The Central Library: Behind the Scenes of a Transformation

Categories: Books, Community

Kholood Eid
​On January 6, 1912, 99 years and one day ago, the Central Library downtown opened its doors for the very first time. Designed by the architect Cass Gilbert to look like an Italian Renaissance palace and costing $1.5 million, part of which was a gift from the Pittsburgh steel baron Andrew Carnegie, the library was intended to be the crown jewel of the St. Louis Public Library system.

Last summer, with a little less ceremony, the library shut its doors again in anticipation of a massive renovation scheduled to last two years and cost $70 million. Four million books, CDs, maps, periodicals and other materials were removed to a temporary storage facility and the entire library, including its seven stories of stacks, was gutted. Even the grand front staircase was taken apart in 565 pieces, each of which was labeled and cataloged so it could be reassembled again.

The Central Library as generations of St. Louisans knew it is gone. In its place is a shell of a building that will, in the next year or so, be filled with an updated and reorganized collection of books, computers and research materials, as well as public reading spaces and a brand-new auditorium. But for now, parts of it look pretty much the same as they did a century ago: under construction.

Yesterday afternoon, the library's executive director Waller McGuire, sporting a hard hat that looked almost jaunty, led a procession of journalists through the library in transition.

Kholood Eid
St. Louis Public Library executive director Waller McGuire describes the wonders of the new Central Library.
​"We've invested over a decade on this project," he said. "It's been a lot of work. We used [Gilbert's] old plans to open up the walls, but a lot had to be re-thought. It's very, very complex."

Among other things, the construction workers uncovered asbestos and lead-based paint which will have to be removed. They also discovered a book titled Female Physiology that dated back to 1854 and was, presumably, considered so inflammatory, it couldn't be kept with the rest of the books.

Auditorium 1911.jpg
St. Louis Public Library
The library's basement in 1911, when it was used to store coal.
​Until the renovation, the library still had its original heating and cooling system from 1912, which took up most of the basement. "The original huge boiler could have run the Queen Mary across the Atlantic," McGuire declared. "The new HVAC is smaller and more efficient. The whole area that used to hold the coal bin is going to be a new auditorium. It's a resource the library never had for performances and author events. It's an amazing discovery."

The ground floor of the library, previously what McGuire called "a warren of service rooms", has been cleared out, too, to make way for two new areas: The Center for the Reader and The Creative Experience.

Kholood Eid
The library's ground floor.
​The Center for the Reader will be an expanded version of the old Popular Library, containing new and frequently-requested books and CDs along with extra space for library patrons to sit and read. McGuire envisions The Creative Experience as "a technology sandbox" where visitors can play with new computer software to edit music files or design buildings.

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St. Louis Public Library
The Central Library stacks in 2009.
​The most dramatic change to the library, though, is the demolition of the stacks and their eerily beautiful frosted glass floors.

"It was an amazing space," McGuire admitted. "It was heart-rending to see it go." But, he said, since the stacks were no longer compliant with modern building codes, patrons weren't allowed to use them, which they found frustrating. "That's not how a modern library operates," he said. "People want to explore the shelves themselves."

And so out with the stacks and in with six floors of a modern compact shelving system that will be able to hold more books, plus study and computer rooms and a new glass atrium. This section will the the trickiest part of the renovation, since piles for a new foundation will have to be dug down into the bedrock.

Some of the spirit of the stacks, however, will be preserved: a few of the old tiles that made up the glass floors will be recycled as room dividers.

Kholood Eid
Pains have been taken to preserve some of the library's more striking architectural features, like this skylight on the third floor.

All the books are currently in storage, where they will be reorganized and digitized. During construction, the library's special collections and genealogy departments have been moved to the Compton Library at 1624 Locust and will re-open for business later this month.

Kholood Eid
The space between the two library buildings; the stacks building is on the right.
​The construction will open up the courtyards inside the library walls, which Gilbert had designed to be hidden from view in order to preserve what McGuire calls "the secret of the building."

"When people walk in the front door," he said, "they want to know how what looks like a big rectangle becomes an oval hall with windows. The reason is because it's really two buildings, an open rectangle with an oval great hall, connected by bridges." Two new bridges on the ground floor will be made of glass so visitors will be able to see how the library fits together.

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The remains of executive director Waller McGuire's private bathroom.
​Other changes will be less dazzling. There will be new elevators and bathrooms (though McGuire, sadly, will lose his private commode). The wiring and emergency system will be brought up to date, and building will be more accessible for disabled patrons. Most of the library system's administrative offices -- which housed about 100 staffers -- will be moved to another building across the street, leaving more room for books.

So far, McGuire said, construction is on time and on budget. Still, no one's sure exactly when the library will re-open, though McGuire is confident it will be sometime in 2012. Of the project's $70 million budget, $46 million is for construction; the remainder will go toward moving and storing the library's collection. The money came from a bond issue and from fundraising efforts by the St. Louis Public Library Foundation, which netted $12 million in 2010. (Its goal is $20 million by the time the library reopens in 2012.)

McGuire said that he and his staff are very excited about the new building. "It's been a pretty emotional experience," he said. "We had a staff night after the building closed [in July]. One staffer saw the room she had worked in for 20 years all emptied out and burst into tears. It's a great thing, she told me, a great thing."

Kholood Eid

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