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The Parkway Central Library: Part 1
1901 Vine Street

free library.jpg

The Parkway Central Library at 1901 Vine Street in Philadelphia


Liber Libere Omnibus, the library motto, translates as Free Books for All.

Liber with a short i sound is “book,” and liberi with a long i sound is “free” or “freely.” Catchy word play!

There were close to 200 libraries in the city of Philadelphia in the 19th century. Most were specialized libraries (law, business, industry or medicine), academic libraries associated with a high school or university, subscription libraries like Ben Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, or commercial libraries that rented out books. The Free Library of Philadelphia, the central building of which is in our neighborhood, was chartered in 1894 as the City’s first municipally-funded lending library open to all without cost to the individual patron. This article will briefly discuss some 19th century libraries that impacted our neighborhood or were folded into the Free Library system. It will then discuss the Parkway Central Library site and the building itself.

Like many of the firsts in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin was responsible for the first public library here. In 1831 he enlisted 38 men to pay 40 shillings (about two pounds) as initiation and then contribute 10 shillings a year. This subscription library was incorporated in 1742 as the Library Company of Philadelphia, and still serves as a research library at 13th and Locust Streets.

The Apprentices’ Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1820, billed itself as the first free circulating library in the city, and possibly the United States. It was a private library funded by businesses to improve the education of apprentices, those boys over the age of 14 who labored 60 hours a week or more in return for on-the-job training, meals, and lodging. In 1842 it broadened its patron base to include all genders and ages. All that was required was that children obtain the signature of a guarantor who would be responsible for damaged or lost items. It had short stays in various buildings, including the second story of Carpenters’ Hall and the first story of the former first Mint of the United States, but in 1841 settled for an almost 60-year stay in the Free Quakers Meeting House at 5th and Arch Streets. In 1897 it moved into the meeting house of the Spring Garden Unitarian Society in our near neighborhood, at Broad and Spring Garden, adjacent to the Spring Garden Institute, another technical training center. The new quarters were also very near Boys’ High School, the Girls’ High School, the Normal School, and the Central Manual Training School. The new site also offered an opportunity to try open shelves, wherein patrons could directly access books on the shelves themselves. In the 1822 catalog, books were shelved solely by size: folio, quarto, octavo, etc. By 1842 they were cataloged by topic. The Dewey decimal system, published in 1876, became broadly adopted in the late 1800s. Like many early libraries, the accession of books of fiction was resisted as too diversionary, but by 1871 most of the circulated books were novels. The Apprentices’ Library became redundant after 1900 for three reasons: there were few apprentices; the Philadelphia Public Library opened branches in the Wagner Free Institute in 1892, the former Widener mansion in 1900, and four other locations; and in 1906 twenty-five Andrew Carnegie-funded libraries began popping up throughout the city, including in 1907 at 17th and Spring Garden Street. Of the 25 Carnegie libraries opened in Philadelphia between 1906 and 1930, 17 still function as libraries. Three have undergone conversion for other uses, and five have been razed (including ours, as described in our article here). You can get a quick summary of the architects of the 25 libraries at outside link here and see postcards of the 25 libraries on the outside link here. 


Apprentices’ Library which was in this building, rented from the Free Quakers, at the southwest corner of 5th and Arch Streets circa 1870. This building, still standing and back to being a meeting house for the Free Quakers, housed the Apprentices’ Library from 1841 to 1897. The books were curated to focus on the betterment of scientific skill. There were separate reading rooms for boys and girls. Photo credit here.

In 1820 another type of “free” library opened, the Philadelphia City Institute. A building at 18th and Chestnut Street was acquired in 1855, providing a large lecture hall and a reading room open from 6 pm to 10 pm. The hope was to further the education of boys who dropped out of school to work, and especially to keep them out of trouble. The “free” adjective in its plan was not quite universally applied, as the patrons were limited: “Every man over 14 years of age is admitted. . . without charge, on a certificate of good character and inability to pay.” A night school for girls opened in the 1870s with a 17-week curriculum. City Institutes spread throughout several neighborhoods, to include the Spring Garden Institute at the northeast corner of Broad and Spring Garden Streets in 1835. The Philadelphia City Institute at Rittenhouse was folded into the Free Library system in the 1940s and moved to its current location at 1905 Locust Street in the 1950s.


