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“An Entirely Unsuitable Home” for the Free Library of Philadelphia

The Free Library of Philadelphia, 1217-1221 Chestnut Street, 1910.

It’s shocking to imagine this ramshackle structure was the home of the Free Library of Philadelphia between 1895 and 1910.  The Free Library came into existence in 1891 thanks to efforts of Dr. William Pepper, a celebrated physician and provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Pepper used $225,000 of his  family’s money to start Philadelphia’s library system, but that wasn’t enough to provide the main branch of the Free Library with a suitable building.  Other people of Pepper’s class opened their pockets to pay for the construction and maintenance for private libraries, most notably the University of Pennsylvania and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Public institutions got the short end of the stick.

University of Pennsylvania Library, designed by Frank Furness and completed in 1891, the same year as the founding of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Photographed on March 17, 1961

In 1895, the Free Library moved from its cramped quarters in City Hall into an old concert hall on the 1200 block of Chestnut Street.  The Italianate-style building dated from the 1850s. It was supposed to be a temporary home. Unfortunately, the Free Library would remain in this decrepit structure for over a decade.  The library employees were outraged at this set-up, describing it “as an entirely unsuitable building, where its work is done in unsafe, unsanitary and overcrowded quarters, temporary make-shifts.” The ground floor of the building was occupied by Hanscom’s Cafeteria, which advertised potential readers: “Cafeteria in basement. Stop in and help yourselves. Lunch in basement.”  The library was flanked by two second-rate theaters, not exactly the best neighbors for readers seeking peace and quiet.

Owen Wister, who spent much of his leisure time (and some of his writing time) at the nearby Philadelphia Club, must have had the Free Library in mind when he wrote scathingly of his native city:

The city is a shame. They’re proud of it, yet take no care of it. . . . The bad gas, the bad water, the nasty street-cars that tinkle torpidly through streets paved with big cobble-stones all seem to them quite right. . . . Their school buildings are filthy. I heard a teacher who spoke ungrammatically and pronounced like a gutter-snipe teaching the children English. . . . Isn’t it strange that such nice people should tolerate such a nasty state of things?

Things were different in New York and Boston.  While the patrons of the Philadelphia Free Library read in rickety Victorian gloom, the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library rapidly raised funds to construct magnificent Beaux-Arts style structures by Carrere & Hastings and McKim Mead and White, respectively.

It wasn’t until the 1920 that the Free Library raised the funds for architect Horace Trumbauer to design a new structure on Logan Circle, modeled on the Hotel de Crillon in Paris. A bronze statute of Dr. Pepper graces the landing of the grand staircase.

Sources:

“History of the Library,” Free Library Company of Philadelphia,” https://libwww.freelibrary.org/about/history/. accessed December 11, 2019.

James M. O’Neill, “Owen Wister’s Lost Tale of Phila Published,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 4, 2001, http://articles.philly.com/2001-10-04/news/25305723_1_owen-wister-romney-philadelphia-area-locales, accessed December 1, 2015.

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