HUL HOME > Development  >
Albert I. Cassell &
The Founders Library: A Brief History
See also:     The Founders Library Building: A Pictorial History
  The Founders Renaissance Initiatives

The Beginning  |  Albert I. Cassell—Architect, Planner, Entrepreneur  |  The Hilltop


The Beginning

The spring of 1939 was a remarkable year in a turbulent decade. The threat of war loomed over the Western Hemisphere. America was slowly emerging from the worst depression in its history. The promise of equality and dignity remained unfilled for millions of African Americans. But in the spring of 1939, rising as a symbol of hope and achievement, The Founders Library of Howard University was dedicated.

During the academic year of 1938-39, the President of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, reckoned the years of the modern era for African Americans: 1938-39 was the 76th year since Emancipation; the 72nd year of Howard University and the 60th year of support from the Federal government. It was also the 10th year of the law authorizing annual Federal appropriations to support the university’s construction and maintenance.

Howard was a thriving enterprise. According to newspaper accounts, by 1938 Howard University had trained 49 percent, or 1,799 of all the African American physicians in the United States; and 835, or 50 percent, of all the African American dentists. Almost all, 97 percent, of the nation’s African American lawyers passed through Howard University. 

President Johnson reported proudly that the university’s physical campus was valued at $7,315,830 and its total assets were estimated to $9,527,896. These were sums undreamed of when General Howard and 17 other men signed the charter that established the university on the hilltop. The intervening sixty years have produced growth that would have dwarfed the imaginings of any university president.

The Founders Library has become Howard University’s most durable and forceful monument, a living symbol of the striving for liberty and achievement that characterizes Howard since its beginnings. Standing proudly on the hill overlooking the fabric of the nation’s capital, The Founders Library is a complex and eloquent expression of the hopes, history and heritage of a great American university. It is a tribute to the spirit of liberty and a demonstration of the power of elegance and form.

After sixty years of welcoming generations of students to the excitement of intellectual life, the time has come to restore The Founders Library to the vision of its creator. We must erase the marks of time, and polish this beautiful structure for coming generations to admire as we have.

Its creator, an African American architect, was just 44 years old when Founders Library opened its doors. But Albert Cassell had already brought forth his vision of the university’s campus. During his 18 years of service to the university as a professor, a planner and an architect, Mr. Cassell designed and constructed its most prominent structures—Frederick Douglas Hall, the Chemistry building and the Power Plant. The power of his determination and wisdom are evident throughout the Howard campus to this day. 

Albert I. Cassell
Architect, Planner, Entrepreneur

Albert Irving Cassell was born in Towson, Maryland on June 25, 1895, the third child of Albert and Charlotte Cassell. According to his son, Charles, Albert’s father drove a coal truck and played trumpet in the Baltimore Salvation Army Band. His mother took into washing to supplement the family’s income. 

As with many African Americans, Albert’s path to higher education was not easy. To compensate for the shortcomings of the Baltimore public high schools of that era, Albert moved to Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University, where he enrolled in the city’s high school. He was later admitted to Cornell and earned his way through working as a caretaker for one his professors and singing in church choirs.

His studies were interrupted by service in the US Army in World War I. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery serving as a training officer in France during 1917 and 1918. Mr. Cassell completed his architectural degree at Cornell in 1919. His career as an architect began in that year when he and William A. Hazel, an architect at Howard, planned the initial architectural and structural designs of five trade buildings at Tuskegee Institute. In 1920, Mr. Cassell joined in the Architecture Department of Howard University as assistant professor.

Over the course of the next two decades, Mr. Cassell would make an indelible impression on the university. He would be involved in every aspect of the campus’ physical growth. The campus we see today is the result of his concepts and his dedication to detail and execution.

