What Happened to the "Most Magnificent Library in the Country"?
Photo from the Collection of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.
English writer Walter Savage Landor once divulged, “Nothing is pleasanter than exploring a library.” Over the last few months, we have spent a lot of time in the library, further exploring the history of Japp’s, Main Street/OTR, and Cincinnati so we can share neat anecdotes for #HistoricalThursday and better understand how we got to where we are today. Our experiences at the library have been nothing short of “pleasant.” We have had an absolutely fabulous time working with the incredibly kind and helpful staff of the Cincinnati Public Library, Cincinnati History Library, Mercantile Library, and more. Today, we’re stepping back in time to showcase the beautiful, elaborate “Old Main” Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
The Cincinnati Public Library’s roots can be traced back to a private subscription library that started in 1802. In 1853, the Ohio Common Schools Act was passed, which set aside provisions for funding a public library. On March 14 of that year, the Cincinnati Public Library was born.
Stone heads of William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and Jon Milton guarded the front entrance of the Old Main Public Library. Photos from the Collection of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.
The public library would be relocated many times in the early 19th century before landing on a more permanent home. The Library Board purchased the Truman Handy's Opera House Project for $83,000, and in 1874, the “Old Main” Public Library was completed at 629 Vine Street.
Cincinnati architect J. W. McLaughlin was tapped to complete the project's interior design. McLaughlin was an American Civil War veteran who served in the Union Army. He practiced under prominent architect James Keys Wilson and worked on jobs including the Cincinnati Zoo, Hamilton County Courthouse, the original Cincinnati Art Museum Building, and other popular department stores downtown.
Originally intended to be an opera house, which lost funding prior to completion, the project cost $383,594.53 (around $7 million today). It was ornate and magnificent in nature, looking more like a cathedral than a public library. Stone heads of William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and John Milton guarded the front entrance. Towering four floors high, the library opened up to a vast atrium with a skylight that contained five cast-iron alcoves of books, checkered marble floors, and spiral staircases. The library held up to 300,000 books in its collection.
The library was well-staffed and kept. It boasted expansive reading rooms with beautiful works of art, spacious reading desks, and shelves of rare and unique manuscripts. There was a children's room for young kids to read and learn. Employees of the library included those in charge of retrieving requested books, patrolling the library, and training other librarians.
Photos from the Collection of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.
Reflecting back on this magnificent place, it’s hard to believe that anyone would want to tear it down. However, by the mid-20th century, it was not even a dispute. Talks for a new library began in the 1920s when the Public Library’s book collection started outgrowing the building's capacity. Books were placed on unreachable shelves, the 19th-century ventilation system was not cooperating, paint was peeling off the walls, and embellishments did not withstand the test of time. Though the original building was considered modern when it was built, with central heating and an elevator, financial woes, overcrowding, and neglect in its final years led to the demise of what was once the "most magnificent library in the country."
A photograph depicts workers moving books from the Old Main Public Library in 1955. Photos from the Collection of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.
In 1944, voters approved a bond measure to create a new central library. Eleven years later, the new, contemporary library opened up in January 1955. Removing the books from the old library to their new home on the corner of 8th and Vine took three weeks. There were 1.25 million volumes that were transferred between locations. Beyond the multitude of books, photos, and historical collections, the only remnants of the Old Main library are the three busts of Shakespeare, Franklin, and Milton that once graced the main entrance of the historic hub.
The building was sold in 1955 to Leymon Corp for about $100,000 today, and by June of the same year, it was demolished. Today, an office building and a parking garage can be found in the spot of the old library.
Image from the demolition of the Old Main library in 1955. Photos from the Collection of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.