Pewabic Fireplace detail. Photo courtesy Timothy Griffin.
No doubt about it: The Detroit Public Library’s Main Library on Woodward opposite the DIA is one of Detroit’s most iconic buildings. A peek inside reveals museum-level artwork, including a Pewabic installation so magical that on a recent evening tour a couple became engaged underneath the sparkle of the iridescent loggia ceiling. It’s no wonder visitor after visitor told Barbara Madgy Cohn that they wanted a book about the historic building.
Cohn — a DPL Friends Foundation board member and director of the tours — joined forces with former board member Patrice Rafail Merritt to co-write The Detroit Public Library: An American Classic, published by Wayne State University Press in 2017. Both authors will speak about the book in a presentation highlighting Pewabic’s contributions to the treasured Detroit landmark, 2-4 PM Saturday, March 3 at Pewabic. The pair will also answer questions afterward.
The coffee table book features more than 200 historic and contemporary photos of the early Italian Renaissance-style gem designed by Cass Gilbert and built in 1921. Like Cohn’s tours, the book includes the building’s two Pewabic installations, the loggia ceiling and the Storybook Fireplace.
“One of the things we do on our tour is talk about Detroit industry and how Pewabic Pottery was such an important Detroit industry of the time and it was such an integral part of the public library,” explains Cohn, who introduced the popular library’s popular art and architecture tour in late 2013. “Many people remember coming to story time and listening to stories at the fireplace. I find that quite magical. It was one of the most popular programs at the library.”
Both Cohn and Merritt were astonished when their research revealed a low cost of the fireplace — in comparison with today’s standards. The decision-making behind the stories depicted remains an unanswered question.
“The curious selection of the stories was quite unique and we are not sure who made them – Cass Gilbert, Mary or Horace. The question remains open. In today’s world Pocahontas and Tar Baby would not be used in a public building,” says Merritt, who appreciated being able to combine her work with both the Pewabic Society board and as executive director of DPL Friends.
While those who grew up in Detroit often recall the Storybook Fireplace, the dreamlike loggia usually comes as more of a surprise, feeling hidden in plain view on the building’s recognizable Woodward façade. The ceiling illustrates, in mosaic, Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like it, based on drawings by Frederick Wiley.
“It’s like a secret because people don’t know about it,” says Cohn, who gains permission to access the usually restricted space. She prefers to show the loggia at night so visitors can marvel at the ceiling’s glistening gold iridescence, occasionally asking how she knows it’s Pewabic. She draws attention to the end where mosaics spell out Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Horace James Caulkins as the makers. “It’s almost like a hidden treasure.”