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The library is more than just books. Every month, the Milwaukee Public Library joins Lake Effect to share resources, book recommendations and cool stuff you might not know about.

Central Library celebrates 125 years of cultural and community history

Milwaukee Public Library
Grand Rotunda dome exterior, under construction, circa 1897

Milwaukee Public Library’s Central Library branch opened in 1898, designed by local architects as a home to both the Milwaukee Public Library and the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Central Library was designated as an official Milwaukee landmark in 1969 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The famous library is celebrating another milestone this weekend — its 125th anniversary.

Casey Lapworth, Central Library's processing archivist special collections librarian, explains how the building has changed over the years.

Before Central Library was commissioned

Before we can get to all the changes and growth the building at 814 W. Wisconsin Ave. has experienced, let's start with what was in the neighborhood before it was built.

Milwaukee Public Library
Some of the finer carving was done by workers on scaffolding after the larger pieces were lifted into place. Photo was taken circa December 1896.

“Wisconsin Avenue was known as Grand Avenue then,” Lapworth notes. "It was some row houses, Trinity Hospital and Calumet Club was here... Mozart's Hall was here, that was kind of a little outdoor amphitheater in a park and they would have musical programs because of our German heritage it was such a big thing. So [the area] was a smattering of different things.”

In 1890, Lapworth says the idea for a new library and museum building came about and it was intended to be built as a joint institution from the start, and the big push was for a fireproof building.

“The city started buying land and they had an architecture design competition,” she says. “We had about 74 entries, only two were (from) Milwaukee and one of those was the actual winner. And Frank Lloyd Wright even submitted an entry.”

The winner, Ferry & Clas, designed the classical-style building we see today. Planning started in 1893, construction began in 1895 and ultimately was finished in 1898. The library opened officially on October 3rd, 1898 and the museum opened shortly after in early 1899.

Ferry and Clas were the local architects who won the design competition and construction of Central Library started in 1895 and wrapped in 1899.
Image courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library
Ferry and Clas were the local architects who won the design competition and construction of Central Library started in 1895 and wrapped in 1899.
Expanding Central Library & the Milwaukee Public Museum

Shortly after Central Library and Milwaukee Public Museum opened, Lapworth says both institutions experienced a rise in popularity and began to run out of space in their joint building.

"Within a few years they were out of space, it just happened so fast. And I don't know if that's just the way the library was buying and they were getting use. I mean, there's pictures of some of the spaces so packed with people," says Lapworth.

So, the library and museum coordinators began to talk about expanding their capacity with additions to the building. Lapworth says the additions can be categorized into four stages over the years.

"When you look at the plans ... it was kind of an 'L' shape," describes Lapworth. "The library was all of the rotunda east and the museum was all rotunda to the west. So the first addition basically kind of filled that in and made it a rectangle."

The first addition (1909-1912) and was done by Ferry & Clas, the same architects commissioned for the original building. This addition was for the museum and included four floors and a basement level. Today, these addition spaces are Central Library's first floor Media area, Mozart's Grove/Green Ideas & "main street." The fourth floor build was all for the museum to move their administrative offices and most of their departments.

The second addition (1913-1915) was for the library to add a second and third floor north of the rotunda. "It came back in and filled in behind the dome. If you come into the registration off Wisconsin Avenue from the rotunda, now it's just got kind of a high ceiling. When it first opened it had a huge domed ceiling, so it was probably super inefficient to heat. And so what they did is they brought the ceiling way down and they added two floors," Lapworth explains.

The third addition (1930-1931) "Was actually kind of a rickety fifth floor that was on top of the fourth floor. It didn't last very long... They took it down 30 years later after they added the fourth addition, which was basically in the 50's," Lapworth says.

The fourth addition in 1955 allowed the building to take over the entire block. "That's probably the one most people are familiar with because it's the biggest and most obvious," says Lapworth. "We have Wells Street entrance now because of that ... [the style is] so different from the rest of the building. It's very 50s."

The Reference Room

Milwaukee Public Library
This was how the Reference Room looked from 1898 to about 1912. It had fireplaces, copper shelving, and plenty of seats for reading and research among the grand columns and high ceiling.

Another notable space that changed is the Central Library’s Reference Room. In 1947, work began to turn the gigantic two-story room into two rooms by adding an additional floor between the first and second stories.

Lapworth notes there are two large display cases that sit in the corridor outside the Reference Rooms that were made from the original doors of the historic room.

"The room is storage now but it was this huge kind of three-story [space], it had fireplaces in it and I've spent a lot of time looking at the few photos we have trying to find out where the fireplaces were or where the reference desk was. It had this carving, these beautiful floors, there was copper shelving," Lapworth describes. "This was their big, beautiful reference room. It's just very sad [they changed it]."

What used to be a grand place to research and read in now houses most of the Central Library’s history records behind two tall 50s-style doors.

Milwaukee Public Museum Moves out

The last day the Milwaukee Public Museum was open to the public in the original space was December 22, 1967. The elephant was moved in June of 1969 when the Museum completed their move that year.
The last day the Milwaukee Public Museum was open to the public in the original space was December 22, 1967. The elephant was moved in June of 1969 when the Museum completed their move that year.

It took the Milwaukee Public Museum almost a decade to move out of the Central Library location to their new building on 8th & Wells Streets.

"They were planning the new building, 1963 is when it officially opened, and they still had exhibits in the library and were open across the street," notes Lapworth. "The last relic to be moved out was one of the elephants that was in what is now the Zeidler room. He had to be dismantled to take out, and he moved out in '69."

Celebrate Central Library’s history

To recognize its history and to help put her research to public use, Lapworth put together a new self-guided tour of Central Library that you can interact with either in the building or virtually.
She says she wanted to create a better resource for others after she noticed library visitors often expressed interest in the history of the building.

“We had a couple of brochures, but nothing super in-depth,” she recalls. “And that's a really big question. We didn't have anything that I could just point and be like, ‘This is what [the history] is.’ I'd even print out some of my PowerPoint presentations for folks with specific questions.”

With the use of Lapworth’s research and help from her colleagues, the self-guided tour works as a go-to resource for visitors that sums up the history of the Central Library’s building in an accessible manner.

Casey Lapworth
Audrey Nowakowski
Casey Lapworth is Central Library's processing archivist special collections librarian.

"We’re basically our own kind of library history institution because we’ve been around for so long. So our cultural history is kind of some of the community history at this point,” she says.

“There’s like 5,000 little questions I want answered,” Lapworth says, “and sometimes I answer a few and sometimes it opens up a couple more.”

You can join in the celebrations for Central Library's 125th this Saturday Oct. 7 with a few presentations and events happening throughout the day. There’s also a Milwaukee Public Library Staff Art Show through the 14th and you can find more informationhere.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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