Atlantic Cities

The Simple Philosophy Behind St. Louis's Spectacular Central Library Renovation

The Simple Philosophy Behind St. Louis's Spectacular Central Library Renovation
Timothy Hursley

The Central Library in St. Louis has been a city landmark since the architect Cass Gilbert first designed it a century ago. Its 185,000 square feet occupy a full block of downtown, with a grand stone stairway rising off of Olive Street and opening onto an ornate central pavilion that feels like something quite the opposite of a reading nook. To put it succinctly, the whole building looks as if it were designed by the same man who dreamed up the Supreme Court (as, in fact, it was).

Today, its grandeur is one of its great assets, turning the city's central book hub into a historical monument. But the 21st century library primarily aspires to be something that Cass Gilbert's building was decidedly not: flexible – in programming, in mission, in space, in anticipation of a changing future. "Central library is anything but flexible," says Waller McGuire, the executive director of the St. Louis Public Library. "It is a mountain of granite, and it has stunning, but very divided spaces."


Courtesy Timothy Hursley

This contrast – between monumental architecture and the modern need for flexibility – touches many of America's great urban libraries. Much has been said about how these institutions should remake themselves in the age of the ebook, redefining even the role of the librarian. But the architecture of libraries is relevant, too; buildings built for a different kind of relationship to books can't be changed as easily as the books themselves.

St. Louis' Central Library closed for two years for a massive renovation that sought to reconcile the institution's past with its future (while also correcting some serious fire hazards).

"On one side, you have Cass Gilbert," says George Nikolajevich, the design principal for the project with Cannon Design. First and foremost, he says, he didn't want to "desecrate" the original structure. "On the other side, [you have] the 21st century and the transformation of parts of the building."

The library reopened in December, its 3 million books and artifacts rearranged and moved backed in from air conditioned storage, many of them into an entirely remade north wing. Amid the transformation, though, the one change library pessimists keep anticipating is nowhere to be found: The books themselves haven’t been pushed to the side for computer kiosks and iPad charging stations. They are more prominent than ever.

"This question often comes up: Are the books something that will disappear?" Nikolajevich says. The new Central Library is in fact betting on the opposite. "I think they’re here to stay and live together with all kinds of electronic equipment. And if you look at the life of that library today, you would see an amazing amount of enjoyment by people – if you look at kids it’s particularly interesting – using books."

The most problematic part of the building was its north wing, where the "stack towers" housing seven-story-tall shelves held the bulk of the museum’s books for a century. This is how the cavernous room originally appeared before the shelves were inserted:


St. Louis Public Library

And during that building process:


St. Louis Public Library

Glass floors enabled librarians and researchers to access the stacks:


St. Louis Public Library

This was neither the kind of place you would want to browse for new authors nor accidentally light a match. "One of the world's great public library collections," McGuire says, "was stored in what was in effect a chimney."

The room was also a relic of another library era. When Gilbert designed the building, readers would typically enter the grand front stairway to finger the card catalog in the library's Great Hall. They'd scribble down the books they wanted on small cards, and hand those over to librarians. Those cards would travel through pneumatic tubes back to the stacks to librarians who'd hunt down the correct title. Eventually, the book would come back across the counter to the waiting reader.

"That's not the way patrons want to use a collection now," McGuire says. "They want to browse the shelves themselves, they want to see the collection and touch it themselves."

When contractors tore down all of those original seven-story bookshelves, it turned out, Nikolajevich says, that Cass Gilbert had left the modern-day architects a beautiful, flood-lit white box covered in porcelain tile in need of only a good wash. This is what the space looks like today:


Courtesy Timothy Hursley

The majority of the books in the stacks have been moved into public parts of the library (those spaces were also vastly expanded when the administrative offices were relocated). Those books that do remain "behind the scenes" are now behind glass walls. Cannon kept the two-toned white and dark-wood color of the original space. The rest of the decoration now comes from the colorful books themselves, from what Nikolajevich calls the "crown of books" that pulls your eye around the space.

This part of the building now also has dedicated computer spaces, and McGuire says he knows the library is becoming a portal for many people onto the Internet. "But I don't worry about what used to be called 'the death of the book,'" he says. "All you have to do is go into the children's library and watch a group of kids for a story time get led out and dash into the collection and grab mounds of books that they clutch to themselves."

Elsewhere throughout the library, historic spaces have been refurbished and new ones created, enabling visitors to touch and browse the books more as you would in a bookstore sorted by topic. The dramatic renovation of the north wing also enabled one other change: For the first time in 100 years, the Central Library now has an entrance on its north side, too. Until now, the building had essentially turned its back on the neighborhood to its north, the downtown area that the city is now trying to revitalize.

"That feels as though we have opened ourselves to the 21st century as well, to the St. Louis that's being built land developed all around us now," McGuire says. Cannon created a new sculptured entrance of stainless steel (mirroring the St. Louis Arch), with the names of authors and suggested lines from readers’ favorite books carved into the supporting pillars and water feature.


Courtesy Timothy Hursley

The grand Olive Street entrance still remains, just as Gilbert designed it. "You can kind of choose the library you want to walk into," McGuire says. And this is the very definition of flexibility. "I've had patrons tell me they do it that way – some days they feel like coming into the historic library, some days they feel like coming into the new library. And I feel like Yes! We got it right."


Courtesy Timothy Hursley

Top image courtesy Timothy Hursley.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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