From the very beginning of the Library, the Board of Trustees had looked forward to the day when the Library would be housed in its own building. All first class cities had their own library building and why not Bay City? They had been patient with the various necessary moves and the inadequacies of quarters, feeling that it was for a limited time only, and some day the Library would have a home. When Mr. Wm. Lawrence Clements was appointed to the Library Board in _________ the dream began to take definite shape. These were the days when Andrew Carnegie was active in helping communities build library buildings if they were willing to help themselves. Beginning in 1912, Mr. Clements carried on a correspondence with the Carnegie Corporation that handled the business end of the Carnegie philanthropy. Mr. Clements wanted to know the conditions that a municipality would have to meet in order to get a contribution of Carnegie money. He was informed that there would have to be library harmony in the community, which is that one library board must control the library interests of a city if it was to be eligible for a grant. That the city or its residents must donate a site for the building which must represent an investment of $50,000 to $80,000, though the present investment of the city in library quarters could be considered as part of this building fund.
The situation was not too easy. Mr. Clements thought that it might be possible to bring about one library board for the whole city which could manage the two libraries, and he thought he could arrange for the donation of the site and he knew the Carnegie Company would allow consideration for the Library’s stake in the City Hall. Mr. Clements first made sure of the site. He investigated the McEwan farm site that many people had long thought would make a beautiful location for a public library. It was one half of the city block at Jackson and Center Streets, the old McEwan house occupying the other half of the square. It had a frontage of 100 feet on Center Avenue and went back to Sixth Street. Mr. Clements persuaded three friends of his, Messrs. C.R. Wells, James E. Davidson and H.B. Smith to join him in contributing this site, and this contribution amounted in money to $20,000.
The city government then pledged itself to appropriate $25,000 to the building fund if the voters would authorize a bond issued for that amount. Later, after the plans of the building were completed, the City Commission appropriated another $6,000 for the expressed purpose of increasing the size of the book stacks. The site and the building fund required by the Carnegie Company now having been contributed, Mr. Clements asked the City Commission to appoint a special committee to consider the whole Carnegie proposition. The committee was appointed. It consisted of several city commissioners, several prominent citizens, the trustees of the Public Library and the trustees of Sage Library. They met January 19, 1918. The trustees of the two libraries, meeting separately, decided that there was no reason why the two libraries could not be managed by one board and also passed a joint resolution asking the special committee to accept the Carnegie offer. The Commission did as requested and the question of issuing bonds for the $25,000 was next presented to the people at the spring election of 1918. It carried by a comfortable majority, thus insuring the Carnegie contribution of $35,000. Another special committee was now appointed to consider the type of building wanted and to select an architect. This committee selected Albert Kahn of Detroit as the architect and decided upon a structure of simple colonial type of Indiana sandstone with Bedford Stone trimmings. Early in 1918 bids were asked for and the total of all the bids amounted to $90,000. Building costs were rising. Mr. Clements appealed to the men who had cooperated with him before, and though Mr. H.B. Smith had died in the meantime, Mr. Wells and Mr. Davidson acted with Mr. Clements in giving another $20,000. Early in 1919 the Board of Trustees of the Library again asked for bids, and this second time the total of all bids was $130,000. The United States had entered the First World War, and by request of the federal government all building not necessary to the war effort was postponed. With the consent of the Carnegie Corporation, the matter was allowed to rest for a time.
In June 1920, the Board of Trustees was notified by the Carnegie Corporation that because the Corporation had almost finished the business entrusted to it by Mr. Carnegie it was preparing to go out of business. The gift of $35,000 for the Bay City Public Library would be available only until the early part of 1922, and the actual construction must be started in 1921 to be completed by the next year. The corporation suggested that since a building of sandstone and with the many refinements of the Kahn plan was impossible because of the rise in cost of building materials the Trustees should employ an architect whom the Carnegie Corporation had employed for many buildings, Mr. Edward L. Tilton. The corporation assured the Trustees that this architect could give them more for their money in real library values than anyone else. As they had to make a decision, the trustees sent for Mr. Tilton and had a conference with him, told him to prepare plans as similar as possible to the Kahn plans and to use red brick instead of sandstone as the building material. They formally employed Mr. Tilton as architect, and when he presented his plan for the building accepted it with a few minor changes. Bids were again asked for and this time the total was within the means of the Board, about $80,000.
