March 24, 2014
The heartbreaking tale of the Detroit Public Library’s Mark Twain branch
by Claire Kelley
The Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library opened to the public on February 22, 1940 with over 20,000 books. The building’s architect was the prolific and celebrated Wirt C. Rowland, who was known as an “avid modernist and supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement…best known for contributing Art Deco-style skyscrapers to Detroit’s skyline.”
The library was referred to as a “regional library” and was designed to be larger than other neighborhood libraries. It included space for members of the community to not only sit and read books and periodicals, but also hold events and social gatherings. According to a history of the library, it was an active community center for decades:
Numerous newspaper clippings from the 1940’s and 50’s note a wide variety of events hosted at the library, including a series of lectures on “Problems of Working Girls” held by Miss M. Sharpe, head of the personnel department of the Detroit Edison Co., Boy Scout troop meetings, and the playing of recorded symphonies conducted by Toscanini, Stokowski, and Iturbi for the Girls Music Club program. Well into the 1970’s and 80’s, Twain branch offered a haven for children and residents as the neighborhood around the library started to decline.
That’s where the story of the beautiful branch takes a sad turn. Due to Detroit’s increasing financial problems, the library was closed in the 1990s, and was later only able to reopen for two days a week after receiving money from the state of Michigan. Just a few years later, the library was closed again because of structural problems like a leaky roof and the discovery that the building contained asbestos. Many of the books and computers were moved to a nearby Baptist Church as a temporary annex location, while work was completed on the Mark Twain branch.
Over the next decade, the Detroit library commission claimed reconstruction work was continuing even as holes in the roof began to appear due to the leaks and the basement flooded. The city’s financial problems and mismanagement delayed repairs through 2008, when city residents began to confront the library commission about why funds raised to save the library were not being used for that purpose and demanded meetings to get some answers.
In a 2011 local radio interview, Karen Nagher, an activist from the group Preservation Detroit, said “A library can really be really stablizing for a neighborhood and create a sense of place.. we have heard from a lot of former library patrons who grew up in the area and really enjoyed it. I think that’s probably true of any neighborhood library.”
Nevertheless, in 2011, the city decided to demolish the building, and today, the place where the library once stood is an empty lot. Haunting photographs that document the rise and tragic decline of the Mark Twain branch have circulated widely online over the past couple years, and serve as a warning about what can happen when libraries are neglected or shut down.
Even today, “neighbors are still angry about what they feel was a deliberate effort by the Detroit Public Library to misled them into voting for a millage that they promised would restore the library, and then using the funds for other projects.”
View more photos of the former Mark Twain library branch here.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.