Groundbreaking Ceremony, May 12, 1917 Floral Motif on Column


75th Anniversary Main Page


Construction, 1920-1926

As wartime restrictions and shortages eased, library officials again restarted the protracted library project. In early 1920, new Mayor J. Hampton Moore, a fiscal conservative, requested that library officials cut their costs, which had skyrocketed with inflation following the war. To reduce the library's price tag, architect Horace Trumbauer decreased its size from seven to six million cubic feet and consulting engineer Percival M. Sax replaced the load-bearing masonry walls with a modern steel frame. With an updated design and adequate funding for the smaller building, library officials contracted with the Standard Construction Company to lay the foundations, which were completed between February and November, 1921. The P. H. Kelly Construction Company, which had submitted the low bid of $1,367,000, was hired to construct the superstructure of the library building. Despite numerous delays in the delivery of the steel, which was fabricated by the American Bridge Company, by the start of 1923 the enormous library's skeletal structure dominated the skyline at Logan Circle.

Mayor J. Hampton Moore laying the cornerstone

In a cold, driving rain on January 24, 1923, library officials and local dignitaries ceremoniously wielded a silver trowel to lay the limestone cornerstone, which encases a time capsule containing telephone and city directories, flags, a set of presidential bronze medals, postage stamps, annual reports, and plans and photographs of the building. Following the ceremony, the contractor accelerated the pace of construction and, within six months, had completed the steel frame and raised the limestone facade on its granite base as high as the roof line.

Stone carver from the John Donnelly Company

During 1924 and into 1925, stone carvers employed by the prestigious John Donnelly Company, which executed important commissions at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, carved the ornate limestone decoration, including seventy colossal Corinthian columns. Working 100 feet above the ground, daring artisans from Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, England, and the United States hewed the white stone into delicate architectural ornamentation. The Donnelly Company's masterpieces at the library include sculptures in the pediments depicting the history of writing and printing. With the carving finished and the doors and windows set in place, Trumbauer's agent at the site, who oversaw the construction, declared the exterior complete in the spring of 1925.

On July 29, 1925, library officials awarded the $2,417,241 contract for the interior of the Free Library central building to the F. W. Mark Construction Company. In spite of great progress, the library would not be ready, as Philadelphians had hoped, in time for the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1926.

Contractors installed numerous advanced technological devices to facilitate the storage and retrieval of almost two million volumes and to coordinate activities throughout the enormous building. Experts agreed that the new library was the most technologically sophisticated in the world. The most important feature was the freestanding, six-tier, metal bookstack. Like a building within a building, the self-supporting stack holds more than one million volumes. In 1927, its capacity was exceeded only by the stacks at the British Museum, New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress.

Pneumatic tube station in the Central Library

Originally, main reading room librarians transmitted patrons' book requests to the stack with a teletype system. Pages stationed in the stack received each request via a recording typewriter, fetched the book from its place on the more than 20 miles of shelves, and placed it in a conveyor belt box for the circuitous journey through the stack, across the first mezzanine, into a dumb waiter, and up to a waiting librarian in the reading room. The entire process required only two to four minutes. Librarians and administrators also communicated through a sophisticated pneumatic tube system with dozens of stations throughout the library. Like a scene from a science fiction movie, small, torpedo-like tubes rocketed around the library, delivering messages and bulletins.

The library building also housed an advanced book processing facility including a cataloguing department and bindery, where new books were received, bound, and catalogued. For example, the Free Library received its first of six copies of author Franz von Reber's History of Ancient Art, as the accession log explains, from the Lippincott Company for $2.33. Reber's History of Ancient Art was assigned accession number 7344 to track the copy and Dewey Decimal System number 709 R24 to track the title. Once processed, the book was placed in the stacks and its author, title, and subject cards placed in the Free Library card catalogue, which resided in the corridors on the second floor. The book's movements were tracked with in-house circulation records and the borrower's library card.

In addition to installing book processing and storage systems, the F. W. Mark Construction Company and its subcontractors decorated and furnished the grand interior spaces of architect Horace Trumbauer's central library building. Like the extensive collection of books it houses, the classical building educates, illuminates, and entertains with its eloquent embellishment and munificent ornament.

Cast plaster allegorical figures drawn from ancient Greece and Rome and medieval Europe, created by the H. W. Miller Company, adorn the soaring stair hall, striking reading rooms, hallways, and other spaces. Among the many figures depicted in plaster relief are Athena, Zeus, Hercules, and a band of Athenian horsemen. Several rooms, including the grand entrance hall, are enriched by ornate coffered plaster ceilings trimmed with key patterns and egg and dart moldings and punctuated with rosettes, pateras, and medallions.

The highlight of the interior sculpture, a bronze statue of Free Library founder Dr. William Pepper by famed artist Karl Bitters, sits on the landing of the grand staircase, overlooking the entrance hall. Numerous classical columns and pedimented doorways, as well as carved griffins and other decorative elements executed by the John Donnelly Company in marble and limestone, ornament the elegant staircase, reading rooms, and hallways. Stone carvers also executed exquisite, sculpted marble lamps, which adorn the grand staircase. The interior spaces sport pink Tennessee marble floors with green Tinos marble banding, terrazzo floors of pink Tennessee, pink English, and black Belgian marble chips, and Welsh Quarry tile floors.

Art Metal Windsor chair

The Art Metal Company of Jamestown, New York, was awarded the world's largest metal library equipment contract to supply the library's furnishings and equipment. Their products employed no wood or other flammable materials, ensuring that the furnishings were fireproof. All of the furniture, from tables and Windsor chairs to lamps and cabinets, was fabricated of metal and other noncombustible materials.

Portrait of John Ashhurst, 3rd

Painted by artist Robert Susann in 1935, the portrait of Head Librarian John Ashhurst, who oversaw the design and construction of the library building between 1916 and 1927, includes a depiction of one of the beautiful brass table lamps with green globes that adorned the reading rooms. Sadly, virtually all of the building's original lighting fixtures, including the sinuous chandeliers that once graced the main reading room and Pepper Hall, have been replaced with fluorescent and other more modern lighting devices.

Finally, beautiful hand-wrought iron gates adorn the three front portals on Vine Street and the two side stair doorways on the second floor. Unique hand-wrought decorations embellish the main elevator entrances. Although their maker is unknown, the ironwork, especially the quatrefoil motifs, is very similar to contemporary work executed by famed Philadelphia artist Samuel Yellin.


Floral Motif on Column
Floral Motif on Column
Floral Motif on Column Founding, 1889-1898 | Quest for a Home, 1894-1910 | Initial Plans, 1910-1912 | Delays, 1912-1919 | Construction, 1920-1926 |
Opening Day, June 2, 1927 | Central and Logan Circle
To the Free Library of Philadelphia Main Page History