Friday, July 4, 2014

An Enduring Monument of Detroit's Achievement

The Detroit Public Library Main Branch
Last week, I visited the Detroit Pubic Library's Main Branch for the first time. It is located on Woodward Avenue across from what is probably the most famous tourist attraction in Midtown, the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Although the DIA is definitely worth a visit, the library is a work of art in itself. The white marble building opened in 1921, six years before the DIA moved into its current location. Architect Cass Gilbert designed the library and was a preeminent architect of his era who designed Belle Isle's James Scott Memorial Fountain, the United States Supreme Court Building, New York's Woolworth Building, and several other iconic buildings throughout the United States.

The Woodward Avenue side of the library is surrounded by trees and lush green lawns, which made it easy to forget that this land was frozen only a few short months ago. A large bust of Nicolaus Copernicus occupies the lawn to the right of the main entrance. 

The large white marble and limestone exterior rises above Woodward, but only a few steps rise up to the library's main entrance, unlike the large series of steps leading to the DIA's main entrance. Perhaps Gilbert wanted a street level entrance to give a sense that books should be easily accessible to the public.

Main Entrance on Woodward Avenue
I entered the library on the Cass Avenue side. The library's entrance and two wings on Cass Avenue were built in 1963. The entrance is not as grand as the Woodward Avenue side, but I did enjoy the combination of the 1960s architecture, rich grass, green trees, clear blue skies, and warm June air.

Cass Avenue Entrance
In addition to some special exhibits, like a room dedicated to legendary Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell, the Cass Avenue side has all of the services of a typical public library: computers, reading rooms, and a children's library room. 

Unlike the Cass Avenue addition, the interior of Gilbert's original structure on Woodward Avenue is anything but typical. With works of art spread throughout its enormous marbled halls, ornate stairways and ceilings, and the cool, dry, and silent air that fills its halls, it feels like a museum or temple dedicated to the art of reading.

One of murals in the main stairwell
The third floor of the library is breathtaking. The main stairwell on the library's third floor contains several murals by artist Edwin Howland Blashfield. A reading room looks over Woodward Avenue and the DIA.

A view of the DIA from the library
One entrance to the reading room is trimmed with an iron gate created by master ironworker and Polish immigrant Samuel Yellin. 

Yellin's Gate
The highlight of the library is the Adam Strohm Hall. The giant hall has large stained-glass windows throughout. On opposite sides of the hall are two sets of three murals. 

Adam Strohm Hall. Photo by Jason Mrachina
Three murals, completed in 1921 by Detroit-born artist Gari Melchers, depict Detroit's early history.

Landing of Cadillac's Wife
The Conspiracy of Pontiac
The Spirit of the Northwest
In 1964, John Stephens Coppin completed his murals, called "Man's Mobility." These murals depict the progression of human transportation from horses and wagons to rocket ships.

Surrounding the upper reaches of the hall are a series of four quotes in large golden letters:

"To promote self development by ample facilities for wide reading, in an atmosphere of freedom and morality." -John McAlister

"Read not to contradict and confute nor to believe and take for granted, but to weigh and consider." -Francis Bacon

"Through seas of knowledge we our course advance, discovering still new worlds of ignorance." -John Denham

"Books are the most enduring monuments of man's achievements. Through them, civilization becomes cumulative." -Cass Gilbert

Cass Gilbert built a house worthy to hold humanity's greatest achievements and an enduring monument to Detroit.

The Detroit Public Library's Main branch is located at 5201 Woodward Avenue. For hours and directions, click here.


  1. Thank you for this educational glance at the Detroit Public Library! I've added it to my list of places to explore in Michigan. It's a blessing to live in a state so rich in history and achievement.

    1. Thank you, Charity. Do not forget to visit the DIA, the Detroit Historical Society, and Wayne State University's campus as well. They are all across the street from the library. Plus, there are a few other museums and the science center within walking distance from the library.

  2. Although a Detroit residents for many years, I just notice some important words above the murals and three stained glass arch windows in the Adam Strohm Hall of the third floor. I had wrote them down and did a search of them on the internet. Now, I feel like a pirate of an explorer as I have discovered that those words a 4 separate quotes from John McAlister, Francis Bacon, John Denham and Cass Gilbert. All of these quotes will be added to my quotation collections. Thanking you in advance.