The 10 Most Beautiful Libraries in the United States

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We already looked at libraries in all the major continents, but there were so many great ones in the United States that the article featuring libraries in North America had to leave many beautiful buildings out. Now’s the time to share some of the stunning libraries that might not make it in the top 10 of North America, but definitely deserve your attention.

1. The Armstrong-Browning Library at Baylor University, Texas

Image courtesy of Texas Tongs' Flickr stream.

This building is absolutely stunning, and with good reason—Dr. A.J. Armstrong wanted to create the “most beautiful building in Texas.”

Baylor University president Pat N. Neff offered him $100,000 towards the construction of a library, as long as Armstrong matched the donation. The end result was a 3-story, Italian Reniassance-styled masterpiece adorned with 62 stained glass windows, massive marble columns, intricate ceiling designs and other wonderful details. The philanthropist was able to justify every bit of the expense by pointing out that the “compelling beauty” of the building might be able to inspire someone enough that "if we by that means give the world another Dante, another Shakespeare, another Browning, we shall count the cost a bargain."

2. Morgan Library, New York

Image courtesy of Rob Shenk's Flickr stream.
Constructed in 1906, this amazing New York landmark was originally built as the personal library and museum space for financier Pierpont Morgan’s impressive collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, artifacts and prints. After Pierpont’s death, his grandson, J.P. Morgan, Jr., opened the library to the public in 1924.

Since the original donation to the city, the library has expanded greatly, and now the three different buildings that make up the library take up half of a New York city block.

3. Boston Public Library, Massachusetts


Image courtesy of koalie's Flickr stream.

Talk about old school: The Boston Public library, established in 1848, was the first municipal library in all of the U.S. Its first location was a small schoolhouse, but it had to expand almost immediately. In 1895, the current building, called a “palace for the people” by architect Charles Follen McKim, was completed in Copley Square. In 1972, the building was expanded, and it now contains over 8.9 million books, a number of rare manuscripts, maps, musical scores, and prints. It even has first edition folios from Shakespeare and original music scores by Mozart.

The building was declared a National Historic Landmark on the grounds that it was “the first outstanding example of Renaissance Beaux-Arts Classicism in America.”

4. Braddock Carnegie Library, Pennsylvania

Image courtesy of macwagen's Flickr stream.

The first Carnegie library in the U.S., this library was designed in an eclectic medieval style by Wiliam Halsey Wood and opened in 1889. Only 5 years later, it received a Romanesque-styled addition, doubling the size of the building. When it was first constructed, it featured a variety of entertainment options, including billiards tables on the first floor, a music hall, a gymnasium, and a swimming pool. Additionally, it held a bathhouse in the basement so mill workers could take a shower before accessing the facilities. These days, the bathhouse is now a pottery studio, but the tiled floors and walls remain.

Amazingly, this gorgeous landmark was almost demolished in the late seventies. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, but was closed in 1974 because it desperately needed repairs, particularly on the roof. Fortunately, a group of library lovers stepped forward to protect and repair the building; later, it was named a Historic Landmark.

5. Indianapolis Public Library, Indiana

Image courtesy of sergemelki's Flickr stream.

This library manages to balance old and new influences in a refreshingly unique manner. The original building, completed in 1917, is located in the front of the complex, while a massive, modernized addition from 2007 sits in the background. The first building was designed in the Greek Doric style and is often called one of the most outstanding architectural libraries in the U.S. The addition is just about as modern as can be, with glass and wood paneling throughout the building. More importantly, the 6-story, 293,000 square foot tower provides even more space for books and reading rooms!

6. Los Angeles Central Library, California


Image courtesy of hollywoodsmile78's Flickr stream.

Like the Indianapolis Public Library, the Central library of Los Angeles features a striking balance between old and new architecture. The original library building was completed in 1926 and featured influences from ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean Revival architecture, including pyramids and mosaics. Unfortunately, two successive fires in 1986 left the building in desperate need of a renovation.

During the renovation, a new wing was added with Modernest and Beaux-Arts influences. The addition, completed in 1993 added an eight story aitrium and more storage space for the museum’s ever growing collection. These days, the library is the third largest public library in the U.S. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

7. Hearst Castle Gothic Study, California


Image courtesy of Stuck in Customs' Flickr stream.

Hearst Castle is one of the most famous buildings in California, but most tour groups miss the opportunity to explore the second story of the building, which includes a massive guest library and a cozier gothic library and study. This room also played a vital role in Hearst’s life, as this was where the mogul preferred to do business whenever possible, which is why the room also served as his executive board room.

8. Skywalker Ranch Library, California


Image courtesy of Michael Heilemann's Flickr stream.

If you ever happen to get access to Skywalker Ranch, make sure you get a chance to look at the library, which is crowned with a 40-foot stained glass dome that allows employees and guests of Lucas Studios to enjoy their reading in natural light.

9. Suzzallo Library of the University of Washington, Washington

Image courtesy of Curtis Cronn's Flickr stream.

This Collegiate Gothic building was completed in 1923 and among its many impressive details are 18 terra-cotta figures set atop the buttresses featuring academic heroes such as Louis Pasteur, Dante, Shakespeare, Plato, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Gutenberg, Beethoven, Darwin, and more. Inside, a series of shields depict the coat of arms from many top universities around the world, including Yale, Oxford, Stanford and Uppsala. All of these details were included to help the library meet university president Henry Suzzallo’s vision that the building become “the soul of the university.”

While the library is home to many rare volumes, the most famous item in its collection is one of the world’s largest, a photo book of Bhutan by Michael Hawley. Library staff turn the pages about once a month so interested viewers can slowly enjoy the entire work from front to back—assuming they visit regularly.

10. Fisher Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania


Image courtesy of jeffhartge's Flickr stream.

In 1888, most architects were focused on Romanesque styles built with marble and granite. But this library’s architect, Frank Furness, wanted the building to reflect the architectural style of Philadelphia’s many red brick factories.

The library was already too small for the school’s increasing collection within only a few decades of its opening, so it received a number of additions and alterations throughout the next 30 years. Finally, in 1962, most of the school’s collection was moved to a new location and the former main building became the home to the fine arts library. In 1972, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and by 1985, it was named a National Historic Landmark.

Of course, with all the thousands of libraries in the U.S., this list of beautiful American libraries still leaves out plenty of gorgeous architectural marvels, so if you feel your favorite library was left out, feel free to tell everyone about it in the comments.

October 29, 2012 - 11:45am
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