*The Library is currently closed, however, HIghland Park Residents are currently being serviced by The Detroit Public Library System*
McGregor Public Library
Public libraries built in the early part of the 20th century held more than just books; they were built as a symbol of community wealth, pride, and conduits of knowledge. Costs for these often elaborate structures were not carried so much by the city itself, but by the philanthropic community that also held high regard for the value of an informed and culturally aware citizenry.
In Highland Park, the zenith of its coming of age as an industrial power within southeastern Michigan was demonstrated through its beautiful library located on Woodward Avenue. Encircled by Detroit, Highland Park was a city whose population had increased one hundred fold from 400 in 1900 to 46,000 in 1920. The Highland Park Ford Plant was the catalyst of this growth where the moving assembly line, the $5 per day wage and the development of mass production revolutionized the 20th century.
The need for a public library worthy of Highland Park’s growing population and prosperity was answered in 1918 by the donation of a building and land by Katherine and Tracy McGregor. The building, originally the home of a local businessman and major property owner Captain William Stevens, was converted by Katherine Whitney McGregor into a home for "homeless, crippled, and backward children" in 1903. She closed the home and donated it to the City of Highland Park on the stipulation that it be replaced as soon as possible with a new library building which would cost at least $255,000 and be bigger more beautiful than the Utley Library, the most recent branch of the Detroit Public Library two miles south on Woodward Avenue.
Adam Strohm, head of the Detroit Public Library, advised that "whatever you do, make the building attractive—beautiful inside and out---so that one gets an uplift, a clear vision of beauty in the building. When you do that, you do something not alone for Highland Park, but for the Nation." Fired by community pride, the voters of Highland Park overwhelmingly approved a bond issue of $500,000 for construction of a new library.
A classic Beaux Arts-style building was commissioned from the New York architectural firm of Tilton and Githens and their design was based on the Wilmington Institute Free Library. The architect, Edward Tilton, had previously worked in the New York office of McKim, Mead and White before completing his studies at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts in Paris. For twenty years his firm built a distinguished practice and in 1910 Tilton began specializing in library architecture. The increase in libraries was part of the movement led by Andrew Carnegie.
The new McGregor Library was dedicated on March 5, 1926, and was the recipient of the Gold Medal for Architectural Merit by the AIA for 1926. McGregor Library differs from most other libraries of its size because of the open interior of the main floor, in its freedom from corridors, in its few partitions and in the fact that each room gives wide and direct access to each other---all supervised from the main desk opposite the entrance.
McGregor Library is a dignified Roman design with careful transitions from plain to ornamental surfaces. The building is 270 feet wide and 78 feet deep with 39,780 square feet of space. The elaborate cornice is counterbalanced by the Ionic columns and united with the flat terrain by the broad stone steps and terraces across the front of the building.
The central feature is the entrance, highly ornamented coffered niche between two engaged Ionic columns and flanking pilasters with a pair bronze allegorical doors designed by Chicago sculptor Frederick Torrey. The design represents the automotive spirit. Closed, the two doors complete a composition of two large winged figures. The figure on the right holds in her hand the winged sphere---a symbol of mechanics. The figure on the right holds in her hand a germinating plant---symbolic of the creative spirit. Together the figures support the torch of knowledge, the halo of which extends into the panel of zodiac symbols above the doors suggesting the dawn of a new era. In the lower door panels are two brooding figures; the female holds a model of an airplane and the male figure holds a model of an automobile.
The building was designed to accommodate a variety of social, cultural and educational functions within a fairly intimate space. The main floor was designed to function purely as a library, while the second floor held a variety of rooms for community purposes including a 250 seat auditorium, meeting rooms and two kitchens. The basement was similarly designed to be used for meeting rooms and shelving stacks to hold the collections of books, periodicals and newspapers. Added in the 1940s to accommodate the growing number of books is a mezzanine with illuminated glass flooring panels and featuring Art Moderne aluminum stair rails.
Interior design elements include a glass-ceiling atrium over a central court with a cast of the frieze from the Parthenon. The children’s reading room has always been a special delight. The central focus is the fireplace with eight storybook tiles by Pewabic Pottery and the hearth which is surrounded by low benches and cushions for story hour.
Among the many gifts to the library by proud Highland Parkers are over 60 works by Detroit artist Francis Petrus Paulus, a founder of the Scarab Club and world renowned for his etchings. The library also has on permanent loan from the Works Progress Administration over 20 paintings from Depression-era artists. Other treasurers donated include glass pieces by Rene Lalique, the Steuben studios and other major glass artists.
One of Highland Park’s hidden treasurers is the Museum located in the lower level of McGregor Library. It displays items of daily life in early Highland Park as well as portions of its industrial heyday such as the office chair used by Henry Ford in 1896 and the Ford Plant paymaster’s cash box which ran in an underground tunnel between the Highland Park State Bank and the paymaster’s office just east of Woodward Avenue on Manchester.