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The Parkway Central Library: Part 2
1901 Vine Street

This article is the second of two about the Parkway Central Library. The first part is here.

The Parkway Central Library is the Baldwin Park neighborhood’s biggest asset. The library does more than lend books. A good resource for services offered is the nine-page brochure and map at the outside link here.

An introduction to the building can be obtained by taking a free docent-led tour, offered four days a week. The one-hour tour of the Rare Book Department is offered daily and gives an appreciation of the history of writing and printing. Researchers can find resources in the map department and in the print and picture department. Patrons can borrow musical scores, musical instruments, and DVDs. The 378-seat Montgomery Auditorium is actively used today for author talks and other events, although it is actually smaller than the 500-seat auditorium that was in the lower level of our neighborhood’s Spring Garden Library (1907-1975), as discussed here.


Edwin A. Fleisher (1877-1959), like George S. Pepper, was a childless philanthropist with an enduring effect on our neighborhood. In Fleisher’s case, he donated his collection of over 3,000 musical scores, valued then at $500,000, to the Parkway Central Library in 1929, plus an endowment to keep the collection growing. This collection represents the largest repository of orchestral performance materials in the world.  These works, now numbering over 21,000, are loaned to performance organizations throughout the world for concerts and recordings. There were many members of the Fleisher family in our neighborhood and the Fleisher Yarn Works, the source of the family wealth, had a satellite factory at 25th and Hamilton Streets. Elizabeth Hirsh, who designed the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center (demolished in 2016 and now the site of the Baldwin Apartments at 1825 Callowhill Street), had married into the Fleisher family. Helen Fleisher, Edwin’s sister, is discussed in our article about Masterman High School as the namesake of a building still standing in the near neighborhood.


Hallahan High School girls visiting the Periodical Room in the new library in 1927. The Periodical Room is now Philbrick Hall. Hallahan, built in 1911 as Girls Catholic High School, was across 19th Street from the library. In 1927 the school graduated 310 seniors. By 1939 it would graduate 977 seniors. The library was a great resource for the students. Photo credit here.


Main Reading Room, now Social Science and History, in 1927.

The desks, chairs, and cabinets were metal to enhance fire protection. Check out the decorative coffered-plaster ceiling and those chandeliers! Photo credit here.


Same room today, now the Social Science and History Department, as viewed from the other end. Bookcases have now filled the reading area.


The carvings in the pediments on the east and west ends of the Vine Street facade are fairly difficult to see from street level. The east pediment shows the history of printing (photo from here). The explanation of the art is here.


The west pediment commemorates the history of writing. The finished pediment on the building also bears the inscription Liber Liberi (free books) on a stone on the central figure’s left. The Free Library’s motto is Liber Liberi Omnibus, or free books for all.

Note the busy little putti on the far right banging away on the typewriter. Higher resolution photo here and explanation here.


Outdoor stone work in Philadelphia is susceptible to freeze-thaw cycles that pull it apart. Water can seep into the tiniest cracks. When water freezes, its volume expands by 9%, putting pressures of up to 30,000 pounds per square inch on its container. In this case that pressure caused the putti’s head to fall off. Not only are construction costs for stone buildings high, but maintenance costs are high as well. This photo is from a 1995 report on necessary repairs to the outside.


The grand marble staircase with pennants by Alexander Stirling Calder.

The bronze statue of Dr. William Pepper is a copy of the one on Penn’s campus, where he was provost. The griffins on the staircase were carved in place and carved marble standing lamps flank the statue.

Speaking of Alexander Sterling Calder, it is well known that he sculpted The Fountain of the Three Rivers that was placed in Logan Square in 1924. He also designed the Shakespeare Memorial sculpture in front of the library. It was placed close to Vine Street in 1929, then moved in 1953 to accommodate the construction of the Vine Street Expressway.


The Shakespeare Memorial right before its move 100 meters south in 1953.

There is a Shakespeare First Folio on display in the rare book room in the library.

In 2003 Moshe Safdie was selected as architect for an addition to the north of the building. Initial plans were for 180,000 square feet at a cost of $120 million. Plans changed as budgets tightened. From 2013 to 2019 the library underwent a $36 million renovation of the current building, with no addition. The six levels of stacks on the north side of the building were demolished and replaced with two levels of public gathering spaces, meeting rooms, administrative offices, and underground storage for 300,000 volumes. You can find The Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron’s review here.  

The original library was constructed at a cost of $7 million ($122 million inflation adjusted to today), plus another million dollars for books. The 2019 renovations were in lieu of the  $120 million addition off the north side of the building and proposed renovations to the main building in conjunction with the addition.


2003 proposed addition to the north of the library


2005 proposed addition.

The models were all for nought, as the final decision was based on finances.


Fourth floor stacks in 2008 before the six floors of stacks were removed. There were 20 miles of book shelves in the stacks. Most of the books were removed to the Regional Operations Center in Gray’s Ferry. These can be ordered for delivery to any library branch through the library website. Photo credit here


This is the space that was, until 2017, occupied by six levels of stacks holding a million books. The stacks were a free-standing structure within the library building. This space is now two levels of public gathering space and meeting rooms.

Photo credit and summary of renovation at outside article here.


The air tubes on the right sent book requests from the service desks in the reading rooms to the stacks. Books were placed in the dumbwaiters and sent from the stacks to the reading rooms. These two pieces of equipment are just inside the Wood Street entrance and are no longer in use to communicate with the non-existent stacks.


Library mascot, Knee-Hi, in 1938 on the left. You can follow Knee-Hi down to the Children's Department today as seen on the right.

Also in our neighborhood is another branch of the Free Library, the Library of Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians (LAMP), on the second floor at 1500 Spring Garden Street. It provides free braille and accessible media service for people with low vision, blindness or a physical disability that impairs reading or holding a book.


Two extant 19th -century institutions with Free Library connections have been mentioned in this article. The Wagner Free Institute was the first branch in the Philadelphia Public Library system. The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia vacated its three-story building at 13th and Locust Street to become the third home of the Central Library. Both the Wagner and the Mutter are “museums of museums,” in that the physical setting of the exhibits has been unchanged for 160 years. A stroll past the dark-grained wood cases, gazing at what were exotic 19th-century specimens, captures not just the content of the exhibits but also the ambience for the 19th-century visitor. Wouldn’t it be nice for the Parkway Central Library, in honor of its centennial in 1927, to restore one of the reading rooms to its 1927 look? Libraries are certainly not just books and reading rooms today, but it would be nice to capture the grandeur of the 1927 building in even a small restored reading room.


The manuscript room in 1948.

The Windsor chairs, tables, lamps, and book shelves are all of metal construction to reduce the risk of fire.


The manuscript room is now chock-full of storage items, with a floor built at mezzanine level to accommodate more storage.


State of Pennsylvania Historical Marker at the Vine Street entrance. This is one of only three State historical markers in the neighborhood. The others are for the Baldwin Locomotive Works and for helicopter pioneer Frank Piasecki.

Further Resources

37-page Historical Building Survey description here.

306 historical images of the library collected for the 75th anniversary here.

unfinished draft article

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