Grosse Pointe Public Library, built by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer in 1953, is one of the architect’s first major public commissions in the United States—and the only one of his buildings in the Detroit area. Signifying a shift in American architecture, when modernism was preferred over traditional styles to show the progress and ingenuity of a post-war nation, the library stands as an important piece of American architectural and social history.
The building is a two-story box-like structure with an unadorned brick façade, in keeping with the materials and aesthetic that were common in the neighborhood at the time of construction. The building’s floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed structural elements reflect modernist design ideals such as transparency, enhanced public access, and community enjoyment.
The library, which Breuer designed to serve as a gathering place for Grosse Pointe residents, functioned for half a century before space limitations and outdated technology resulted in the announcement of plans to demolish and replace it with new construction. The library was one of a group of modern sites included on the 2008 World Monuments Watch as “Main Street Modern.” The listing was to encourage alternatives to demolition and to build on local and international advocacy efforts to preserve them. This listing was also intended to call attention to the at-risk modernist buildings that characterize the civic architecture of post-war America.
Empowering advocacy efforts to save the library
Inclusion of Grosse Pointe Public Library on the Watch helped empower the advocacy efforts that were underway to save the building. Additionally, WMF and Knoll, through the Modernism at Risk initiative, offered a grant to research and document the library, and to use the information to adapt and expand the original building. Responding in part to the grant incentive, the library opted for an expansion design rather than demolition.
When the 2008 economic downturn put the expansion on hold, conservation of the existing building, and its notable art collection, became the focus of the Grosse Pointe Library Foundation’s efforts. The library’s art collection includes the mural The History of Writing by Herbert Matter, a noted graphic designer with Knoll for 20 years. The collection also includes a mobile by Alexander Calder, a tapestry by Wassily Kandinsky, and an exterior sculpture by Lyman Kipp.
Funds contributed by our grant, originally intended for expansion, were redirected accordingly when the library began work. We supported, among other projects, the first phase of conservation of Matter’s mural, which was completed in 2014 by a paper conservator from the Detroit Institute of the Arts. Full conservation of the mural is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2016; water damage in the building necessitates structural repairs first. The extensive work at the library included conservation of the exterior masonry; restoration of the exterior Kipp sculpture; treatment of the Kandinsky tapestry; restoration of the Calder mobile, performed by the Calder Foundation in New York; and the installation of a protective film on the windows to safeguard the art collection.
The Grosse Pointe Library Foundation has taken many steps to preserve the architectural integrity of the building and to continue to highlight the building’s importance through educational and outreach programs, thus preserving the site as a lasting contribution to the Grosse Pointe community.