Groundbreaking Ceremony, May 12, 1917 Floral Motif on Column


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Delays, 1912-1919

Show me!: cartoon from Philadelphia record

In the fall of 1911, while Trumbauer and Abele enhanced the library plans, Philadelphians elected reformer Rudolph Blankenburg to succeed Mayor John E. Reyburn. A crusader for fiscal responsibility, the new mayor questioned the City's capacity to fund the extravagant Fairmount Parkway, the site of the new library. Fearing that the Parkway would be abandoned, jeopardizing the central library, Head Librarian John Thomson rallied the city's educational and cultural institutions, which successfully pressed for the continuation of the boulevard's construction. With the Parkway back on track, in the spring of 1912 Trumbauer and Thomson won approval for their French-inspired design from Philadelphia's municipal Art Jury and then planned a groundbreaking ceremony for June. Only days before the ceremony, lawyers counseled that the project's uncertain funding would undoubtedly lead to a court battle. Library officials canceled the groundbreaking and postponed construction.

During 1912 and 1913, library and city officials struggled in vain to finance the project. Plans to erect the library in sections were unsuccessful. Disheartened, Thomson admitted to benefactor Andrew Carnegie that "We are in very great trouble in Philadelphia as to our Main Library." In late 1914, frustrated library officials briefly abandoned their quest, granting evangelist Billy Sunday permission to erect a temporary tabernacle on the building site. By early 1915, when Sunday preached his fiery sermons, library officials had lost faith in their project, which had seemed all but assured three years earlier.

Then, at the darkest moment, library and city leaders devised a plan to overcome the funding problems with a referendum. Voters approved the measure, and the City authorized the Library to commence construction. Library officials rescheduled the groundbreaking for September 16, 1915. But further legal complications emerged, prompting officials to postpone the ceremony yet again. Library supporters looked forward, hoping that a new mayor would bring luck to the derailed library project.

In 1916, newly elected Mayor Thomas B. Smith pushed the library building campaign forward, authorizing the awarding of contracts and approving $2,460,000 for the erection of the main branch. Trumbauer submitted updated plans to the Art Jury, which were approved on December 29, clearing the way for the next phase of the project. With high hopes, in early 1917 city officials accepted bids on the immense construction project. Before they could award a contract, the project was again beset by legal problems. Local masons and the Indiana limestone industry filed opposing lawsuits disputing the City's archaic stone cutting ordinances and seeking to block construction. Disregarding pending legal action as well as war in Europe, resolute library officials, who had waited years to begin construction, held their twice-postponed groundbreaking ceremony on May 12, 1917.

Boys rafting in the water-filled hole

The stone cutting litigation dragged on for more than a year, limiting progress on the construction to initial excavation for the foundations. World War I likewise impacted the troubled project. Not only did wartime shortages obstruct the procurement of building materials, but the war itself cast a pall over Trumbauer's office. Alfred Brooks Lister, a young architect who had been hard at work on the Free Library design when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, was killed while fighting in the Argonne. In 1919, with the construction hopelessly stalled, library officials suspended construction. The only sign of progress, a large excavation pit, provided a dangerous diversion for local children, who rafted in the muddy water.

Meanwhile, Fairmount Parkway, the grand diagonal boulevard upon which the library would reside, was the site of great success. The Fairmount Park Commission, which oversaw the boulevard's construction, commissioned French planner Jacques Gréber to update the 1907 design for the avenue. Although Gréber's new design respected the earlier plan, he transformed Logan Square into a circle, similar to that at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The circle provided an apt setting for the library, the design for which was based on the buildings bordering the Place de la Concorde. With the updated design and a $9 million bankroll, the Parkway project advanced extremely quickly. Excepting a few refinements, city officials declared the grand boulevard open on October 26, 1918.


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
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