"My library shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them."
These were the words of Enoch Pratt in 1882 when he gave a gift of over $1 million to Baltimore City to create a central library and four branches. By 1894, the Pratt Library had the fourth largest collection in the country and one of the most active circulations.
With assistance from Andrew Carnegie, the library system and its branches grew tremendously in the early 1900s, expanding to over 20 neighborhood branches. In 1927, the citizens of Baltimore voted to spend $3 million in city funds to build a new Central Library building.
The construction of the current central library building on Cathedral Street began in 1931 and was completed in 1933. Architect Clyde N. Friz hoped to avoid the old-fashioned institutional character of the past in his design and instead to give the library "a dignity characterized by friendliness rather than aloofness," as Pratt Director Joseph Wheeler stated. The new building allowed the library to form specialized departments, such as "education, philosophy, and religion," "industry and technology," as well as the "popular library," now known as the fiction section.
Although allowing for expansion, the design of the new building retained one of Pratt's steadfast requirements: that there be no stairs leading into the main entrance. This seemingly odd requirement, and one that certainly went against the grain of architectural design for grand civic institutions at the time, was based Pratt's philosophy that the library should be open to all people. Pratt saw grand stairs as an impediment, especially to a growing segment of the reading population: women who may be pushing babies in strollers.
Far before the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its accessibility requirements for public buildings, the main entrance to the library pointedly tell the story of Pratt's vision and commitment to inclusivity.
Watch our Five Minute Histories video on the building!