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Main library downtown began with a rich man's challenge

Main library downtown began with a rich man's challenge

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ST. LOUIS • In 1901, the city public library occupied two borrowed floors at the Board of Education. Voters had defeated two efforts to raise taxes for a freestanding library.

Promoters appealed to Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron who was giving away some of his fortune for libraries across the country. Carnegie issued a challenge:

“If the city of St. Louis will agree to tax itself and expend not less than $150,000 per annum on its library system, I shall be glad to give $500,000 for a Central Library,” he wrote on March 12, 1901.

Carnegie offered to throw in another $500,000 for branch libraries, if St. Louisans did their part.

They did, voting 7-1 only three weeks later to double the local library tax, raising the $1 million needed to match Carnegie’s offer. Construction began in 1908 at Olive and 13th streets.

The grand new main library, built of gray granite from Maine, was dedicated on Jan. 6, 1912. Despite heavy snow and below-zero temperatures, more than 1,000 people gathered inside, warmed by the glow of civic achievement and powerful hot-water radiators.

“This institution is not for a sect, a tribe or a creed,” said Catholic Archbishop John J. Glennon, one of the many speakers. “The library’s keepers must guard our intellectual food.”

The main library had cost $1.8 million to build — the equivalent of nearly $43 million today — and was opened to the public two days after the ceremony. Patrons could browse its 80,000 volumes and its periodicals and other stores of knowledge in spacious reading rooms. The interior of marble, carved wood, murals and other elegant touches confirmed the library’s majestic place in the community.

Its doors remained open to all until June 12, 2010, when it was closed for a $70 million restoration. Central Library reopens Sunday.


The St. Louis library’s story begins in 1865, when the school board assembled 1,500 books at a building at Fifth and Olive streets. Residents could use the library and borrow books for a small annual fee.

In 1893, city voters adopted their first public library tax, making the library independent of the school system and abolishing the membership fee. But the slow-growing collection remained on school property. At the century’s turn, it was on the top floors of the Board of Education, a building that still stands at 911 Locust Street. Efforts to raise the library tax in 1897 and 1898 were defeated, inspiring the city’s appeal to Carnegie.

The public vote in 1901 enabled the board to plan for a central library and six branches. For the main building, it chose a site five blocks west of the Board of Education, an area that once had been known as Missouri Park.

James and Marie Lucas, members of a prominent landowning family, provided for the park in 1854, in part to serve as an eastern buffer for an upper-class residential development known as Lucas Place. (The last trace of it is the Campbell House Museum, at 1508 Locust.)

The four-acre Missouri Park, bounded by Olive, 13th, St. Charles and 14th streets, had more than 350 trees and a spring.

In 1883, influential businessmen who wanted to build a convention center for St. Louis persuaded Lucas’ heirs to change the property covenant. The result was the Exposition and Music Hall, a two-block-square building opened in 1884 that would host two Democratic national conventions and hundreds of shows and festivals. By the time the library board went scouting for land, Exposition Hall was slated for demolition.

Construction on the main library began in 1908. The architect was Cass Gilbert of New York, who also designed the World’s Fair building that became the St. Louis Art Museum. He envisioned the library in the Italian Renaissance style, three stories tall with a wide main staircase and roof of green tile. He had the library bordered with carvings of fleur-de-lis and the engraved names of Balzac, Cervantes, Dickens, Emerson and other giants of literature.

As construction progressed, the library board also built six branches throughout the city, making full use of Carnegie’s pledge.

A week of deadly cold and heavy snow struck the city as librarians prepared for the grand opening downtown. By Jan. 6, 1912, snow drifts and broken overhead lines hobbled the streetcars. The high temperature that day was zero.

Many in the hardy audience were women educators. In the keynote address, Herbert Putnam, chief of the Library of Congress, praised Carnegie’s largess and the “passionate public service” of St. Louis librarian Frederick Crunden, who had guided the project until shortly before his death in 1911.

After the speeches, guests were allowed to walk through the book stacks, the maze of glass-block floors and steep metal staircases behind the main desk in the great hall. But for a rare public tour, the stacks would remain off-limits to patrons until they were dismantled for the centennial renovation.

In the basement was a large coal bunker to feed the heating system and a sump pump, probably to draw the water still seeping from Lucas’ spring.


The library got some remodelings, updates and good scrubbings, but it was largely unchanged until now.

One of the first modifications was the establishment in 1915 of a writing room, made necessary because visitors using ink pots and pens were staining the floors. The library provided them with writing materials. For three decades, it was a refuge for tenants in rooming houses and other noisy, crowded places who needed space and quiet to write home or apply for jobs.

In 1930, as the Depression settled hard, librarians noted that readership had risen by one-third as more people had free time. The library began holding special classes for the unemployed “to relieve the long tedium with constructive activity.”

By 1937, the library’s 25th anniversary, the library had made more than 90 million loans of its collection, including “talking books” of phonograph records for blind people. The main library regularly offered lectures, exhibits of photographs and works of art, and classes in preparing income-tax reports.

Chief librarian Charles Compton said the most popular novels that year were Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” the latter about a Hitler-style dictator rising to power in the United States.

As World War II began in Europe in September 1939, Compton reported a sharp increase in patronage of military books and maps. “Boys are terribly war-minded,” he said. “They love aviation and spies.”

Two years later, many of those boys would be in uniform. (More than 2,500 from the St. Louis area wouldn’t come home.)

Here are a few other headlines from the library’s first century:

1940 • The first bookmobile in St. Louis pulls away from 1301 Olive.

1947 • The library switchboard is overwhelmed whenever local radio shows have call-in quizzes.

1948 • The first refrigerated water coolers are installed.

1953 • Librarians begin using a microfilm photography machine to record borrowings, ending the tradition of recording all transactions manually.

1954 • A reading room for teenagers is opened in the basement. It includes a record player with four sets of headphones.

1963 • The collection grows to 1.2 million books, 16,000 phonograph records and 36,000 reference works, including telephone books from New York and Tokyo. In the basement are stored 718 barrels of water and 470 large boxes of crackers in case of nuclear attack.

1967 • The first no-smoking areas are created in reading rooms.

1987 • The library celebrates its 75th anniversary with a four-foot-long cake shaped like the building and music from a brass ensemble.

2010 •Librarians move millions of books, microfilm rolls, maps, DVDs and other items to make way for the renovation.

2012 • Library is scheduled to reopen for business at 1 p.m. Sunday.

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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