Mercantile libraries were member-based libraries funded by merchants and bankers, the white collar equivalent of the blue-collar apprentice libraries. In 1820 a subscription library called the Mercantile Library Company opened in Philadelphia. It was originally in a Greek revival building next to the American Philosophical Society’s library on 5th Street. It moved into a converted rail depot at 10 South 10th Street in 1869, and was folded into the Free Library system as the Mercantile Branch in 1944. It moved around the corner to 1021 Chestnut Street in 1953, in a modernist building paid for by the Free Library, and was closed in 1989. The building is still there with a flowery mural adorning its façade.


The Mercantile Library, first building. Built 1845, demolished 1925. Photo from the Library Company of Philadelphia.


Mercantile Library at 10 South 10th Street in 1869. Photo credit here


The most recent Mercantile Library at 1021 Chestnut Street today.

The history of the Free Library of Philadelphia is given on the excellent library website here and a timeline of the history is given here. The following will be a quick summary.


George S. Pepper (1808-1890) was one of several wealthy childless philanthropists that had an impact on, or lived in, the Baldwin Park neighborhood (see others here). George’s father, William Pepper (1779-1846), had become quite wealthy as a merchant and landholder in Philadelphia. In 1889 George S. Pepper, at the urging of his nephew, another William Pepper, made a $225,000 bequest in his will to the City of Philadelphia to establish a free library system. George Pepper died the following year. There were court challenges to the will by private libraries, but in 1891 the court granted a charter for the Free Library of Philadelphia. This is the date on the Free Library seal. Later that year, Mayor Edwin S. Stuart signs an ordinance appropriating $15,000 to the Board of Education to establish the Philadelphia Public Library, with the first branch to be the Wagner Free Institute branch at 17th and Montgomery Streets. In 1894 the Philadelphia Public Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia were consolidated under the name of the latter.

This being Philadelphia, there were other delays in executing plans for a Central Library to be built on the proposed Fairmount Parkway (since 1937 named the Benjamin Franklin Parkway). These delays included: conflicts about the exact route of the Parkway, not settled until 1911; changes in mayors and their attitudes about public spending, even spending for the Parkway itself; challenges by City lawyers to the funding process for the library; litigation initiated by local masons who opposed non-local stone cutting of the Indiana limestone; and World War I. During these delays, good news came from Andrew Carnegie, who offered the city $1.5 million for the construction of 30 branch libraries, as discussed above. Unfortunately, when the time arrived for the construction of the Central Library building, Carnegie had given up his library funding gig. Meanwhile, the Central Library moved into City Hall in 1894 and then into two other temporary homes.



Plan of first floor of the new City Hall showing in red hash marks the space dedicated to the new Central Library. The library would occupy three of the 700 rooms in the building for one year. Photo credit here.



The main reading room at 1217-1221 Chestnut Street circa 1900. The building was an old concert hall that was shared with a tavern next door. The Central Library would be here from 1895 to 1910.

During this time there was a Children’s Department in a separate building at 1233 Locust Street. Photo credit here.



Periodical Room at the library at 13th and Locust Street. If you think this room looks like the current Mutter Museum, that’s because this room was the Mutter Museum from 1863 until its move in 1909 to its current location at 22nd and Ludlow Streets. Andrew Carnegie, philanthropic friend of libraries, gave the College of Physicians (keeper of the Mutter collection) $100,000 to complete the building at 22nd and Ludlow. His gift made up one-third of the total cost of construction. Photo credit here.


The College of Physicians of Philadelphia at the northeast corner of 13th and Locust Streets as seen in 1890 after the third-floor addition. The library would move here in 1910. The building was demolished and the site is now a surface parking lot.


