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Central Library Celebrates 125 Years

By Dan Lee on Sep 8, 2023 12:00 AM

This year, Central Library celebrates its 125th anniversary with special programs showcasing the building and staff of the Milwaukee Public Library.

From Sept. 5 through Oct. 14, library employees are showcasing original art inspired by the Central Library and its history, or by libraries, reading, literature, literacy in general. On Saturday, October 7, a program on the history of the Central Library building and a program on the past and present of glass plate photography will be presented by staff. The day also includes a building program for children and a tour of the green roof. At 12:30 p.m. Library Director Joan Johnson will welcome Mayor Cavalier Johnson to the library to read the 125th proclamation. Read all about the day's events on the library's website.

The history of the library dates back to the start it was given by the Young Men’s  Association which started a subscription library in 1847, one year after the City of Milwaukee incorporated. The rapidly growing city established the Milwaukee Public Library in 1878 and acquired the association’s book collection. With both the library and Milwaukee Public Museum (transferred from the City to Milwaukee County in 1976) needing bigger quarters, the city decided to construct a building to house both cultural institutions on the southern half of Grand Ave. (renamed W. Wisconsin Ave. in 1926) between 8th and 9th Streets. A nationwide contest received 74 architectural plans, including one by City Hall architect H. C. Koch and an atypical neoclassical design by a young Frank Lloyd Wright.

A U-shaped Library-Museum Building plan submitted by Ferry & Clas was chosen in 1894 and construction started the following year. They not only designed the exterior and interior but also the furniture and book trucks. The library opened in its current home with the telephone number Main-466 on October 3rd, 1898, followed by the museum two months later.

By 1906, both institutions were clamoring for more space. The museum’s 1912 addition and the library’s 1914 addition obliterated a central courtyard, save for two airshafts. By the Roaring Twenties, the building was bulging at the seams. Both the library and museum wanted to leave for their own dedicated buildings.

The city responded by buying and razing Marquette Hospital and storefronts on the south side of W. Wells St. by 1932 for another library-museum addition but the worsening Great Depression and World War II postponed plans except for a small addition on top of the Museum's offices.

After World War II, the library's Wells Street Addition (“Annex” to older retired coworkers) opened in 1956 and the museum started moving into its current building in 1963.

The city only gave some of the museum's former space to the library. During the last third of the 20th Century, Model Cities, Department of City Development, Municipal Courts, Milwaukee Police Department and another museum, Discovery World, occupied former museum spaces at different times until the entire building became library-only in 2001.

Besides books, databases, special collections, computers and more, the Central Library is also made up of people. Notable former staff members include Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Goldie Mabowehz), Violent Femmes bass guitarist Brian Ritchie and retired Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl. Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance started his career as Mark Waters at University School. In a 2008 New Yorker profile, he said he prepared for "Hamlet" by listening to the play on audiotape at the Central Library.

Join us for the 125th anniversary events to celebrate the Central Library, a National Register of Historic Places landmark. Take a look at historical photos of the building by taking a digital tour.

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