If you go to the Indianapolis Central Library, you likely have a mission and no time to stay. But next time you have a few moments to spare, consider exploring.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building, the library is organizing “Celebrate 100 Years of the Central Library: Building Architecture Tours”. Public Services Librarian Julie Able and Lois Laube, a librarian and member of the Specialized Collections team, revealed some of the little-known stories behind the details of the building on Saturday.
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The current building consists of the original 1917 structure designed by Paul Philippe Cret and the 2007 extension which includes the soaring atrium and the multi-storey annex. The latter was designed by Indianapolis architect Evans Woolen.
Here are some of the coolest stories from the free tour, which will resume on September 30th at 11am and 2pm.
1. Name carvings and a bad omen
The names of famous authors line the top of the walls. Among them are two that every Hoosier should know: the poet James Whitcomb Riley and the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Vonnegut’s name was one of the names added when the addition was built in 2007. He died in April 2007, just a few months before it opened, so Vonnegut never saw his name engraved on the building.
Neither does Riley, whose name is on the east side in the garden. He died shortly before the building opened in 1917.
The moral of it all?
“Don’t get your name carved on the building,” joked Able.
2. Painted linen is on the ceiling
The next time you walk into the entrance hall on St. Clair Street, stop and look up.
The Pompeian-style ceiling celebrates the 100th anniversary of Indiana and was designed by Philadelphia-based Cret’s associate architects Zantzinger, Borie and Medary.
Linen was hand painted in a Philadelphia studio and then taped to the ceiling. It shows Indiana flora and fauna, with snakes, dogwood, and more, Able said. There are more than 100 pieces of fabric on the ceiling.
Gold plaques depict 100 years of Indiana, including wagons, Native American contracts, and cleared fields. A history of printing – using an old printing press, papyrus scroll, and Babylonian blackboard – comes to life in circles in the center.
Originally called the “delivery room”, the large entrance room always contained books, as did the reading rooms to the east and west. To request volumes from the stacks that were not open to the public, users could look through a catalog and then speak to a librarian at a large circular desk.
Having people access so many books for themselves was a big change from the past when materials weren’t as visible to the public, Able said. Forward-looking former director Eliza Browning led the library to be more welcoming, she said.
The “emphasis was on the public lending, so when you walked through that door they wanted people to see books right away,” said Laube. “It was very important. And that’s why this room is still like this. You go in and see books.”
3. The glass can withstand some strong winds
The east and west walls of the glass atrium connecting the two buildings are stronger than you think. They are called cable screens, and you can thank them for crystal clear views of downtown Indianapolis.
How do they prevent them from collapsing without large bars between the panes? Metal cables allow the glass to bend so the walls can take winds up to 135 miles per hour, Able said. The cables are anchored by three large medallions in the wooden part of the wall, which at first glance look like decorations.
4. A comforting invitation
After looking up, make sure to look down. The floor in the great entrance room is – and was originally – cork, Able said. But it has been replaced over the years.
“It saved money back then, but it was also very reassuring,” said Able.
It adds to a homely, simple theme that runs through the library. The doors in the reading rooms are small and upholstered in leather, which gives a homely feel in the middle of a large building, Able said.
The phrase above the main entrance inside probably explains it best. “Friendly books welcome you,” Able used to say on the main doors.
5. Who was Paul Cret anyway?
The French-American architect, who worked in Philadelphia, was selected through an architecture competition in 1914.
During the design process of the building, Cret traveled to France on vacation and stayed in Europe because of the outbreak of the First World War. Cret served in the French army and among other things worked in the trenches. He suffered hearing damage and other injuries.
He wouldn’t see the library until 1919, after it was finished. In Cret’s absence, Clarence Zantzinger oversaw day-to-day operations, Able said.
Cret designed many other buildings, including a major one in Washington, DC – the Eccles Building, which houses the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve System.
6. Riley was a super big deal
In the central library, one cannot go far without seeing a memory of the famous Hoosier poet. Not only was Riley a high-profile resident of Indianapolis at the turn of the century, he also donated some of the land that was needed to build the library. In fact, the building opened on his birthday, October 7th.
One of the first Riley memories you will see is the gates outside the main doors of St. Clair Street. They were a gift from children to the library in honor of the writer who was known for reading to them. To raise money for the gates, children donated pennies to a collection at their schools, Able said.
7. A cool theatrical prop is on top
Make sure you climb all the way to the top floor of the 2007 addition. The view of the city center through a building-long window pane is rewarding enough for the escalator ride, and the huge “Indiana” that is installed above the bathrooms is also worth seeing.
The letters were part of the set of a 2016 Indiana Repertory Theater production. “Finding Home: Indiana at 200” celebrated the state’s bicentennial through music, history, comedy, and more. The letters themselves are filled with knick-knacks and cool items, including a lamp, washboard, ski hoop, and basketball hoop.
Call IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at (317) 444-7339. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.