Cover-to-cover splendor

With approximately 420,000 square feet of space and more than 5 million items in its collection, the Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch at 5201 Woodward Ave. is the crown jewel of the 25 branches that comprise the largest library system in Michigan. Hosting lectures, special exhibits and readings, the main branch is a center of intellectual activity for everybody from mild-mannered street folk trying to cool their heels and read the paper to dogged researchers hot on the trail of elusive information.

It’s also the home of priceless special collections, such as the E. Azalia Hackley Memorial Collection of Negro Music, Dance, and Drama, among the largest and oldest collections of materials relating to African-Americans in the performing arts. Established in 1943 with materials donated by the Detroit Musicians’ Society, this very special resource has been used by such writers and documentarians as Gerald Posner and Ken Burns. Resources include 4,500 photographs, rare books, manuscripts, musical scores, academic dissertations, and a vertical file of nearly 275,000 items.

Another special resource, the Burton Collection, is the city of Detroit’s primary historical archive and the region’s premier genealogical attraction. In a city that once had 2 million residents, the collection is a draw for Detroit’s far-flung descendants, attracting genealogists from all over the country who want to trace their Detroit roots. The collection also has thousands of rare photographs and newspaper clippings organized by topic or place, a collection that was already robust and exhaustive when most of the suburbs were still farmland.

Also notable is the map division, with original cartography of the area from as early as the 18th century. This collection includes a wealth of detailed fire insurance maps, real estate atlases and early street maps that tell the story of the city’s growth and subsequent retrenchment.

In addition to the various floors, wings, mezzanines, the underground auditorium and the display areas, the north wing sits upon the sanctum sanctorum of the library: a climate- and humidity-controlled sub-basement where precious materials are stored, including correspondence from George Washington.

Dedicated June 3, 1921, the original building was designed by Cass Gilbert, famous architect of the Woolworth Building in New York, N.Y., and the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The site and building together cost more than $3 million dollars, an astounding sum at the time.

Viewed from the Cass Avenue entrance, one sees the wings that were added in 1963 — functional, if somewhat drab, arms that embrace a semicircular drive. This addition, designed by Cass Gilbert Jr., serves ably as a modernist frame for the architectural wonder it holds.

The original building itself is a masterpiece of early Italian Renaissance architecture. The original three sides that remain in view offer a 60-foot-high facade of white marble and a roof finished with ornamental terra cotta. The ornamentation on the outside not only depicts the 12 signs of the zodiac, but is engraved with the names of 18 ancient scribes and features roundels with carvings of 29 great Western literati. Surrounded by a broad white marble arches set off with Ionic pilasters, on the Woodward Avenue side they enclose a monumental loggia with a groin-vaulted ceiling ornamented with Pewabic tile. Inside, the main stairway is built entirely of marble with an ornate barrel-vaulted ceiling. Cass’ original architecture performs a delicate balancing act of Old-World forms and seals them in the permanence of Vermont marble and Indiana limestone. Add to this already-remarkable edifice the wealth of stained glass, murals, ornamental plaster paneling and the natural beauty of the manicured grounds and you have not only an architecturally extravagant building, but one that ages gracefully. It looks as a cultural anchor should look.

Back in 1917, when librarian Adam J. Strohm was asked if perhaps an unadorned brick or concrete building might serve Detroit just as well, he answered in strong, certain words that sound refreshingly anachronistic in this day of cheerless but functional glass and steel public buildings. He said, "Mean surroundings make mean people; things of beauty cleanse our hearts. True architecture, as any other artistic expression of the human mind, has a social function to perform in the liberal education of mankind." —Michael Jackman