A Connecticut Yankee's Daughter in Detroit

September, 2010.

Keeping the Detroit Public Library's 1865-2015 sesquicentennial celebration in mind, here is a trip back to the Mark Twain Branch Library, perhaps the most architecturally significant library building that the City of Detroit has wantonly demolished in our time. As I've already stated in previous library-related posts, libraries are my favorite type of building to visit.


The Mark Twain Branch Library used to stand at 8500 Gratiot Avenue between Burns and Seneca, but it was demolished in 2011. You may recall hearing in the news shortly afterward about certain Detroit Public Library (DPL) officials who became embroiled in a scandal regarding bribery and the misappropriation of funds, and lost their jobs as a result. Two contractors went to prison.

The money they "misappropriated" was supposed to have been used to maintain branch libraries such as this one.


According to a book by Arthur M. Woodford, the Mark Twain Branch was built to replace an older library, the Osius Branch, which had to be torn down in 1939 due to the dramatic widening of Gratiot Avenue. The Mark Twain Branch was erected basically on the same parcel.


This rambling sort of structure was built as a PWA project in 1940, according to Elizabeth Clemens's book The Works Progress Administration in Detroit, and was designed by one of Detroit's best architects.


A book by Thomas J. Holleman and James P. Gallagher on the history of the Smith, Hinchman & Grylls architectural firm confirms that the Mark Twain was indeed designed by the great Wirt Rowland, who you should know as the guy that also designed the Guardian and Penobscot buildings downtown.

As the Great Depression was growing serious and regular work contracts were slowing down Rowland lost his job at SH&G in 1930, and took this project on independently after forming a partnership with Augustus O'Dell, who I imagine was also hurting for work then. According to the book this split from SH&G allowed Rowland a little more room to focus on styles that he liked--such as Gothic--which is evident in this library's design.


The Detroit Public Library and Detroit Public Schools remained among SH&G's biggest clients during the Depression, by requesting several schools and other such public buildings be built, partly just as "make-work" projects to provide employment during the hard times. The Skillman Branch Library downtown was also under construction around this time, and it even had a sign in front of it that specifically said "This Project has Been Undertaken in Order to Provide Employment."


I have to say that the front "lobby" area of this joint was rather intriguing, with these columns and stucco-like vaulted ceiling...


For some reason, it makes me think of the interior of the Mos Eisley cantina in the movie Star Wars. Which happens to remind me of the interior of Tom's Tavern on Seven Mile Road.

And now I am in the mood for a beer...


Anyway these are probably small Pewabic tiles around this fireplace:


A lot of the shelves in here were empty, but a lot of them were full too. My partner and I came ready with empty backpacks for the looting rescuing of books, and we were prepared to fill them to seam-splitting capacity.


A tidy Mark Twain Branch was photographed by Marchand & Meffre in 2010, and was also pictured in a c.2014 reissue of Thomas Sugrue's classic work The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit as a ransacked mess.


The Mark Twain Branch really became one of the go-to symbols of Detroit's grotesquely fatal collapse; the floors awash in discarded books by that time were the perfect "ruin porn" image that photographers wanted to capture, and that the masses wanted to see. Along with the other abandoned skyscrapers and factories it helped paint the perfect picture of apocalypse, but when I was in here taking my photos the place was still in fairly orderly condition.


I'm not sure that any of the other websites that talk about this library delve into why it might have been named after the great American author, but as many people are unaware, Detroit has a couple intriguing little connections to Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens)...


According to marktwainonline.com, Samuel Clemens's daughter Clara Clemens married Ossip Gabrilowitsch, who later became the most famous conductor in the history of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and is remembered for being the man who campaigned for the construction of Orchestra Hall.

Detroit author Richard Bak writes that "at least part of" Ossip's fame derived directly from this marriage. He was a Russian, and was studying piano in Vienna when the two met. They moved to Detroit in 1918, taking up residence at 611 West Boston Street. Bak goes on to say that Clara would "occasionally sing and act in local theater groups" but that her professional performing days were over. I imagine that Ossip and Clara were probably among the most talked-about couples in Detroit's high society.


Just as relevant is the fact that the Rare Book Collection of the Detroit Public Library's Main Branch contains Clara Clemens' donation from her father's estate, which includes the original manuscript of the story Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians

I wondered if the Mark Twain Branch was so-named because of this bequeathment, but the DPL didn't establish its Rare Book Collection in 1948--after the Mark Twain Branch was built--so the Samuel Clemens Collection must have been donated sometime after that. Samuel Clemens passed away in 1910, and Clara herself passed away in 1962.


