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Library in downtown Detroit reopens Today

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Library in downtown Detroit has a new look, new name

December 2, 2003



People who live and work in downtown Detroit will have their own public library again with today's reopening of the Rose and Robert Skillman Branch.

Formerly known simply as the downtown branch, it has been renamed in honor of the late Detroit philanthropists who supported numerous activities for children. A $5-million grant from the Skillman Foundation covered most of the $7.3-million restoration cost.

The library sports more than a new name. It also shows off a lovingly restored 1930s architectural look with all the modern touches. The branch features dozens of Internet-connected computer stations, a children's library, and a cybercafe. The branch is also now home to the National Automotive History Collection, one of the biggest archives of such material in the nation.

With its new name and look, the branch will cater to more than just office workers on lunch hour. Rhea Brown Lawson, the Detroit Public Library's deputy director, noted that Compuware Corp. maintains a day-care center nearby, and the downtown YMCA, now under construction, will be located just a block away.

"There's a great business community in the area that will take advantage of it," she said, "and with the Y coming downtown and Compuware just across the street, there's a lot of potential for interaction with children."

First opened in 1932 during the Depression, the downtown branch long stood as a local landmark in the shadow of the old Hudson's store. Designed by the Detroit firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, its architecture blended Depression-era classicism and a streamlined Art Deco and Art Moderne with touches of other styles.

But the branch closed in 1998 to accommodate the demolition of Hudson's next door and the construction of the new Compuware headquarters across the street.

The SmithGroup, the architectural firm that succeeded SH&G, handled the restoration work. Among other things, the restoration did away with things that detracted from the original design.

In one of the most important touches, Darla Olson, a specialist in historic paint designs who is based in Hoboken, N.J., restored a sunburst pattern to the grand staircase area. The motif had been hidden beneath decades of paint.

"It really pops now. It's kind of a neat experience," said J. Michael Kirk, architect from the SmithGroup who oversaw the restoration. The Christman Co. of Lansing was lead contractor.

Part of the upstairs has been cleared of stacks and left open as a ceremonial space. Nancy Skowronski, director of the Detroit Public Library system, said groups have already started to book the space for special events.

Most of the second floor will serve as the new home of the National Automotive History Collection, which was housed at the main library in the Cultural Center. The collection includes photographs, sales brochures, repair manuals and other items documenting the history of the automobile.

As part of the renovation, extra-wide shelves were designed to hold boxes of archival material. The collection draws scholars as well as do-it-yourselfers who come for the car-repair manuals.

"We get a lot of automotive writers who come in from across the country, but we also get a lot of people off the street looking to repair a Studebaker carburetor," Skowronski said.

The foreign newspapers once available at the branch are now offered at the Parkman branch, 1766 Oakman, 313-852-4000.

Library hours at the Skillman branch will be 10-6 weekdays.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or [email protected]

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