In 1930 he produced the master plan for the expansion of Howard’s campus. Then, in his capacity as head of the maintenance department as well as professor of architecture, he systematically purchased the land around the early quadrangle in order to execute his master plan for the university. He and William Hazel, as well as his architectural firm, Cassell Gray & Sulton, designed and constructed the substance of Howard’s academic quadrangle. Above and below ground, Mr. Cassell left his mark:

  1. The Medical School: Dedicated April 9-10, 1928
  2. The Dining Hall: 1921-1923
  3. The Gymnasium: Constructed during 1924-26; Groundbreaking Ceremony, March 16, 1924; Dedicated February 26, 1926
  4. The Stadium: Dedicated February 26, 1926
  5. Three Women's Dormitory Buildings: 1929-1931
  6. The Chemistry Building: Dedicated October 26, 1936
  7. Power Plant and Underground Power Distribution System: 1934-1936
  8. Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, 1936
  9. The Founders Library:  Cornerstone, June 11, 1937; Dedicated May 25, 1939

Three of Mr. Cassell’s most important works, durable contributions to Howard’s academic setting, are the Chemistry Building (1936), Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall (1936), and The Founders Library (1939). Albert Cassell’s masterwork is Howard’s hilltop campus; its jewel is its main Library. Mr. Cassell left Howard University after its completion in 1938. His career is an unequivocal testament to his ingenuity and vision. 

When Albert Cassell left Howard in 1938, after the completion of the library, he dreamed no small dreams. Beginning in 1930 and continuing for many years, Mr. Cassell pursued the development of an innovative planned community for African Americans on 500 acres on the shore of Chesapeake Bay. Later, he continued to shape academic communities by designing buildings for Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Virginia Union University in Richmond. He designed and built civic structures for the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Mr. Cassell’s commitment to public housing produced the highly respected Mayfair Mansions project and the James Creek Alley Housing Development, both in Washington DC. Howard University and much of the surrounding region are the beneficiaries of Albert Cassell’s legacy, as an architect, an engineer, an entrepreneur and a visionary. His buildings use the timeless power of good design, form and integrity to teach the dynamism of the mind and the value of ideas.


The Hilltop

The Founders Library sits on Howard’s hallowed ground, the site of one of Howard’s first permanent dedicated structures, the Main Building. Until 1910, there existed no separate building to house Howard’s library. The Main building supported all the university’s functions except for the faculties of Medicine and Law. The office of the president was nestled in with the classrooms of the theology department, the college and the normal school, along with the lecture halls for physics and biology. The Main Building even contained the university’s treasure room. The library occupied very tight quarters on the building’s third floor.

In these early days, the library had no dedicated staff. Although it contained about 7,000 volumes, there was no full-time librarian. The academic officer who served as librarian had other duties. As a result, the university’s books were not accessible or manageable; the library could only be open a few hours per week and borrowing was severely limited. As a consequence, the maintenance of the early Howard library was neglected, and the collection did not serve to stimulate the intellectual growth of students and faculty.

In 1910, the modern era began for Howard University’s library functions when it occupied the Carnegie Library, situated on the west side of the quadrangle. Its construction was made possible through grants from the Carnegie Foundation, the General Education Board and the Rosenwald Fund. Its opening marked the university’s realization that the library must be a driving force in its academic development.

With the opening of Carnegie Library, the professionalism and the size of the library staff grew in proportion to the size of the university’s collection and its burgeoning enrollment. By 1924, the university’s holdings had grown to more than 40,000 volumes through yearly appropriations for acquisitions of between $3,000 and $4,000, a sizable sum indicative of the university’s expanding intellectual stature. The Carnegie Library building has remained an elegant presence on the Howard University quadrangle, and until 1977 housed the School of  Divinity.

By the early 1930’s, Carnegie Library was experiencing significant strain. The collection had grown to more than 85,000 volumes. In addition the staff had increased along with library’s dedication to meeting Howard’s expanding teaching and research needs. It was clear that the university must devise a library structure that would accommodate a constantly expanding student body as well as growing scholarly activities.

