The downtown Wilmington library is No. 3 on a new list titled “the 11 Most Beautiful Libraries in the United States.”
“Visitors will encounter a massive, symmetrical white-gray façade designed in the Neoclassic style by well-respected architects Alfred Githens and Edward Tilton,” Fodor’s Travel writes of the Wilmington Public Library. “There are intricate fixtures to admire, including terra-cotta frieze with Egyptian motifs and narrow grilled windows.”
The library is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building was dedicated in 1922 on the southern side of Rodney Square, a public space that had been created on the site of an old reservoir. It joined the headquarters of the DuPont Co. and a building housing offices for city and county government. A federal building would complete the quartet.
Like many institutions in Delaware, the Wilmington Public Library owes some of its beauty to the du Pont family. Pierre S. du Pont (of Longwood Gardens fame) “spearheaded a campaign to provide a larger building and improved services,” the library history says. He also donated the land, chaired the committees that supervised the architectural design and the capital campaign. Other family members served as library managers for decades.
A document posted on Wilmington’s website and explaining the historic significance of the Rodney Square area goes into much more detail.
“The building was designed in the Beaux Arts style and is distinguished by a polychrome, terracotta frieze, limestone owls on the second story window sills, and an ornate central entry. The design repeated references to Greco-Roman architecture – motifs from Pompeii, the frieze from the Parthenon at the Acropolis, the Library at Alexandria, the Frieze from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in Rome – in keeping with revivalist tenets of the City Beautiful movement,” it says.
The centered, double-height interior features a sky-lit atrium and polychrome, plaster columns.
“In 1925 the design received the American Institute of Architects Exhibition Medal for first place in the Public Building Group principally for its implementation of uninterrupted interior space.” the website says.
A 1969 renovation added a mezzanine level for stack space and dramatically changed the interior.
“Renovations completed in 2014 reversed some of those changes, repaired historic features, and added a carefully integrated access ramp and community space,” the city website says.
“It was more beautiful when they had the Wyeths,” Elise Kidd wrote on a Facebook post by Joe del Tufo (his Moonloop Photography photo accompanies Fodor’s list).
Kidd was referring to a collection of 14 illustrations painted by N.C. Wyeth for a 1920 edition of “Robinson Crusoe.” Starting in 2009, the library sold eight to pay for the $10.4 million renovation, The News Journal reported. It later sold two more.
The library has always adapted and will continue to do so, its site says.
“Books will always be the basis for library service, but the volume of information made available by new technology presents the most interesting of challenges – to blend traditional library service with futuristic concepts of retrieving information.”
The library remains a popular spot for gatherings. Superstar Dolly Parton recently visited to celebrate the state’s adoption of her Imagination Library program that mails a book a month to newborns until they are 5.
She performed two songs there, and also left the library an autographed copy of her book, “Coat of Many Colors.”
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