Here you can see the decorative wooden hammerbeam-style roof trusses hanging down from the ceiling above the modern fluorescent lights:


This end was dominated by the large chimney and fireplace, but the flanking windows had been boarded up:


Unfortunately I couldn't get a good straight-on shot with the shelves in the way:


All of the windows in this main room of the library were at least 20 feet tall and gorgeous:


Here's the best I could do with the fireplace and no tripod:


Oh to have been alive in the days when the DPL might have actually still used the many beautiful fireplaces in their branch libraries, and the winter days were spent in quiet reading by idled auto plant workers and others in those slow times of the year before television was invented.

Imagine this room being filled by the smell and crackling of maple logs, snow and ice pattering against the frost-glazed windows, and the curling sound of brittle pages being slowly turned in old books.


Today the smells and sounds were a little different, but not much less inviting to me: mildewing paper, and dripping water. The Michigan history section was in this aisle as I recall, so naturally this was where most of my visit was spent, combing through the damp, molding books to see what was still salvageable:


Fancy saloon-style doors led into the office area, If I recall correctly:


They even had riveted leather covering:


The front lobby area again...hey, that looks like an Eames chair...


...I think those things are worth like $100 each now? Why steal copper when you can steal innocuous vintage furniture? The cops prolly wouldn't even stop you.

Charles and Ray Eames were designers who pioneered modern furniture styles, and got their start here in Michigan at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 1940s.


The front desk:


I had to chuckle at this calling card left by fellow explorers Wide Open:


From behind the front desk:


This was the main hole in the roof, by which most of the decay was occurring:


Gee, this sign says that there might be some of the asbes-tos in here...and it's taped directly to the front desk like some bulletin for library patrons. Perhaps I should have brought a respirator?


HA!...whatever, my epitaph has already been carved in stone.


More stacks of books and chairs:


Rows of fluorescent lights added as part of some modern renovation no doubt:


I am sure that some much more attractive incandescent lamps hung from the ceiling originally.


In one wing of the library there was a pile of beautiful antique oak tables stacked up, most of them in perfectly fine condition:


As usual each one bore a numbered City of Detroit asset tag, identifying it as Detroit Library Commission property:


I have a feeling these tables were demolished with the building, seeing as there is no mechanism in place within city government for disposing of such desirable items on the open market, and with so many libraries and schools closing or closed, reusing the tables in another city facility wasn't feasible either since there were already more than they had any use for.


Here, surplus school desks sat lined up near a window, equally unlikely to ever find another use, probably moved out of a closed down school:


I almost died when I saw these old card catalogue chests laying here, in perfect condition, with nowhere to go:


You don't even know how badly I wanted to heist one of them and put them to use for storing my old 35mm prints and negatives. But alas, like the tables they were to big to fit through the door we had come in through, which is sad, because I am like the only person on the planet who has any use for a card catalogue chest, or any interest in one for that matter.


I left this reel-to-reel movie projector behind as well:


An issue of Billboard from April 1949 featured an article entitled "Wanna Hear A Record? Make A Date With A Detroit Library." The Mark Twain and several other branch libraries across the city began stocking phonograph records available for patron use and to be rented out around that time, and over the past five years the DPL's record collection had doubled in size the article stated.


The DPL Audio-Visual Department was started in 1946.


This library was only 71 years old when it was demolished. Had it been properly maintained, instead of library officials pocketing the public money that would have kept this building in good shape, it might still be here today for taxpayers to use and enjoy.


For my other two posts about abandoned Detroit Public Library branches, see:


References:
The Village of Grosse Pointe Shores, by Arthur M. Woodford, p. 31
The Works Progress Administration in Detroit, by Elizabeth Clemens, p. 108
The Guardian Building: Cathedral of Finance, by James W. Tottis, p. 21
Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, by Richard Bak, p. 49
http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-heartbreaking-tale-of-the-detroit-public-librarys-mark-twain-branch/
Smith Hinchman & Grylls, 125 Years of Architecture and Engineering, 1853-1978, by Thomas J. Holleman & James P. Gallagher, p. 131
http://www.marktwainonline.com/site/577770/page/924842
http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/featuredcollection/rare-book-collection
"Wanna Hear A Record? Make A Date With A Detroit Library," Billboard, April 16, 1949, p. 52
http://michiganradio.org/post/former-detroit-public-library-official-charged-bribery#stream/0


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