Portion of 1831 map. North is to the right. The library lot is the southern half of the block with the number 25 on it (25 is the elevation on that contour). Pearl, Wood, and Carlton Streets are not shown. Fairview Street is now Buttonwood Street. There were lots sold off along the north side of the lot, on Callowhill Street, as early as 1831. Spring Garden Street runs vertically on the right edge with the Bush Hill Oil Cloth Works in the lower right of the image.

The San Souci Garden at upper left was a private garden open to the public for a fee, one of several in the city as described in outside article here.


Portion of an 1859 map showing the future library site. Pearl and Newbold Streets were vacated for the library’s construction. In 1911, when the Parkway route was basically established, this site was purchased by the City for $213,000. This was almost the total of George Pepper’s bequest.


Logan Square on this 1901 map was surrounded on all sides by fashionable homes with rear yards.

Pink signifies a masonry building. Yellow signifies wood framed construction. Many of the buildings still had wood-framed privies at the rear of the building. By 1900 there were 800 miles of sewer and storm water pipes within the city, compared to 3,000 miles now.

The soap and candle works on 20th Street in the upper left of the map is discussed on our website here.

The block of large townhomes between Logan Square and 20th Street on what was then Logan Square West were demolished for the parkway.


The northwest corner of 19th and Vine Street in 1909 from photo here

1901 Vine Street on the corner was a 12-room, one-bath building suitable for residents or office professionals in 1907. After the City purchased this block, the succinctly named Philadelphia House Wrecking Company leveled the block, and it would stay leveled (or at best, a hole in the ground) for the next 11 years.

Billy Sunday, an evangelical preacher and former professional baseball player, was the Billy Graham of his day. During the delays affecting the construction of the Central Library, he came to Philadelphia for ten weeks in the winter of 1915 at the urging of Baldwin Locomotive Works President Alba Johnson. Johnson and others funded the construction of a wood-and-tar paper tent that could hold 20,000 on the cleared future site of the Free Library. Sunday preached twice daily in this tabernacle, and more than 1.8 million turned out for his 147 sermons. And more than 44,000 found themselves inspired to walk the “Sawdust Trails” that were the aisles, confirming their faith via a handshake with Sunday.


A sketch of Billy Sunday preaching at the temporary tabernacle set up on the future library site. This is from a skeptical May 1915 article written by journalist and communist activist John Reed, just back from a visit to Russia.

Architects Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele designed not only the Parkway Central Free Library but the Philadelphia Museum of Art, built at the same time.  The architects made changes to the size and superstructure of the library building as the fiscal situation changed, but the library and the Family Court Building to its east were modeled and eventually built to almost duplicate the twin facades of the Ministère de la Marine and Hôtel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde in Paris. On January 24, 1923, the cornerstone (dated 1922) was placed, and the building was dedicated on June 2, 1927.


One of these three buildings is not like the others – or maybe not? From top to bottom are the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, the Family Court building, and the Parkway Central Library.


Groundbreaking ceremony on May 12, 1918.

Hallahan High School can be seen on the right foreground and the recently-built Baldwin Munitions Plant with the water tank on top is in right background. The cornerstone on the library (dated 1922) was placed January 24, 1923.


Photo looking north in 1923. The steel skeleton is going up with the granite base and Indiana limestone facade following. The original plan was for an all-masonry building, like City Hall. Budget constraints forced the switch to the cheaper steel skeleton with a masonry facing. The dedication of the completed building was June 2, 1927.

The lettering on the building to the north of the library, partially visible through the steel, belongs to the McCambridge Plumbing Company, which went bankrupt the year this photo was taken, as discussed in our article here.


When people ask why we don’t build monumental buildings like we used to, this is why: it costs a lot of money! There are dozens of free columns, engaged columns, and pilasters on all facades of the Central Library, and dozens more inside.

The Cathedral and City Hall can be seen in the background on the right in both photos.

The left photo is from here and the right from here.

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