As much as the Cincinnati Main Library is a first-class modern facility (built in 1955 and expanded in 1982 and 1997), its previous home is still a subject of fascination. Photos of “Old Main” feature prominently on the library’s website, Flickr, YouTube, and in the latest library history called Free & Public: One Hundred and Fifty Years at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County by John Fleischman. The Library Friends’ gift shop even sells a print of the dramatic book alcoves (see photo above).
“Old Main” was originally opened in the 1870s in a former Opera House and served Cincinnati residents until 1955 when the library moved into a new facility across the street. The old building was torn down the same year and is now only accessible in vintage photos. These images show a soaring reading room in the main hall, topped with a skylight, with five floors of cast iron book shelves, accessed by circular staircases and narrow balconies. To me, it looks like the ultimate dream library.
However, John Fleischman in Free and Public wrote that, although the design was very impressive, it wasn’t the best place to read or work (people used to faint in the summer due to the hot, airless environment and one shelver fell to his death in an open elevator shaft because of the lack of light). And, even though it’s neat to think about browsing those alcoves, they weren’t open to the public. You had to put your book order in at the circulation desk, and then pages would go and retrieve the book for you.
Despite this, and the fact that, over time, cramped space conditions made access to materials even more difficult, the building was a beloved landmark for many years. It’s probably not coincidental that the 1982 addition to “New Main” echoed the historic main hall and book alcoves with its open atrium and exposed reference stacks.