Sunday, April 14, 2013

Grosse Pointe Public Library - Central Branch

A 1954 photo of the library at night with Breuer designed sign

The Grosse Pointe Public Library - Central Branch is one of the Pointes' most well know modernist landmarks.  In addition to great architecture, the library also is home to some impressive works of art by prominent modern artists.

Facade of library on Kercheval at Fischer.  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

The story of how this building came to be began in the late 1940s.  The Grosse Pointe Board of Education designated a portion of the high school land fronting Kercheval for Grosse Pointe's first building built as a library.  Up until this point the GPPL had existed in various adapted spaces in schools, city halls and commercial buildings around town.  Dexter Ferry Jr. and Murray W. Sales, as board members of the Grosse Pointe Public Library (GPPL), were the two lead donors for the new library building.  Dexter Ferry Jr. lead the building committee for the library.

Main lobby with Breuer designed tables, card catalog and shelves.  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

In the post-war time of the library project Modern architecture, particularly European styles, was just making its leap in North America from smaller residential projects to large apartment, commercial and government projects.  Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago had been finished that year and the Niemeyer/Le Corbusier designed UN Headquarters in New York was nearing construction.  Few examples of modern architecture, particularly public buildings, existed in the world other than on paper as proposals or as experimental structures that were part of world fairs.
Breuer designed charging desk and card catalog.  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

Dexter Ferry Jr.'s son, W. Hawkins Ferry, had attended Harvard Design School a little over a decade earlier and worked hard to convince the library board to select Marcel Breuer, his former professor, to design the new building in 1951.  This decision was not without much discussion, especially with the Pointes' preference for more traditional architectural styles, a sentiment which strongly remains today.
Children's Reading Room with Breuer designed tables.  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

Mr. Breuer was a key leader in the Bauhaus movement which started in Germany in the 1920s.  In a talk given by Mr. W.H. Ferry at the library, he quoted Breuer's mentor and colleague, Walter Gropius, who defined Bauhaus in this way: "The guiding principal of the Bauhaus was the idea of creating a new unity through the welding together of many arts and movements, a unity having its basis in man himself and significant only as a living organism". While Breuer eventually became a noted modern architect, at that time he was a noted modern furniture designer who's ground breaking use of tubular steel and laminate woods became some of the world's most iconic furniture designs.
Friends of the Library Room with Breuer designed table and shelves.  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

Now this was not Marcel Breuer's first architectural commission with the Ferry family. In fact, this was just the beginning of a long relationship between Mr. Breuer and the Ferry family.  Breuer had just finished a new dorm at Vassar College where Dexter Ferry Jr.'s daughter Edith Ferry-Hooper attended college.  The dorm was named in honor of Dexter Ferry Jr. who donated the funds for the facility.  Breuer designed an addition to Mrs. Ferry-Hooper's home in Baltimore, MD that was finished a few years before the library, and Breuer also later designed a new home in the Baltimore area for Mrs. Ferry-Hooper.  Additionally Mrs. Ferry-Hooper selected Breuer to design new furniture for a new building at Bryn Mawr School where Mrs. Ferry-Hooper was a board member.  The relationship between Mr. Breuer and the Ferry family was so cordial that Mr. Breuer wrote to Hawkins and Edith by first name and they addressed Mr. Breuer as Lajko, a nickname reserved for use by his close friends and colleagues.  Mr. Breuer also often stayed at the Ferry residence in Grosse Pointe when in town for business related to the library project.
Conference Room with Breuer designed Speaker's Stand (lectern/podium).  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

The Detroit Public Library consulted with Mr. Breuer on the programing and operations of the new library in a modern designed building.  Out of this consultation Mr. Breuer designed many custom pieces of furniture for the library which included the charging desk and various shelving, a record listening desk (does anyone know what happened to it?), card catalog file, and several tables.

Photo courtesy: MI SHPO

The library's modernist design didn't stop with just the building and its furniture.  W. Hawkins Ferry, showing his knowledge of the modern art world and its artist who were just beginning to make their mark but weren't yet the noted trailblazing designers they were to become, collaborated with Breuer on several modern art installations for the library. At the dedication ceremony W. Hawkins Ferry described two works of art that he had (at the time) anonymously donated at a cost of $5,150, to the library: An Alexander Calder mobile and a tapestry based on Wassily Kandinsky's work.

Photo by: Andrew Moore

One of the giants of modern art, Alexander Calder is noted for his ground-based steel sculptures and the invention of the suspended mobile.  Calder's mobile represents a period where Calder had arrived at his creative peak and identity and the wider art world had just started accepting Calder's groundbreaking work.  Calder was commissioned by W.H. Ferry through a relationship Breuer had with CalderNot long after, Calder's works became more widely known by the general public.