At first the trustees were all disappointed and Mr. Clements particularly. Before the building was completed however, all the other trustees had accepted Mr. Tilton’s opinion that a red brick building covered with vines was more appropriate for a small city than a structure in sandstone of monumental sort. He designed the building to be home-like and appealing. He wanted it to attract people, not to overawe them. All the trustees would have been pleased in 1920 had they known that the generation just then being born, destined to fight in the Second World War, really loved the library. In the 1940’s evidence of this was received in letters from homesick American boys all over the globe, appreciating the “dear old library” with its vine covered walls. “Keep it just as it was when we went away,” several of them begged, “till we come home again. Don’t change a thing.”
Another disappointment came to Mr. Clements in a deviation from the original plans for the location of the building. When it came to the marking out on the lot the ground measurements for the extent of the building, Mr. Clements was out of town, and Dr. Kerr, the ranking member of the board, had to take the responsibility for deciding how far back the front of the library was to be. Mr. Clements had envisioned it as well back of the whole group of trees that made the beauty of the site, but he had not made the board understand his wish. Dr. Kerr felt that the trees had not many years to live, that the Library would outlast them by many decades, that an addition to the library would be needed within a generation, and that it was better to have the building entirely on the front half of the lot, and to leave the back half of the site for future trustees to use to the advantage of the Library. By the time of Mr. Clement's return, the foundations were well started and it was too late to make a change.
The architect sympathized with Dr. Kerr. He would have liked to have the front of the building almost at the street line and would have liked display windows in which exhibits could be shown. He thought public taste in libraries had veered away from the monumental type, away from tall pillars and imposing steps, to the simple, more intimate style. He believed that libraries were not intended to strike the beholder with awe but to attract him. The building the Trustees were erecting could not rival the one Mr. Kahn had planned. It would not look imposing at the end of a long walk and behind a screen of tall trees; it was much better as far front as possible and the thought Dr. Kerr’s solicitude about the inevitable addition to the library was well founded.
Now, twenty-six years afterward, when the expansion of the Library is forcing the public and the trustees to accept the inevitability of enlarging the building, the trustees are glad Dr. Kerr made the decision that saved the disposal of the back lot for the next generation.
At one time a drainage problem held up construction for weeks. The hold excavation for the stacks had been dug much deeper than the foundations for the rest of the building. The builders struck clay, perfectly pure to a depth of ten feet or more. The hole collected water from heavy rains and held it, the clay not permitting it to run off. This gave the architect and contractors great trouble before they found a way to divert the water.
Carrying out the architect’s plans exactly, the contractor built the skylight, which lights the lobby, so high that the little structure was absurdly conspicuous. Disparaging remarks about topping the library with a chicken coop appeared in the Bay City Times and the height of the skylight was promptly reduced. Finally things were finished far enough to allow the reception of the books and a house warming with a large invited list of the public. The public found the new building cheerful and convenient. They said so in flattering terms.
The move from City Hall to the permanent library building was accomplished during the month of July 1922. Transferring the books to the library and arranging them rightly in the new building took the greater part of a month during which the library was closed. The move had been preceded by several months of preparation and conditioning of the books. One job that had to be attended to at that time was to return the huge collection of unclassified government documents, which had been accumulating in the upper and tower rooms of the City Hall, to the U.S. Superintendent of Documents. The policy of the government had not allowed the Librarian to do any selecting. The Library had to take everything sent them or nothing. The Board of Trustees voted to send back this incubus, this agglomeration of unclassified material. The Librarian applied to the Superintendent of Documents and to our Congressman, Mr. Woodruff, to send them for franks (=free postage). The work of packing these soot and dust encrusted books into mailbags and labeling and franking them took weeks of hard work. Before the job was finished the Superintendent of Documents revoked the permission he had given, allowing no more documents to be sent, as the government had no more room to store them. There must still be some bags of franked mail in those rooms in the tower of the City Hall. Now the government policy has changed. The Librarian, with the cooperation and goodwill of the Congressman of the district, and without having to take the responsibility of being a depository library, can get practically everything wanted by the Library and much of it for free of charge. Mr. Woodruff has been exceptionally kind and takes a real interest in having this Library supplied with what it really wants. It takes time and study on the part of the Librarian also to keep up with the government presses, but this is a worthwhile professional work and the Library profits enormously. These selected government documents are the best possible material in many fields, especially technology and business.
The first several years in the new building were spent in living up to its possibilities. For a little while there was room enough and this was a grand sensation. The Junior College was beginning with a very inadequate library of its own so that the amount of reference work for the institution increased from day to day. Central High School discovered the Library was a good place in which to study, with reference books and reference librarian at hand. The interest in the children’s room grew and grew and the borrowing of both fiction and non-fiction by adults snowballed. Part of this interest was due to the fact that the library was in a building of its own.