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Four for the books: a quartet of the city’s stunning libraries

Four for the books: a quartet of the city’s stunning libraries

Sure, downloading the hottest bestseller or learning about any topic—from Ancient Greece to kale—anywhere you find an Internet connection (which, is practically everywhere) is both convenient and instantly gratifying. But that deprives you of the anticipation of scanning book spines in search of a title to pique your interest or the satisfaction of flipping a page as you dive deeper into a story.

Worse, doing all your reading from a device can cost you a visit or two to some of Philadelphia’s architectural gems—libraries constructed as elaborate temples to the written word. While any local Philadelphia library has a lot to offer, these four were designed to both inspire awe and provide inviting spaces where books and other materials can be savored.

Free Public Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Location

This is the grande dame of Philly’s 54 free public libraries. Construction began on the Beaux-Arts style building in 1910 but the doors didn’t officially open until 1927. The design, and that of the adjacent Philadelphia Family Court building, and their placement on Logan Circle are similar to that of the Hôtel de Crillon and the Hôtel de la Marine on Paris's Place de la Concorde.

Inside, jaws drop taking in the grand lobby with its impressive staircase and high plaster ceilings with Greek key designs, rosettes and other reliefs. Ionic limestone columns tower above dark green Tinos tile and pink Tennessee marble floors. Venture up to the fourth floor for a breathtaking skyline view on an outdoor terrace bookended by green roofs.

After taking in the architecture of Parkway Central, you also may want to visit the rare books department. Designed like a stately Georgian wood-paneled study, this department houses a Charles Dickens’ collection of first editions, personal letters, and the author’s stuffed raven he named Grip; Beatrix Potter’s early children’s books; Edgar Allan Poe rarities; European manuscripts dating back to the 11th Century; and East Asian manuscripts, including scrolls, accordion books, and palm-leaf books.

You also will want to stay for the library’s author lecture series, where renowned writers discuss their latest works and meet and greet visitors.

1901 Vine Street, 215.686.5322;

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Library

Tucked away on Locust Street, the Historical Society Library building was built in the Greek revival style in 1836 as a private residence. While the original building was torn down to construct a fireproof building in its place, much of the original 19th Century details were recreated and a few original mantels are on display.

Genealogy and family history buffs and fans of our founding fathers will rejoice at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This library boasts one of the most complete and professional genealogy centers in the nation. In addition to its millions of books and manuscripts, the Historical Society has an extensive autograph collection of famous Americans and Europeans, 35,000 prints and maps, 20,000 watercolors and drawings, 250,000 photographs and thousands of broadsides and sheet music. Don’t miss the opportunity to see the first draft of the Constitution and a letter penned by George Washington.

1300 Locust Street, 215.732.6200;

Fisher Fine Arts Library

Like many of the masterful works within its walls, the design of the Anne & Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library was misunderstood—even disdained—when it first opened its doors in 1891. The design was so controversial, in fact, by 1899, much of the university’s collection had been moved to another building and by 1931 plans were drawn up to cloak the entire building in sedate Collegiate Gothic brick and stone.

Today, this one-of-a-kind treasure is on the National Register of Historic places. Gargoyles adorn the sandstone, brick-and-terra-cotta Venetian Gothic exterior, welcoming visitors inside to read literary inscriptions carved into the stonework. A dazzling staircase decked with sculptural pendants and newel posts connects the library’s five stories. The main reading room is a four-story space with a large skylight and a wall of windows that look like a cathedral lightwell.

The Fisher Fine Arts Library’s collection is focused on research material in contemporary and historical art, architecture, city and regional planning, historic preservation, landscape architecture, studio art, and urban design.

220 South 34th Street, 215.898.8325;

Falls of Schuylkill Library

While the waterfalls dried up long ago, the Falls of Schuylkill Library still thrives today. The library’s construction was funded by Andrew Carnegie and built on land donated by William H. Merrick and the Warden Estate.

Opening in 1913 and designed in the Tudor Gothic style, the Falls of Schuylkill Library is among the most elaborate of the Philadelphia public branches. Inside, soaring wooden buttresses make visitors feel as if they are in medieval Europe, not the East Falls neighborhood. A catfish weathervane sits atop the library cupola to symbolize the thousands of catfish that swam along the Schuylkill River.

Truly a neighborhood public library, the Falls of Schuylkill Library is the site of community events, story hour, Lego clubs and more.

3501 Midvale Avenue, 215.685.2093;