On a snowy January day, Barbara Madgy Cohn was preparing for a tour group at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was 2013, and she had been a docent for five years.
When Cohn learned that the group had cancelled, she decided to explore some different artistic territory and headed across the street to the Detroit Public Library.
Cohn, a retired nurse with a bachelor’s degree in art history, wanted to get a full look at the art and architecture the library showcased. She asked about a tour and was told none existed.
Touring on her own, she admired the building design, wall murals, fixtures and window treatments. Cohn came up with an idea.
“I set up a meeting with Patrice Rafail Merritt, executive director of the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation,” recalls Cohn, a member of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. “I asked if she’d like me to work on setting up art and architectural tours, and that’s how the program started.”
With research, the initiative grew to three public tours a month and special tours for groups — and now offers 18 docents, including Cohn.
“At the end of many tours, people would ask if there was a book available on the subject, so Patrice and I decided to develop one,” says Cohn, who has set up a series of meetings to introduce The Detroit Public Library: An American Classic (Wayne State University Press; $34.99), which was recently published.
The next meeting will feature book signings by Cohn and impromptu discussions of the content. It runs 3-7 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at the House on Main in Royal Oak. Marcy Feldman and Judy Weiner, both active with library programs, will co-host the event.
“The book is completely based on the tour,” says Cohn, who enlisted the help of 18 volunteer photographers. The pages cover the history of how the library came to be and describe each area, moving from the entrance, through the grand staircase and into individual sections, such as the Children’s Room, Fine Arts Room and the Reference Room.
A timeline puts the different stages of enhancements into perspective, and the narrative calls attention to the many notable people making the library the impressive structure it became. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered a large donation to the Early Italian Renaissance-style gem created by architect Cass Gilbert, famous for skyscrapers and museums. Completed in 1921, an addition was finished in 1963.
“I learned about a Jewish metal worker, Samuel Yellin, whose gate welcomes visitors into the Fine Arts Room,” says Cohn, a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
Yellin, who was born in Poland and immigrated to the United States in 1906, studied at the Philadelphia Museum of Industrial Art, the book explains. He opened Samuel Yellin Metalworkers in Pennsylvania in 1909, and it is still in operation. The book has pictures of the gate as well as its decorative details, such as a closed book with a lamp adorned with sunflowers.
Cohn and Merritt forged a strong collaborative effort putting the book together. For each of them, this was their first book project.
“Patrice and I would meet once a week, for 10 hours over many weeks, in my house,” says Cohn, who grew up in Detroit and Southfield and lives in West Bloomfield. “We would go through thousands of [new and historic] photos because lots of photographers submitted their pictures.” Among those included are both local and national artists, including Mary Chase Perry Stratton (founder of Detroit’s Pewabic pottery), Geri Melphers and John Stephens Coppin.
The youngest photographer, Sam Sklar, has given a modern touch to the visuals. One Sklar image captures a young man, Matthew Tukel, using his cell phone while surrounded by the classic structure.
“Matt, who is a close friend, knows Barbara Cohn, and he told her about my work as a freelance photographer,” explains Sklar, who grew up attending Congregation Shaarey Zedek and just graduated Babson College in Massachusetts.
“Matt studies at the library, and I brought my camera as he showed me the building. Barbara wanted a millennial perspective among pictures I took. I’ve seen the book, and I’m so proud to have my photos in it.”
Many images focus on details that might not be readily apparent from a distance. For instance, photographer Martin Vecchio has captured a depiction of King Solomon as Wisdom Instructing Statesmanship, which was copied from a depiction by Paolo Veronese, an Italian Renaissance painter; the local work adorns the ceiling of the Civics Room.
“Since I started working on the book, I’ve learned what this library means to so many different people,” Cohn says. “We’re so proud that it is a true community book and that the people involved in its development donated their time and talents so that all proceeds go directly to the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation.”
The book pays beautiful tribute to one of the city’s most impressive structures. As the authors wrote in the book’s introduction, one of their goals was “to share with the world the beauty and elegance of a grand building in a great city that, even though the most difficult times, has sustained one of the most magnificent neo-classical buildings in the country.”
Barbara Madgy Cohn will sign copies of The Detroit Public Library: An American Classic
3-7 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at the House on Main, Royal Oak. (313) 481-1358; wsupress.wayne.edu/books/detail/Detroit-public-library.
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer