The Mark Twain branch library on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Seneca Street in Detroit is a study in physical and cultural decay.
The triangular parcel of land along Gratiot was originally home to the George Osius branch library, built in 1914 with funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. Designed by the firm of Donaldson & Meier, Osius branch was named for a prominent manufacturer of German descent who served as commissioner of the Detroit Public Library from 1900 to 1907.
In the 1930's, a major project to widen Gratiot Avenue was undertaken by the city due to traffic congestion. Many buildings along Gratiot were moved back from the street, rebuilt, or demolished. After exploring several options, the board of library commissioners decided in July of 1938 that it would be cheaper to demolish the small Osius Branch and replace it with a larger, more modern facility. By October plans for the new library had been drawn up and approved, with the cost of the library expected to be $170,000, paid for in part with Public Works Administration funds. In April of 1939, Osius branch opened one last time to allow patrons to drop off books before it moved into a temporary location two blocks away.
Even as Osius branch was being torn down, work had already begun on what would become the Mark Twain branch library. Twain was Detroit's third regional library, (along with Parkman and Monteith), designed to be larger than a neighborhood library. Regional branches offered a wider selection of books and periodicals in an informal "clubhouse" environment, and could host public events, such as plays and concerts. Construction on the Twain branch finished in early 1940, and the library opened its doors to the public on February 22nd. The actual dedication of the library took place two months later, in a ceremony attended by city officials, religious leaders, and members of the business community. Over 20,000 books were on the shelves for opening day, watched over by head librarian Ethel Kellow.
For many years, the Twain branch was the social hub of the northeast side of Detroit. Numerous newspaper clippings from the 1940's and 50's note a wide variety of events hosted at the library, including a series of lectures on "Problems of Working Girls" held by Miss M. Sharpe, head of the personnel department of the Detroit Edison Co., Boy Scout troop meetings, and the playing of recorded symphonies conducted by Toscanini, Stokowski, and Iturbi for the Girls Music Club program. Well into the 1970's and 80's, Twain branch offered a haven for children and residents as the neighborhood around the library started to decline.
The Detroit Public Library started to run into financial problems in the early 1980's, closing several branches and deferring maintenance on others. In the summer of 1990, several branches, including Twain, were closed due to significant shortfalls. A grant from the State of Michigan reopened Twain in September for two days a week, but a precedent had been set.
In 1996 or 97, long-delayed work began on repairing the roof of the Twain branch, which was leaking water. The scope of the repairs needed increased greatly as contractors found more damage than expected, including toxic asbestos and structural problems. In 1997, the library commission decided to replace the entire roof, and temporarily closed the Twain branch.
What had started off as small repairs grew into a large project that put the library out of service for the foreseeable future. As planning dragged on, residents complained about the lack of library services in the area. To address their concerns, a temporary "annex" for the Mark Twain branch was set up in the basement of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist on Iroquois Street in 1998. About half of the books were moved from the old building to the annex branch, along with computers and other equipment.
Work on the old Twain branch stalled in 1999, as the Detroit Public Library faced another financial crisis. With many of its branch buildings approaching 50 years of age or more, the library estimated that over $100 million dollars in repairs were needed across the city. A millage campaign to fund operations and repairs passed in 2000, and shortly afterwards, the library announced that it would be spending $4 million dollars to repair and reopen three branches, including Mark Twain.
Progress on the Twain branch remained minimal though, even as the library commission claimed that work was going forward. Conditions at Twain were so hazardous that one contractor refused to enter the building to survey it in 2000. A follow up report on the millage by The Detroit News in August of 2002 stated that work was ongoing at the Twain branch, though no details were offered. In 2004 the library started to campaign for a renewal of the 2000 millage. A marketing brochure sent out to residents promoting the renewal featured a "report card" with a list of accomplishments from 2000, including the reopening of two branches (Richard and Skillman), "with the reopening of the Campbell and Mark Twain branches in the works." Another item highlighted new roofs at 17 branches, "including Mark Twain branch." No work appears to have been done, as by 2007 there were large holes in the roof over the general circulation room. Other letters sent out to residents in the neighborhood by the Detroit Public Library led them to believe that the millage would provide funds to reopen the Twain branch. The millage passed, but minimal work was carried out.
In 2003 and 2006 the library commission carried out surveys of the Twain branch, both time finding that the damage had grown more extensive and that it would cost more money to repair the building. Open holes in the roof were letting in water, leading to an infestation of black mold that crept across the walls and into the books that had been left behind. Despite promises given to the community and specific wording in the 2000 and 2004 millages that funds raised would be used to repair the library, little was being done to stabilize, much less improve the Twain branch.
The first public sign that saving Twain was a lost cause came in 2008, when negotiations between the Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance were opened to move the Mark Twain annex into a new mixed-use development that the Alliance was planning on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Rohns Street. It was estimated that build-out for a new branch inside the development would cost about $1.5 million, less than the cost of renovating. By 2009 the old Twain branch was in visible decline, with broken windows and holes in the roof. When residents challenged members of the library commission at a December 15th meeting on why the bond money had not been spent restoring the library, a representative claimed "that the millage proposal pledge was to find a library solution," sidestepping the issue. Despite ongoing talks with the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, residents were assured that no decision had been made regarding the future of the branch.
With its shelves of decaying books, Twain became a very visible symbol of mismanagement and decay in the media. Questions of why so many books and supplies had been left behind to molder dogged the Detroit Public Library, as images of the library featured heavily in news stories about the city. In May of 2011, an RFP for the demolition of the library was issued and discussed at a June 21st meeting. One of the commissioners raised concerns about items that had been left behind. According to the minutes, "Ms. Machie explained, back in 1997 when the building was decommissioned, everything was taken out, reassigned, or sold at a garage/book sale that was of any value. Branch librarians reviewed and selected books and were able to add to their book inventory. Ms. Machie said entering the building to retrieve materials would be hazardous…"
The contract to demolish Mark Twain library was awarded to Adamo Demolition in July of 2011 for just under $200,000. It did not include any provision for salvage of books or materials. Asbestos abatement began in September, and the building was gutted within a few weeks. Structural demolition of the building lasted into October. After work was finished and the demolition crew had left for the day, scavengers would pick through the piles of debris for bits of metal pipe and wiring. Curious onlookers would sneak under the fence to gaze at what was left of the building, or to take a brick for a souvenir.
Just a few months later, the library announced that four branches, including the Mark Twain annex would be permanently closed on December 21st, 2011. Though two branches were eventually spared, the annex was shut down and its books sent off to other branches. On it's last day of operation, the church basement that housed the annex was quiet. A few patrons used computers while librarians sorted through books. Someone had put out cans of soda and a few snacks, along with a sign thanking people for their support.
Today there is an empty lot on the corner of Gratiot and Seneca where the Osius, and then Twain branches once stood. Plans for a replacement library in the commercial development up the street never came about, as budget cuts have forced the library commission to look at closing more branches. Neighbors are still angry about what they feel was a deliberate effort by the Detroit Public Library to misled them into voting for a millage that they promised would restore the library, and then using the funds for other projects.
For a look at the Twain library as it changed over the years, click here.