Amelia S. Givin Public Library – Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura

Amelia S. Givin Public Library

Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania

This stately 19th century library pushed architectural boundaries at a time when the public library movement was just taking off.  


On January 2, 1890, Amelia S. Givin gave a very large and beautiful gift to the people of Mt. Holly Springs. The Givin family had made a fortune from various business ventures in town and Amelia wanted to thank the community by providing a public library. Here in this sleepy little hamlet in South Central Pennsylvania, this stately library awaits anyone who would like to be temporarily transported back in time and halfway across the world.

In the late 19th century the public library building movement was just getting underway in the United States, and the most popular architectural style for public buildings was called “Richardsonian Romanesque” after it’s namesake Henry Hobson Richardson, who pushed for the opening up of library architectural spaces.  

In the 1890s a public library was a very different place than what we are used to now.  Patrons were not allowed to browse the stacks on their own. Upon entering the library you would make known to the librarian what reading material you were interested in, and the librarian would then enter the stacks and pick what they thought you should be reading and bring the books to you. Richardson fought against this idea of keeping books sequestered from the curious public. 

Givin chose prominent Pittsburgh architect James T. Steen to design the library based on his many well known Richardsonian Romanesque designs. The nearby Hummelstown Brownstone Company quarried and dressed the magnificent and stately exterior of the library. But what makes the Givin Library unique is its interior woodwork. 

Steen picked the highly stylized Moorish Fretwork wooden lattice to delineate the different spaces in the library, creating an almost Harem-like atmosphere. These lattice screens are constructed by interlacing machine carved helical wooden sticks into elaborate ornamental patterns that are reminiscent of Harem screens from the Middle East. The screens and decorative door panels define the spaces in the library in a unique and exotic way.  

Moorish Fretwork was a very expensive and fragile material that brought a bit of the allure of the foreign and mysterious unknown parts of the world directly into the heart of this very American small town. As part of the Orientalism movement in American art and architecture, Moorish Fretwork went out of style in the 1920s and very few examples of it still exist, and almost none that are in public buildings where they are accessible to all, making the Amelia S. Givin library a true gem.

Know Before You Go

The library is open to the public. It continues to be a vital part of the Mt.Holly Springs community for over 125 years

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October 5, 2016

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