Another Look at the Central Library's Makeover-in-Progress

Categories: Books, Community

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Kholood Eid
Back in 1912, it cost $1.5 million to build a marble library. Even allowing for inflation, that's still equivalent to less than half the cost of the current renovation. What a bargain!
​One hundred years ago last Friday, the Central Library downtown opened its doors for the first time. They closed them again a year and a half ago for a massive $70 million renovation project that would bring the library into the twenty-first century.

The project is still only two-thirds done, but since the library's centennial could not go unmarked, Mayor Francis Slay (or, rather, mayoral staffer Josh Wiese on behalf of his boss since Slay had a prior commitment) issued a proclamation in a brief ceremony inside Christ Cathedral Church across the street. (There would be further festivities on Saturday at various library branches, including the construction of a model of the Central Library from Legos.) Then the library's director, Waller McGuire, led a brief tour through the construction site.

It was the second such tour led by McGuire -- Daily RFT was there for the 2011 edition -- and the director was proud to point out all the progress that had been made in the past 365 days. The library will reopen to the public by the end of the year; a gala reception is scheduled for November 17.

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Aimee Levitt
The marble floor near the old information desk had nearly been worn through by a century of library patrons.
​In his remarks at the cathedral, McGuire noted that in 1912, the library was beyond state-of-the-art and more like something out of H.G. Welles or Jules Verne. Consider that in 1912, electric light was still not universal in households across St. Louis. But, as Board of Directors member Tom Schlafly noted, nobody in 1912 -- or even 1984, when he first joined the board -- could have anticipated the ubiquity of the Internet.

So now in 2012, construction workers will have to thread thousands of miles of data cable behind and beneath the existing marble walls and floors.

"The data network will be one of the largest in the city," McGuire said proudly. That includes wireless, too; the library and surrounding area will be "blanketed" in WiFi signals so visitors can use their smartphones as well as their computers. In addition, iPads will be available for checkout (though they can't leave the building, alas) so patrons can roam freely throughout the library as they do their research. Much of the library's collection of books and periodicals, some dating back to the 1840s when the earliest incarnation of the library opened, has also been digitized.

The old stacks have been gutted, replaced by a browsing area, a reading room, a computer center and a cafe, all topped with what McGuire called "a crown of books," 18,000 square feet of shelving. There will also be a new entrance out onto Locust Street and a high-ceiling, light-filled atrium.

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Aimee Levitt
The new Locust Street entrance will be set in a pond with a fountain, and the stone wall and steel canopy will be engraved with book, movie and song titles and great lines from books, all suggested by library users.

Beneath the atrium, in what used to be the coal bin, construction of the auditorium is underway. The Central Library never had an auditorium. "Before, authors would give readings in the Grand Hall and they would have to shout," McGuire said. The new auditorium will have seating for 250 and technology that can project readings and performances onto screens in other parts of library and beyond.

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Aimee Levitt
​The basement will also contain the library's collection of 200,000 maps and special collections, which will be stored in rolling stacks.

The goal of the architects at St. Louis-based Cannon Design was to maintain as much of the integrity of Cass Gilbert's original structure as possible while bringing the building up to date. The library will be fully accessible for disabled users, and it's now compliant with construction and fire codes. Rare books will be kept in a special area that will protect them from atmospheric changes, and the special collections will be shielded from the elements by a double-thick wall. (Before there was no archival storage and, astonishingly, no fire and smoke protection, not even a sprinkler system.)

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Aimee Levitt
Waller McGuire admires the restored ceiling in the arts collection room.
​Workers will also be taking the opportunity to clean up parts of the library. McGuire was particularly proud of the restoration of the ornate plaster ceiling in the room that will eventually house the arts collection. Originally modeled after a Renaissance palazzo in Florence, the ceiling was covered up by a fluorescent lighting system that was installed in the 1950s. (State-of-the-art is not always aesthetically-pleasing.) The fluorescents have been torn out, to be replaced by chandeliers, and restoration artists have been working with tiny brushes to return the ceiling to its former glory.

The tour did not extend to the third floor. The space previously held administrative offices and staff meeting rooms. Those have been moved to another building across the street. When the library re-opens, the top floor will hold the genealogy collection and the St. Louis Room. In all, the improved library will have 30,000 more square feet of public space than the original, a 60 percent increase.

The most significant improvement, though, at least as far as McGuire is concerned, is the installation of all-new bathrooms. (And here Daily RFT would have to agree with him wholeheartedly. The old bathrooms were, in a word, disgusting.)

At this point, two-thirds of the way through, the entire project is progressing on time and on budget. The St. Louis Public Library Foundation intended to raise $20 million toward the renovations; currently it is $4.9 million short, reported Alison Ferring, chair of the fundraising campaign.

McGuire is pleased with the progress of his library. "It was an enormous design challenge," he said. "We're working with a masterpiece. It's not an art museum. It has to be a great library for the twenty-first century."


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