Treasures Beyond Measure: A Look Inside Clements Library
Photos by Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photograpy.
Opened in 1923, the William L. Clements Library specializes in primary source materials that document the history of the Americas from 1492 to 1900. Clements graduated from the University of Michigan in 1882 with a degree in engineering. He made his fortune supplying equipment for the construction of the Panama Canal and other major engineering projects at the turn of the century. In 1909 he was elected to the U-M Board of Regents, where his knowledge of engineering and business made him a leader in rebuilding the central campus.
As his personal fortune grew, Clements cultivated a passion for history and rare books, concentrating on Americana, particularly books written contemporaneously with the events they describe—the primary sources for early American history. Clements entered the rare book world at the end of a "golden age" for collectors. The decades from the 1880s through the 1920s saw the breakup of the British estate system, and the arrival at auction or sale of the contents of many aristocrats’ great libraries.
The Clements' collections of rare books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs, and manuscripts shed light on North American history from Columbus through the 19th century. On almost any aspect of the early American experience—military history, government, religion, gender and ethnicity, culinary history, the creative arts, and exploration—the holdings at the Clements Library are among the best in the world. Notable strengths include early exploration and settlement of North America, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War.
In his original gift agreement to the University, Clements stipulated that his library would be dedicated to collecting and preserving primary sources for early American history, that it would be independent from the University's library system, and that it would be available only to advanced scholars. One can only hope said scholars look up from their books occasionally to enjoy the fine details above and around them.
Noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn (1869-1942) designed the Clements Library in the Italian Renaissance style, based on Vignola's casino for the Villa Farnese, ca.1587, in Caprarola, Italy.
The Great Room is one of the most impressive interior spaces on campus. The first floor of this grand exhibition hall is open to the public; it features a high vaulted ceiling, symmetrical alcoves, and a second-story balcony.
Directly off the main exhibition hall is the Rare Book Room, enclosed by massive, carved oak doors framed with dark green, veined marble. The library is home to 20,000 volumes of rare books, 2,000 volumes of early newspapers, several hundred maps, and the papers of Lord Shelburne, the British Prime Minister who negotiated the peace ending the Revolutionary War.
Between 1925 and 1930, Clements acquired the papers of British generals Thomas Gage and Sir Henry Clinton, Cabinet Minister Lord George Germain, and the Hessian General von Jungkenn, creating the largest archive in the United States of manuscripts and maps relating to British conduct of the American Revolution. On the American side of the conflict, Clements purchased the papers of Continental Army General Nathanael Greene. This paper maché figure represents a soldier from the American Revolution. It stands in front of a globe produced in 1838 by George and John Cary of London.
The library holds numerous important single items, including King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's confirmation of entail for Christopher Columbus' first voyage, the British Army's marching orders prompting the Battles of Lexington and Concord, several coded letters between John André and Benedict Arnold, and a collection of eyewitness accounts of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This model of the sailing ship HMS Victory commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar.
Albert Kahn designed the Clements to suggest an upscale men's club or fine urban residence. Rooms were not meant to be radically rearranged, but were filled with paneling and heavy furnishings designed to last in perpetuity. Even the windows feature elegant detail.
At the end of a brilliant career, with buildings to his credit as diverse as the Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge Plant, the Fisher Building, and the General Motors Building in Detroit, Albert Kahn said he wanted most to be remembered for the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.