The downtown Toledo architecture scene may not be known for a wide variety of Art Deco designs, but there are a few classic representations to appreciate and local architectural enthusiasts will tell you that Main Library is one of the Glass City's most prominent examples. Designed by Hahn & Hays and built by Frank Messer and Sons for $2 million (nearly $40 million in 2023 dollars), this magnificent building was dedicated on September 4, 1940. Constructed on land formerly occupied by Toledo Central High School, the boldly modern exterior of Main Library was modeled after the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. , a building used as a prototype for many public buildings and monuments across America in the 1930s and '40s.
Originating in France, Art Deco architecture rose to popularity in the late 1920s and the 1930s. The movement attracted global attention at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, where several forward-thinking designers displayed their groundbreaking work. In architecture, the design style is known for a sleek, linear appearance with ornate, geometric detailing.
Toledo's Main Library features prominent Art Deco elements, including a substantial stone-faced edifice with geometric ornamentation. The building's windows and entrance are decorated with elaborate aluminum detailing. When you stand on the opposite side of Michigan Avenue to take in the façade of Main Library, you can appreciate how its simple yet modern and abstract design help express the building's importance as a monument to knowledge while powerfully conveying a sense of creative inspiration.
The feeling of creative inspiration continues inside the library, where you'll find an extraordinary frieze of glass murals encircling the building's central court. These are sectile murals set in Vitrolite, a pigmented glass material made back in the day by local glassmaker, Libbey-Owens-Ford. These murals illustrate the history of arts and sciences in various fields, including architecture, philosophy, handcrafts, and music. Industry is also represented in a beautiful homage to Toledo's blue-collar industrial roots. The terrazzo floor, sprinkled with a glorious mix of rust, brown and tan chips, helps set off the central court walls and columns. As you scan the room, you see the Art Deco theme carried over in the light fixtures, tables, desks, and windows. It truly is spectacular.
But don't stop exploring on the first floor. You'll find another superb set of murals on the second floor in the children's department illustrating classic children's stories. And don't miss the exquisitely appointed and special temperature and humidity-controlled Rare Book Room in the Local History and Genealogy Department on the third floor, added as part of a major expansion and renovation in 2000.
The 85,000-square-foot modernist addition to Main Library was designed by Toledo architects Munger & Munger and opened in early 2001. It features Indiana limestone panels and expansive bays of aluminum and glass windows that harmonize with the historic 1930's Art Deco design. The glass-walled addition facing 11th Street blends the old with new by using the original exterior wall to compliment the contemporary lines of the glass and the silvery-white metal framing of the addition.
It is not surprising that library leaders leaned toward modernist influences when planning the design of Main Library in the late 1930s. After all, Toledo enjoys a rich history of pioneering the public library concept. The city's first private lending library was founded back in December 1838 by the Young Men's Association. Sixty-six charter members paid an annual fee of two dollars to enjoy the benefits of the library's collection located in the College Building on Summit Street. At the time, a book collection was an expensive indulgence enjoyed only by the elite, so a lending library was a significant bonus for average Toledo citizens who could afford the membership fees. In the late 1830s, in a town nicknamed "Frogtown" because it was so backwoods and swampy, it was a very progressive concept.
In 1864, a group of Republican members broke off from the Young Men's Association because they were upset that the group refused to endorse former General George B. McClellan in his bid to unseat President Lincoln. They left to form the Toledo Library Association. Thankfully, this political spat didn't last too long; the two groups merged in 1867. In 1873, an act of the Ohio Legislature organized a free public library. On May 26, 1873, Toledo's city council passed a resolution permitting the city to buy the book collections of the merged associations and create the Toledo Public Library—one of the first in Ohio. On November 3, 1873, the Toledo Public Library opened on the second floor of the King Block, a commercial building on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Summit Street.
In 1890, famed local architect Edward O. Fallis designed Toledo's first stand-alone library in early Norman and Byzantine style. The library was built on the corner of Madison and Ontario with the final cost, including land, construction, and furnishings, at about $85,000. It opened on June 23, 1890. An annex was added in 1915.
As Toledo continued to grow in the early 1900s, it was soon apparent that a single downtown library could not serve the area's needs. The first full-service branch library opened in April 1915 at the Glenwood School. Other school branch libraries soon followed at Navarre, Nathan Hale, Oakdale-White, Hamilton, McKinley, Arlington, and Harvard schools.
In 1916, the Andrew Carnegie Fund provided $125,000 to build five branches on sites provided by the city of Toledo. Glass tycoon Edward Drummond Libbey also pitched in by donating $100,000 for books. The five branches were the David R. Locke Branch, designed by M.M. Stophlet and opened on December 5, 1917; Eliza M. Kent Branch, designed by L.G. Welker and opened on December 11, 1917 (sadly destroyed by fire in 1974); the Anna C. Mott Branch, designed by Bernhard Becker and opened on January 3, 1918; Frances D. Jermain Branch, designed by Bates and Gamble and opened on January 7, 1918; and the South Branch, designed by David L. Stine and Son, opened on January 16, 1918.
By the 1930s, the Toledo Library had outgrown its downtown building, and despite the Depression, the current Main Library was planned and constructed with the aid of the Public Works Administration (PWA), which supplied a large grant for the construction, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided labor. Unfortunately, shortly before the building was dedicated in 1940, the library's board realized it did not have enough operating budget to run the new building. Thankfully, the issue was resolved through cost-cutting measures.
Today, Main Library, and the entire Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system, enjoy record-high public appreciation, as demonstrated in a recent countywide levy approval. The future of Main Library is bright—not just as a book lender but as a community center serving the needs of its downtown neighbors.