Shortly before the first Enoch Pratt Free Library was razed in 1931, journalists took verbal potshots at the building. The New Republic described the library as “an architectural fright reminiscent of a Victorian bathroom.” The Evening Sun’s Frank Beirne accused the Mulberry Street building of hiding “behind several old Cathedral Street dwellings as though it were ashamed of itself.” His colleague H.L. Mencken charged that the library was “so infernally hideous that it ought to be pulled down by the common hangman.”
Certainly the library looked more like a generic municipal building than a welcoming repository of books, mostly due to architect Charles Carson’s choice of Romanesque Revival, a style also known as Courthouse Romanesque due to its frequent use for halls of justice. And it’s no surprise that critics found it hard to rectify the severe marble building (arched and towered, “gloomy” and “covered with florid decoration,” as one writer put it) with the democratic, community-spirited place envisioned by its founder: “open 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.”
And yet, in retrospect, it seems churlish to heap such scorn on Enoch Pratt’s gift to his adopted city. When Pratt approached the City Council in 1882, the notion of a public library was still nascent, and his proposed arrangement was more than generous: Pratt donated the main building (worth approximately $250,000) and land for the library, money for four additional branches and an endowment for the city to invest at a return of $50,000 a year.
At the building’s dedication, held at the nearby Academy of Music in January 1886, Pratt urged his audience to “foster, protect and increase [the library], that its beneficent influences may be for the benefit of the present and all future generations as long as our beloved city of Baltimore shall exist.” Afterward, The Sun reported, eager potential library patrons rushed down the street to the library, only to find it locked. The library wasn’t supposed to open until the following day! Still, staff went ahead and issued 43 library cards to people who provided proof of their responsibility to borrow and return books via the signature of a “respectable citizen,” or by showing $2, the minimal amount necessary to replace a lost book.
Today’s patrons would find little familiar in the original building. Stacks were closed, so patrons had to peruse a booklist, fill out request forms and wait while an assistant fetched their choices from among the library’s 20,000 volumes. The second-floor reading room boasted 20-foot ceilings, more than 150 magazines and newspapers, and 250 seats, which were almost always filled with readers of varied ages and races lured in by the excellent ventilation as well as the reading material. Pratt himself took advantage of the reading room, reportedly walking over after dinner and settling in for hours. (Apparently the library didn’t close at 5 p.m. back then, as it does many nights in this budget-crisis era).
Initially Baltimoreans embraced the library. Lines to enter it formed each morning, and some enterprising patrons even devised ways to get cards issued in different names to check out more material. But by the 1920s, the library was in decline. Cataloging was erratic and confusing, as was the library’s filing system. Storage issues, budget shortfalls and short-sighted management coupled with a collection filled with shopworn histories and classics rather than best-sellers, did little to pique reader interest and resulted in a decrease in circulation. In 1926, the library ranked near the bottom of the country’s libraries.
In 1931, the original library and several houses were demolished for a new, larger library building on the same land (with its main entrance around the corner), which opened in 1933 and still stands today.