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Milwaukee’s Central Library A treasure of free information

Oct. 14, 2009
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Even in today’s Information Age, when knowledge that previously would have been difficult or impossible to find is now instantly accessible through the Internet, a trip to the library is still a rite of passage for everyone. A visit to Milwaukee’s grand Central Library is a memorable way to introduce any firsttimer to the treasure of collected books.

The seeds of Milwaukee’s library system were planted in 1847, a year after Milwaukee was incorporated, when Rufus King, the editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, called a meeting at the United States Hotel at Water and Huron streets to plan a library. Most of the people who gathered that December were young men from the East Coast who had not yet made their fortunes in Milwaukee: Putnam, Allis, Van Dyke, Holton, Vliet, Mason and others. They called themselves the Young Men’s Association and drafted a constitution. The group found two rooms for its library on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway, established dues and raised money for books and furniture. For a $2 registration fee (men over 35 had to pay $5), plus another $2 in annual dues, “regular” members were granted unlimited access to a small collection of books shipped in from the East Coast.

According to The Wonders Within:

Milwaukee Public Library by Mary Kamps, the library moved six times in 30 years and was struck twice by fire, one of which destroyed most of the collection. In February 1878, the state Legislature authorized the city of Milwaukee to establish a public library. The Young Men’s Association offered its collection of nearly 10,000 books, a third of which were in German, to serve as the base for the new system’s collection. By 1895 the collection had grown to 75,000 volumes and was quickly outgrowing its digs at the Library Block at Fourth and Wisconsin.

To accommodate the growing stacks of books, the city decided to build a combined library and museum at what is now 814 W. Wisconsin Ave. When Milwaukee officials held a national contest to choose the architect, 74 offices sent renderings, including one created by Frank Lloyd Wright. Milwaukee architects Ferry & Clas were awarded the contract for their design: a U-shaped building one-block long that combined French and Italian Renaissance styles. Within the library’s great marble rotunda, detailed mosaic tile floors were hand-laid by Italian master masons who had settled in the Third Ward. Massive pillars of scagliola (a composite substance made from selenite, glue and natural pigments that imitates marble) support yellow Siena marble stairs that zigzag upward toward the white coffered dome. Within the entrance and the arched corridors, craftsmen decorated using oak and mahogany, egg-and-dart plaster molding and brass and stainedglass lighting fixtures. The magnificence of Milwaukee’s Central Library, as much now as when it opened in 1898, inspires its visitors to appreciate and take advantage of all the library has to offer.

Photo by Kevin Gardner


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