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Detroit Public Library celebrates 150 years

Mar 24, 2015

The Detroit Public Library turns 150 years old this week and will be celebrating Wednesday with an event that includes architectural tours of the historic main branch. The 1921 building is an architectural wonder, and is the fourth-largest library in the nation, with more than 7 million books.

The first library in the city opened on March 25, 1865 just days before the civil war was winding down.

Dan Austin of the Detroit Free Press and HistoricDetroit.org says Detroit was a simple frontier town at the time. But as industry grew, the city doubled its size – from 45,000 in 1865 to 100,00 in 1880. Just 20 years later, there were 300,000 in the city limits.

With such rapid growth, Austin says the library started opening branches throughout the city in 1900. There were branches located in firehouses, schools, factories, and hospitals. 

The main branch's initial location, in the old state Capitol building, quickly became too small. In 1917, construction began on the current building on Woodward. Its placement was chosen to create a cultural center, with the future DIA in close proximity.

The building was designed by architect Cass Gilbert, whose work includes the U.S. Supreme Court building as well as the Woolworth building in New York.

Austin says the city "didn't spare any expense in building this temple of knowledge."

The classical style of the structure includes gilded ceilings in blue and gold, along with the inscriptions of scholars and intellectuals' names on the outside.

Its remarkable architecture "shows how important libraries and education have always been in the city of Detroit," Austin says.

With budget cuts in recent years, Austin says the building could be in better shape. It's currently marked by water stains and some chipping paint.

But it serves its purpose, and Austin says he uses library's Burton Historical Collection often.

The library allows residents of the city to enter for free anytime, and others are asked to purchase a day pass.

"You're going to lose a couple hours of your day just searching through all the amazing things they have to discover," Austin says.

--Katrina Shafer, Michigan Radio Newsroom