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Razed in Cincinnati

June 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Cincinnati Public Library, via Flickr

A few days back, MessyNessyChic—let’s not dwell on the name—posted a series of photographs of Cincinnati’s old public library, erected in 1874 and demolished in 1955. Even if you’re disinclined to fetishize the past, it’s hard not to greet these images with awe and a certain degree of wistfulness. This was one hell of a library, with a checkerboard marble floor, soaring shelves, cast-iron alcoves, and several stories of spiral staircases. In the grandeur of its design, it’s something on the order of McKim, Mead, and White’s original Penn Station—a work of architecture so self-evidently valuable to the contemporary eye that its demolition can be met only with bewilderment and righteous despair: What clown authorized the wrecking ball here?

But aesthetics were not then, and aren’t now, a high municipal priority—as evidenced by the criticism of the time. Harper’s Weekly once wrote about the library, “The first impression made upon the mind on entering this hall is the immense capacity for storing books in its five tiers of alcoves, and then the eye is attracted and gratified by its graceful and carefully studied architecture …”

It seems backward, and dismayingly utilitarian, to note the “immense capacity” first and the “graceful” design second—by that logic, the world’s warehouses and hangars rate among our architectural marvels. But maybe they do; we won’t know for sure until we start tearing them down.

The Cincinnati Library’s Flickr collection hosts even more photographs of the building—they’re much easier to digest if you pretend it’s still standing. Here are two more:

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6 COMMENTS

6 Comments

  1. david crawford | June 20, 2014 at 12:29 am

    what on earth makes us destroy our heritage?it leaves our people culturally rootless. the cincinatti library was a visual splendor, just from the two photographs on the internet.we must start someday, to look at public spaces as places for all to be inspired, not just utilitarian places good enough for the masses and beautiful spaces for the wealthy in private venues.

  2. Optical Express Magazine | June 20, 2014 at 5:31 am

    This is incredible, we should be proud of our heritage. There is’t a huge amount left, we should treasure what is.

  3. Eddie Jeffrey | June 20, 2014 at 9:26 am

    At first glance I thought it was archival photography of the George Peabody Library in Baltimore.

    BTW, warehouses and hangars are definitely architectural marvels; lack of visual appeal doesn’t make them any less so.

  4. Dan Piepenbring | June 20, 2014 at 9:38 am

    @ Eddie, I agree. I wanted to elaborate on that distinction in the piece, but it felt too digressive.

  5. Owen Findsen | June 20, 2014 at 10:08 am

    And now Cincinnati has voted to permit the Western Southern Life Insurance Company to demolish a block of historic buildings in the Lytle Park Historic District to build a new office tower as well as high priced condominiums.

  6. Doug Story | June 21, 2014 at 1:37 am

    To Owen Findsen and David Crawford,
    The Cincinnati city fathers obviously have seen fit to destroy history in favor of giving yuppies places to work and live and the higher taxes paid from both new buildings.
    Absolutely disgusts me, to destroy something so architecturally beautiful in favor of what’s going to be utilitarian and downright ugly in its’ construction.

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