July 21, 2014

Photos reveal the majestic beauty of Cincinnati’s former main public library


The photographs of Cincinnati’s former main public library branch, which was built in 1874 and demolished in 1955, make me feel the same way that I do when I look at pictures of the former Penn Station in New York City. It’s a feeling that can be only described as awe at the beauty of the building, and sadness and shock that such a magnificent public space was destroyed.

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The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County was considered “the most magnificent public library building in the country” at the turn of the century, and Harpers Weekly reported on the feeling of walking into the main entrance:

“The first impression made upon the mind on entering this hall is the immense capacity for storing books in its five tiers of alcoves, and then the eye is attracted and gratified by its graceful and carefully studied architecture…”

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The building was considered to be quite modern when it was built because it had central heating and an elevator. It was designed by architect J.W. McLaughlin.

It was built in three sections, the first being the Lobby, which was a 4-story structure and contained offices and the Children’s Room. The second section was the Vestibule, the 3-story center of the building. For many years it housed the Reader’s Bureau and Lantern Slide collection and the Registration Desk… The 4-story atrium with five levels of cast iron alcoves could hold an enormous quantity of books. The Circulation area was the main part of the library. it was topped by a skylight and also had many library workrooms. The entire floor of the library was covered with a checker board marble floor.

A book called  Free & Public: One Hundred and Fifty Years at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County 1853-2003 by John Fleishman tells the fascinating but ultimately heartbreaking history of how the library fell on hard times during the Great Depression, and only stayed open because library trustee James Albert Green secretly took out a personal loan of $180 thousand dollars to cover operating costs. The library, which needed restoration and repairs, was ultimately closed in 1955, and an updated library opened down the street at 800 Vine Street that same year.

The fiction alcove.

The fiction alcove.

Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.