents a well-known episode in the British occupation of Michigan. All three were painted by Gari Melchers. 

Pewabic Tile Fireplace

A highlight of our visit was the 1921 Pewabic tile fireplace in the former Children’s Library. The fireplace is surrounded by Pewabic tiles designed by Mary Chase Stratton and Horace Caulkins. Each of the ten titles has a character from children’s literature.

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Above the fireplace is a 1923 Pictorial Map of Michigan by Frederick J. Wiley.

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Detroit Library Special Collections

The Detroit Library has six special collections:

  • Burton Historical Collection is over 100 years old and contains materials of Detroit and Michigan’s history from the 17th century to present. Genealogists love this collection! It has census information, family histories, church and military records, immigration records, the list just goes on and on.
  • Rare Book Collection is pretty impressive with over 60,000 items. You’ll find George Washington’s diary,  the deed to Belle Isle, and two of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts.
  • Ernie Harrell Sports Collection is a Detroit Baseball Fan’s dream! It contains books, programs, baseball cards, scorecards and much more. If you love the Tigers, then you definitely need to explore this collection.
  • E. Azalia Hackley Collection was established in 1943 and was the first of its kind in the world. It focuses on African Americans in the performing arts.
  • National Automotive History Collection – Is not located in the main branch, but at the Skillman Branch and is regarded as the Nation’s premier public automotive archive.

These collections will take YEARS to explore! We have more pictures from our date at the Detroit Public LIbrary in our gallery.

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