Racing around Dayton after Wilbear Wright ended recently with a victory lap in the Dayton community of Oakwood, where I happened upon the most delightful Wright Brothers-related site of all — the Wright Memorial Public Library.
Not long after Oakwood was dedicated in 1906, this small community determined that it would benefit from having a small public library. In 1913, Oakwood’s ladies invited their neighbors to donate one book per family to establish a library in Briar Hill, the home of the Parrott family. John H. Patterson, president of the National Cash Register Company, donated an additional 100 books to match the number donated by Oakwood residents.
Next, the library was located in a school classroom, contained to a glass-doored bookcase. It included books for both children and adults, and was open only a few hours a week. After the school closed in 1922, the library board’s president donated a house he owned at 45 Park Avenue to serve as the library. The Park Avenue Library opened in 1924 with 1,500 books and two librarians. By 1928, it was already overcrowded.
In 1937, the library board voted to place a $40,000 bond issue on the ballot to build a new library. One of the board’s members was Orville Wright, one of the famous brothers who invented and made the first successful powered flight. The private, reserved Orville had joined the board in 1934 on the condition that he would never preside over a meeting or be quoted, and would serve on the board until his death in 1948. Since Orville was the last surviving Wright — his brother Wilbur died in 1912 and their sister, Katharine, died in 1929 — the Oakwood Garden Club suggested that the library be built in the park on Far Hills Avenue that had been named after Katharine, and called it the Wright Memorial Public Library in honor of all three family members.
Schenck & Williams — the Dayton architectural firm that had designed several buildings in Oakwood, including Orville’s home, Hawthorn Hill — designed the library in the Tudor Revival style that was so popular at the time. The construction process began with approval for the design in March 1938, and the library opened on February 14, 1939. Three young, unmarried ladies were the first librarians, assisted by two Works Progress Administration workers and a handful of girls who shelved books for five cents an hour.
Additions to the library in 1964, 1972 and 1982 provided air conditioning, added a meeting room, increased the area available for books, and allowed for a modern children’s room, a meeting room, an audiovisual room and up-to-date offices and book processing areas. However, the front of the library’s exterior still looks much as it did then.
Because the library is such an outstanding, intact example of Tudor Revival architecture, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 2013. Tudor Revival hallmarks include its steeply pitched slate roof, prominent central gable, brick exterior walls laid in a Flemish bond pattern, small diamond-paned casement windows with stone surrounds, and a six-panel oak entrance door with carved birds, scrolls, quill pens and books overhead.
Other charming features include an original metal “Wright Library” sign with an ornate pendant lantern, a diamond-paned oriel window with a copper roof above the front entry, and a cupola with a weather vane at its peak.Those accustomed to the library might rush right in the front door, but there’s much for first-time visitors to savor around it. Three bricks on either side of the door contain decorative elements, one with a bas relief depiction of the Gutenberg printing press, another reading “After Windsor 15th Cent. A.D.” and a third with some Egyptian hieroglyphics and the statement, “I am come to the storehouse of knowledge,” believed to have been created by the architects.
The front door opens into a small oak-paneled vestibule with original built-in display cases used to promote library programs and community events. A matching interior door leads to the library’s two original main reading rooms, which retain their original exposed oak cross beams, built-in oak bookcases lining the walls, oak tables and chairs, and vaulted ceilings. Large arched windows provide an abundance of natural light. Small paneled niches lined with original built-in oak shelves flank the entry vestibule.
The library’s floor plan resembles those used in Carnegie libraries: an adult reading area on one side, a children’s area on the other, and the librarian’s desk between the two, opposite the front door, to invite conversation with patrons about the books they selected after browsing in open stacks.
The library’s sculpture collection is one of its unique features. Likenesses of noted authors like Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder and A.A. Milne with Christopher Robin and Pooh are displayed around the reading rooms.
In 1938, the library purchased several works produced by Ohio artists under the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Alice & Rabbit, Mad Tea Party, Alice & Ugly Duchess, Christmas Carol, How the Elephant Got His Trunk, and How the Leopard Got His Spots were all hand-modeled by Edris Eckhardt, a Cleveland artist who directed the ceramic sculpture division of the Welfare Art Program, in which individual artists produced earthenware figures from children’s stories for libraries to display and use in story-telling programs. The Eckhardt sculptures are packed away in storage, but you can see what some of them look like in this link to the collection that the Cleveland Public Library owns. Look how sweet they are!
Eleven books once owned by Orville Wright also make the Wright Memorial Public Library a very special place. Each book in the Orville Wright Collection contains a stamp that reads “From the Private Library of Orville Wright” on the title page. They include:
- Annual Reports of the Smithsonian Institution (1945 & 1946)
- Aeroplane Structures, by A.J. Sutton Pippard and Captain J. Laurence Pritchard, with an introduction by L. Bairstow (1919)
- Airplane: A Practical Discussion of the Principles of Airplane Flight, by Frederick Bedell (1920)
- Airports: Some Elements of Design and Future Development, by John Walter Wood (1940), signed by the author on the front free endpaper with a handwritten personal note to Orville
- Clouds, by Alexander McAdie (1918)
- Practical Aeronautics: An Understandable Presentation of Interesting and Essential Facts in Aeronautical Science, by Charles B. Hayward, with an introduction by Orville Wright (1912)
- Textbook of Aerial Laws, by Henry Woodhouse (1920), a first-edition copy signed by the author with a handwritten personal note to Orville and Katharine Wright dated Christmas 1920.
- Textbook of Military Aeronautics, by Henry Woodhouse (1918), signed by the author with a handwritten personal note to Orville dated August 1918
- Textbook of Naval Aeronautics, by Henry Woodhouse (1917)
- The Fourth Annual Report of the Hudson Fulton Celebration (1909)
The books are recorded in the library’s online catalog, but are securely stored for preservation purposes. They may be viewed in the library by appointment.
Other special collections available at the library are clever MakerBoxes, National Gallery of Art teaching kits, and Sprout Learning Backpacks.
Time your visit to the Wright Memorial Public Library to coincide with a number of programs, such as storytimes, book signings and book discussions. On Tuesday evenings from September 29 through October 27, the library will host weekly discussions of the 2015 finalists for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an international literary award given to one novel and one non-fiction book which promote an understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions and political points of view. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Oakwood and Dayton, visit the library for the Far Hills Speaker Series, presented in partnership with the Oakwood Historical Society. The next program in the series will take place on November 8 at 2:00 p.m. for a discussion of Dayton’s Great Flood of 1913.