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Restored Central Library mixes old and new in downtown St. Louis

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Inside the new atrium, frosted glass behind a library checkout table is inscribed with a friendly “hello.” Amid gleaming new construction, the glass shows a few scuff marks — left from its days as flooring in the seven-story book stacks.

Those stacks, and 106 tons of glass flooring, are gone. They were removed in the $70 million restoration of Central Library, showpiece of the St. Louis Public Library system. But the reuse of some of the glass shows how the renovation has married old with new.

In Central Library, century-old treasures now share the same home as a thousand miles of fiber optic cable. Ceilings inspired by Renaissance palaces have been restored, and 100-year-old stained glass and alabaster lamps have been cleaned. But those glories aren’t enough for a 21st-century library, which also needs high-speed wireless access, data closets and dozens of computers.

Cass Gilbert was the original architect for the stunning landmark at 1301 Olive Street. He designed something more complicated than a city-block-size rectangle. Central Library is made up of an oval central pavilion surrounded by rectangular wings, or pavilions. They connect to the oval structure, which holds the Great Hall, with bridges.

It was not a rare design in the early 20th century, when architects called for many windows (some facing the interior courtyard) to let in light, says George Z. Nikolajevich, the Cannon Design architect who planned the library’s renovation. The stack structure was modern for its time, he says.

But the stacks were fire hazards, and inaccessible to the public, so Nikolajevich replaced them with a soaring atrium that keeps the original exterior wall of windows, which let in beautiful northern light, he says. A detached steel canopy and water feature now give the rear entrance real presence. Inside the atrium, new mobile shelving is visible through glass walls. The lines of books act almost like artwork, Nikolajevich says.

The library renovation was “very complex,” he says with “many little things to resolve.” Overall, the historic parts of the 190,000-square-foot building were restored while space available to public almost doubled.

This week, Nikolajevich would not commit to having a favorite part of the library, either old or new.

“Clearly the entrances are the most impressive,” he says, while giving a nod also to the well-proportioned reading rooms, warm and majestic at the same time.

After the library is rededicated in a short ceremony at 1 p.m. Sunday, public visitors can decide for themselves which parts of the library they favor.

Here’s a guide to some of the highlights, old and new.


Look up • Almost every original ceiling on the second floor is something to behold. The Grand Foyer’s ceiling mural may be the most beautiful example of Beaux Arts building painting in the U.S., a Boston consultant told library director Waller McGuire. The old Periodical Room’s ceiling was inspired by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. Painted beams in two reading rooms allude to Renaissance palaces. The Fine Arts Room’s ceiling was based on one in La Badia, a church in Florence, Italy, but the library’s plaster had been heavily damaged when fluorescent lights were added decades ago. Shown a 1912 photo, BSI Contractors were told to “match this.” They enlisted Niehaus Construction, one of many St. Louis consultants and subcontractors. Meanwhile, a hidden skylight on the third floor was also uncovered — and repaired.

Art • Gorgeous stained glass windows decorate staircases to the third floor. Architect Gilbert specified that they be made by Gorham (which he considered better than Tiffany). Painted ceilings include images of flowers, owls, cupids, ribbons, plants and even dolphins.

Building materials • The original white ceramic tile, which was washed, lines the walls of the atrium. The front steps are the original 565 pieces of granite. Exterior walls are of Maine granite; ornate outside lights are still held up by brass turtles. The Great Hall’s walls are Tennessee marble. Marble floors make up main stairways, and patterned brass gates are still used to close off rooms.

Quotes • The exterior of the building is highly decorated with carvings, including the shields and names of printers and quotations and names of illustrious authors, such as Goethe, Milton and the Brontes. One, from Thomas Carlyle, says: “In books lies the soul of the whole past time: The articulate audible voice of the past.”

Rooms • The Stedman Library near the Fine Arts Room contains a fine collection of architectural books. The Great Hall and other main floor rooms retain many of the original wood tables and lights. The literature room will be renamed in honor of the library’s executive director, Waller McGuire, who has overseen renovation of Central plus many branches.

Who made it happen  • Gilbert, of course, and Andrew Carnegie (see accompanying story), the city of St. Louis and hundreds of anonymous workers.


Look up • See clouds on the children’s room and sleek, modern ceilings with oval contours in the Center for the Reader.

Art  • Jelly Baby sculptures by Mauro Perucchetti stand outside the Children’s Room (they are on loan from the Gateway Foundation). Artwork by Julie Heller, called “tapestries,” hang in the Fine Arts and other rooms. A water feature on Locust Street is also inscribed with book titles.

Building materials • Quarter-sawn oak paneling is installed horizontally. Marble floor is in Atrium; marble counters are on new checkout tables. Frosted windows have been replaced with clear glass. A stainless steel canopy covers the north entrance. New cork flooring (also an original element) is in many rooms. New spaces may feature turquoise or red carpeting.

Quotes • Literary quotations now are carved on the ceiling of the Center for the Reader. Lines from famous children’s books decorate the Children’s Room. One is from Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”: “Once there was a little tree...and she loved a little boy.” Getting permission to use other quotations and classic children’s images may have been the hardest part of the project, though, McGuire says.

Rooms • The lower level has an auditorium where the coal bin was (it has 244 seats and six spaces for wheelchairs). At least two restrooms are now on each level of the building. A glass-walled Book Club room sits on the first floor near the cafe (not quite ready to open). The Center for the Reader features popular titles and magazines. A teen room includes lounge seating. The Creative Experience room lets visitors explore new technology. A public computer room has been added, and laptops and iPads can be checked out. Eight new data closets hold new wiring. The third floor, formerly offices, now has four large reading rooms — Special Collections, St. Louis Room, History and Genealogy — plus the new Carnegie meeting room.

Hours  •  Part of Central Library will now be open Sunday afternoons (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.). The building’s regular hours are 10 a.m-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Sunday.

Who made it happen  •  Library bonds and private donations. Cannon Design was the architect, BSI Constructors was the general contractor; CLR Consultants was the developer. Numerous subcontractors included Sachs Electric, Wiegmann Associates, Niehaus Construction, PaintSmiths. The St. Louis Public Library Foundation and president Rick Simoncelli were charged with raising $20 million toward renovation; the capital campaign was chaired by Thomas F. Schlafly and Alison Nichols Ferring. Biggest single donor, Emerson, has a tile on floor of the atrium. Modest signage notes “gifts” of various rooms, but the only name for sale is for the auditorium (no one has yet spent $3 million for naming rights).

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