Photo by: John Martin Photography

The second work of art donated by W.H. Ferry was the tapestry based on works by Wassily Kandinsky.  As part of the original design process for the library, Mr. Breuer designed a handwoven tapestry made in France that was created from designs and paitings by noted Bauhaus artist and professor Wassily Kandinsky, a friend that Mr. Breuer named his most noted chair design after.  One factual clarification to note: based on the personal notes of W.H. Ferry, the tapestry was not designed or created by Mr. Kandinsky (chiefly because he died in 1944) but was created as a tapestry based on Mr. Kandinsky's "Sur Fon Noir" or "On Black Background" series of paintings.  This distinction differs from the descriptions of the tapestry given by the GPPL and Ms. Elizabeth Vogel's excellent article and outstanding feature on the tapestry and Mr. Kandinsky in this Grosse Pointe Patch article.

Kandinsky inspired tapestry and the original Breuer designed shelves today.  Photo by: John F. Martin Photography

After the library opened, W. Hawkins Ferry had two more works of art that he donated to the library:
A very close friend of Mr. Calder, Herbert Matter was originally commissioned to create a mural for the opening of the library.  However Mr. Breuer encountered many delays in getting Mr. Matter to complete the mural, with delays getting to the point that Mr. W.H. Hawkins considered finding a new artist for a work in the library.  Finally finished in 1955, the work titled "History of Writing" was installed at the library.  It features photo examples of writing from around the world that cover several thousand years of history.  Mr. Matter was an influential Modern graphic designer and photographer who significant body of work includes design work with Conde Nast, Saks Fifth Avenue, Knoll Associates, the Guggenheim Museum, Cranbrook alums Ray & Charles Eames, Yale University, and the New Haven Railroad logo.
Matter mural with Breuer designed table.  Photo courtesy: Grosse Pointe Public Library

As part of the original artwork for the library, a bronze sculpture titled "Icarus" by David Hare was also donated.  However W.H. Ferry and his sister Elissa were not happy with the sculpture or it's location within the library.  After much discussion it was removed from the library and stored in the basement of W.H. Ferry's home until a permanent home was found for it.  The new Northland Shopping Center was a potential consideration for the piece, as was the Detroit Instutute of the Arts.  It's not clear what happened to the sculpture and it is not on public display at the library.

The Friends of the Library Room today with original Breuer desigined shelving.  Photo by: Andrew Moore

Despite the passing of years, W. Hawkins Ferry wasn't finished with his donations to his beloved modern library.  He commissioned and donated the Lymon Kipp metal sculpture in 1981 titled "Salute to Knowledge" which sits prominently outside on the library's Kercheval frontage.  The Kipp sculpture appears to replace a sculpture that was attached to the facade of the library to the right of the sign (see second photo from top and this drawing).  Mr. Kipp was an influential Modern sculptor who studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Mr. Ferry had attended high school much earlier.  The towering blue columns and red panels stand out in contrast to the brick facade of the library and traditional architecture of The Hill downtown district.  Mr. Kipp's work can also be found at the Smithsonian, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, MIT, Calvin College, Grand Rapids Art Museum, University of Michigan and many other prominent places. 

Salute to Knowledge by Kipp.  Photo by: pmoore66

In 2007, after spending two years studying how to create a much needed expansion of the library to accommodate modern technology and more users of the library, the Grosse Pointe Public Library board publicly announced that they were contemplating demolishing the Breuer designed library for a larger, more "modern" facility.

Detail of the front facade today.  Photo by: Andrew Moore

Alerted to the possibility of demolition by Detroit Free Press architecture writer John Gallagher (who wrote the forward to one of W.H. Ferry's books) social media spread the message and the Modern Architecture Protection Agency (mapa) was created.  This national and international network garnered the support of the World Monuments Fund, and with funding from Knoll (who were one of Breuer's earliest furniture manufactures), which placed the library on its 2008 list of "100 Most Endangered Sites".

Main Library Room today. Photo courtesy: Friends of the Grosse Pointe Public Library

Out of this international concern and assistance the library board eventually canceled its plan for demolition and adopted a restoration and sympathetic expansion plan which was lead by a significant local gift for the restoration and the creation of a foundation to preserve the the library.  As a result of the demolition threat and successful preservation outcome, the library has been featured in a World Monuments Fund "Main Street Modernism" special section as well as a case study of 5 threatened modernist buildings as an example of a successful outcome for a threatened modernism building.  The library is also now recognized as a significant building in the Pointes by the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and honored with one of its Bronze Historic Plaques.

Marcel Breuer
Photo of Marcel Breuer in his Wassily chair by: Constance Breuer, wife of Marcel Breuer

If you would like to do more research on the Grosse Pointe Public Library - Central Branch or the Ferry family's relationship with Marcel Breuer, I highly recomend the Marcel Breuer Archives at Syracuse University which are available online.  The archive holds a treasure trove of historic information on the library with over 1,000 articles specifically about the library which include design documents, construction documents,  published articles, photographs, correspondence and more.


  1. We're going to be celebrating midcentury modern at the Library with several exciting events - please contact the Grosse Pointe Library Foundation at - I'd like to share our plans with you!

  2. We'd love to provide a link to your blog on our Breuer website - please email me at

  3. Heard the news that GP is considering closing the library. This saddens me deeply -- this is one of my favorite buildings by Marcel Breuer. Really hoping it stays!

  4. There are absolutely no plans to close the Central Library! You may contact Central Library administration at 313-343-2074 and library trustee meetings and records are open to the public