In 1929, the United State Congress appropriated $1 million for the construction of a new library at Howard University, but it would be some years before those funds were put to use. In 1936, after seventy years as a landmark for the university, the Main Building was demolished to make way for The Founders Library. The cornerstone was laid on June 10, 1937. The library was named for the 17 men who established the university and to whom the charter was issued. A contemporary account by one of the leading architects in Albert Cassell’s firm makes clear how the project began:

The university was fairly specific. They gave us the names and the sizes for the principal spaces, and the number of books that they wanted to provide for. They suggested that this building have a tower. Old Main Building had one. The site given was on top of the hill where the Old Main Building sat. It would have to go and the president’s house would have to be moved. …

We found that a building about 200 feet long by 100 feet wide would do if we made the building four healthy stories high and provided for six levels of stacks. … The tower should be exactly in the center and should read as a tower from the north campus (the larger, more prominent campus).

The tower was borrowed from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Since it was dedicated to liberty we felt that we could do no better.

From these design parameters came a structure of striking nobility. When it was dedicated on May 25, 1939, The Founders Library opened to rave reviews. Newspaper headlines shouted, “Howard Memorial to Founders Is Like Aladdin’s Palace.” No detail was too small to escape notice.

The sound proofed walls and ceilings enable readers to talk in one corner of the room without being heard in the other. Floors are of cork and rubber, $1,000 rugs so deep readers will sink in to their ankles.

There are five reading rooms, the main one 120 feet by 32 feet, equipped with twenty silver oak tables each having six chairs. Overhead the ceiling carries…indirect lights of 500 watts each. So efficient is the lighting that if an obstruction is held 2 feet above a book, enough light will still come in at the side to permit easy reading.

The browsing room is fitted with cream colored monk’s cloth drapes, Spanish leather easy chairs and couches and Axminster rugs that cost $1,000 each.

Built at a cost of $1,106,000, this was one of the most important academic structures of the period. It was the largest and most complete library among the historically black colleges and universities. It was considered one of the most modern and sophisticated facilities of its type in the nation. Intended to house 200,000 volumes with future capacity reaching 500,000 volumes, it was a marvel.

Founders Library made use of the current technological advancements such air conditioning and mechanical elevators for moving books. Its high ceilings, long hallways and vast reading rooms were the rival of those of the Ivy League. Its Georgian facade, oak paneled rooms and stately entrance way beckoned students and faculty into the tranquil realm of intellectual life.

Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, spoke at the May 25, 1939 dedication ceremony. Newspaper accounts often described Mr. Ickes as the “Ex Officio Patron of Howard University.” His role in providing Federal funding through he Public Works Administration was crucial to the project. His address, broadcast over the radio, rings true today in the age of the Internet and the World Wide Web:

"We can hardly over-estimate the role of libraries in modern life. They constitute perhaps the most important single agency for the perpetuation of civilization. To the libraries we entrust for safe keeping our accumulated social, artistic and scientific knowledge. It is upon their resources that we largely depend for knowing and understand the past; it is by their help that we may undertake to absorb the knowledge and develop the intellectual habits necessary for effective participation in the democratic way of life; and it is mainly through them that w hope to be able to project our own contributions into and influence the future."

On that May afternoon, Howard University dedicated a library that was equal to its ambitions and its heritage. Finally, it had a building that could house its growing special collections on the history and culture of African America, first the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center's materials, and later other collections. At America’s foremost African American university was the newest and best window into the past.

Fountain of Knowledge, at Lower Quad, Albert I. Cassell, 1939
Photo: M. Mekkawi


Founders Library, Aerial View
For almost seventy years Founders Library has served the university well. It has remained the hub of intellectual life on campus, and propelled thousands of students and faculty forward into new spheres of inquiry.

Photo: Harry G. Robinson, III > Larger image


© Howard University. All rights reserved.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, 500 Howard Place, NW, Washington, DC 20059 - (202) 806-7234
Questions? Comments? - Contacts  - WWW Disclaimer