Groundbreaking Ceremony, May 12, 1917 Floral Motif on Column


75th Anniversary Main Page


Initial Plans for the Main Library Building, 1910-1912

Bird's-eye view, Park Boulevard, City Hall to Fairmount ParkAlthough they relocated the Free Library's central branch to the College of Physicians in 1910, library officials had decided several years earlier that they would eventually erect a permanent central library building on the proposed Fairmount Parkway. Renamed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1937, the diagonal roadway running from City Hall to Fairmount Park was first postulated after the Civil War by famous landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Although Olmsted and Vaux did not draw up plans to accompany their proposal, several civic boosters drafted designs for grand diagonal parkways from the city center to the park during the next two decades. Intrigued by these plans, politicians nonetheless did not act until 1892, when eminent Philadelphians petitioned for the creation of the Parkway. In response, director of the Department of Public Works James Windrim and city engineer Samuel Smedley produced a plan for a tree-lined avenue slicing through the dense city to the bluff where the Philadelphia Museum of Art now sits. Approving the project, the City Councils placed the boulevard on the official city plan, but removed it one year later during an economic downturn.

At the turn of the century, as the leaders of the Free Library searched for an appropriate site for a central library building, Philadelphians began again to agitate for the construction of the grand boulevard. Responding to the growing support for the project, the City Councils reinstated the roadway in the city plan in March, 1903. In response, Head Librarian John Thomson called for "the establishment of the Main Library Building at the city entrance of the magnificent Boulevard proposed to be opened from the City Hall to Fairmount Park." Yet, despite this interest in locating the central library on the Parkway, library officials could not commit to a particular site because the avenue's construction schedule and exact route shifted several times, producing great uncertainty. Finally, the City made what appeared to be the final adjustment to the Fairmount Parkway's path on October 13, 1906. Fortified by the progress, two days later the Free Library requested a prime plot for a central library building on the Parkway between Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Cherry Streets. r

To prepare a design for the central library building, trustees commissioned prominent architect Horace Trumbauer. Working swiftly, by January, 1907, Trumbauer "had prepared tentative sketches for a central library building on the Parkway site." Yet, following the completion of the preliminary design, the project stalled because of further uncertainty over the precise route of the controversial boulevard. Seeking to finally establish the precise route, in 1907 Trumbauer, along with Clarence Zantzinger and Paul Cret, prepared an improved Parkway design for the Fairmount Park Art Association, which was placed on the official city plan in 1909. Yet, even after this important step, alterations to the Parkway design impeded the library project. In late 1909 and 1910, the Mayor's newly-formed Comprehensive Plans Committee redistributed plots along the boulevard, shifting the main library site to Logan Square. r

Site of the Central Library prior to the demolition of extant buildings, 1909Adopting the Mayor's plan to situate the Free Library central building on the Parkway at Logan Square, library officials worked diligently, acquiring the plot bounded by Nineteenth, Twentieth, Vine, and Wood Streets for $213,625 by the summer of 1911. While securing the site, library officials also searched for an architect. After considering and then rejecting the idea of an architectural competition, in May, 1911, they again selected Horace Trumbauer to plan the central library building. At the same time, they created a committee, chaired by Clinton Rogers Woodruff, to oversee the enormous project. In May and June, 1911, Trumbauer collaborated with Assistant Librarian John Ashhurst, 3rd, to define the library building's layout. By June, they had drawn up plans for the three main floors. Though preliminary, this design shared much in common with the final design of the early 1920s. As in the later design, the June 1911 plan was based on a rear, vertical bookstack and situated the children's and newspaper departments along with an auditorium and bindery on the ground floor; administrative offices, reference and periodical rooms, library for the blind, and cataloguing department on the first floor; and the stately main reading room and Pepper Hall, along with a music room and print department, on the second floor.

In 1911, Trumbauer's library building, with its rear, vertical stack and reading rooms on the second floor, fit precisely into a sequence of monumental City Beautiful library buildings culminating with the New York Public Library. Designed by architects Carrère & Hastings, New York's library served as a model for Philadelphia. Both libraries include a majestic entrance hall and grand stairway to the piano nobile, main circulation corridors parallel to the main facade, two central light courts, and a main reading room atop the rear bookstack. Opened on May 23, 1911, at precisely the moment when Trumbauer and Ashhurst began their design, New York's immense library inspired and influenced Philadelphians with its grandeur and convenience.

Perspective drawing of the Central Library During the months after preparing the initial floor plans for the Free Library's central library, Trumbauer and his staff of designers, including the gifted Julian Abele, one of the first university-trained African American architects, devised an exterior for the library. In October, 1911, Abele, who headed the project for Trumbauer, unveiled a design for the facades based on French architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel's design for the twin facades of the Ministère de la Marine and Hôtel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde in Paris. Both Trumbauer and Abele greatly admired France's eighteenth-century classical architecture and especially that of Gabriel, King Louis XV's chief architect from 1742 to 1775, who created the influential Style of Louis XV. Depicted in a masterful perspective rendering, the design proposed an elegant, classical structure adorned in the Style of Louis XV. Set behind a low, enclosing wall, the library building was projected to stand on a solid base, proudly overlooking Logan Square and the Fairmount Parkway beyond. Wide flights of steps link Vine Street with entrance portals, which occupy the middle three bays of the 11-bay central section of the rusticated first floor. Flanking the central section, projecting pavilions, each three bays wide, terminate the main facade. At the second-floor level, above a horizontal band, colossal Corinthian columns support an entablature as well as pediments at the pavilions. Behind the screen of columns, enormous round arched windows light the main reading room in the central section of the building and the east and west special reading rooms in the end pavilions. Finally, a robust classical balustrade tops the grand building.


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