Detroit's Mark Twain Library Branch

Detroit, Michigan (Map)

Winter 2010.


The Mark Twain Library branch was built in 1940 & designed by one of Detroit's more famous architects, Wirt C. Rowland.

Rowland designed the Buhl, the Penobscot & my go-to building for showing off Detroit, the Guardian.

The reason he designed a library branch after designing many of the cornerstones of Detroit's downtown was The Great Depression. Rowland lost his job after the Depression hit & he started his own firm; a firm which worked on smaller jobs like branch libraries and personal homes.

We had already tried to enter this place another time, but some local teens saw us walking & started verbally harassing Donnie as he tried to walk around - much to my amusement.

The reason I had to see this place was that seemingly everything was left behind.

I had only read about one other library where they left everything, and I believe that one was demolished in 2001 (and also, it was in St. Louis).

The reason everything was left behind here in Detroit was because this was never a planned abandonment - or at least it wasn't to the general public.

The original plan was to close this library briefly to fix a hole in the roof.

Then during this repair they made the shocking discovery of asbestos in the attic...which surely none of the contractors/roofers/owners/crooked politicians could have ever predicted!

Then instead of simply not disturbing the confined asbestos, they told the general public that they would need to close the library for approximately a year to remove the asbestos. This turned from 1 year into 2 years and into 3, as the costs grew far higher than their initial lowball estimate.

The City of Detroit then asked voters to pass a bill for bonds to repair this facility, as locals complained that their branch library remained closed. This bond money would become available for repair, while the city also moved select books from the library into an unused room in a nearby church - which would provide the neighbourhood with a tiny annex library to temporarily replace their original inspiring structure.

Of course the money never fixed the building & it continued to sit idle. Eventually scrappers started to attack the outside of the building, stealing the copper lettering, roof trim & flourishes. The scrappers would soon make it inside & security of the building was seemingly abandoned. Picture takers would soon follow & they infiltrated this library like teens infiltrate a shopping mall.

Even small, obscure places tend to have impressive libraries because of government-supported library funding.

Of course in Detroit it's an extra shame because Detroit is the type of place which would put 2 fireplaces in their reading cathedrals. I thought this loss would really bother a friend of mine, but he said Detroit had already lost a 100x more impressive library at Scripps Park.

As for exploring the building, I climbed through a tire-sized hole to get into the space above the reading room domes. It involved crawling on all fours & arching my back underneath a two-by-four, annoying nailed into my path.

I stuck my head through a roof hole & admired the traffic moving along Gratiot.

I noted the building scar across the road, the abandoned gas station kitty corner to our building & the MARM-covered restaurant just down the road.

Seeing as Mark Twain was demolished this summer, the arterial street of Gratiot will have an even bigger grassland portion soon enough.

We climbed back down & left the library.

I was glad that I saw Mark Twain before it was gone.



1 - Wirt Rowland Architect - Village of Clinton

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