June 25, 2014

Modern Times: The Fight to Save St. Louis' Midcentury Lewis & Clark Library

Exterior view of the library

photo by: Lindsey Derrington

The Lewis and Clark Branch of St. Louis County Library is expected to be demolished as early as August.

It’s no secret that Midcentury Modern designs can be a little harder to love than their counterparts from earlier eras, but as these buildings from the post-war period come of age, communities across the country are grappling with the question of whether or not they deserve the same attention and protection as their pre-war ancestors. That seems to be just the case for the Lewis & Clark Branch Library in St. Louis County, Mo.

The 1963 Lewis & Clark Library, designed by noted architect Frederick Dunn, is on the chopping block and may fall as early as August. The National Register-eligible building is representative of the surrounding post-war construction boom that took place outside the city limits of St. Louis.

“Frederick Dunn was, I would say, one of the three or four most important Midcentury Modern architects in St. Louis,” says Esley Hamilton, a preservation historian for St. Louis County. “Particularly, many of his projects involve working with other artists -- stain glass and sculpture -- which was fairly unusual at that time.”

That’s the case with the library, which boasts Emil Frei stained glass windows by artist Robert Harmon.

The open floor plan of the interior of the library

photo by: Lindsey Derrington

One of the library board's criticisms of the current structure is that it is not flexible enough. Preservationists, however, are quick to point out its open floor plan.

The trouble for the building started sometime in 2010 or 2011, when the St. Louis County Public Library Board of Directors conducted a study on their building stock. By November of 2012, they had managed to get a bond issue on the county ballot that would fund the demolition and replacement of the Lewis & Clark Branch on the county’s north side, along with a separate branch in the south.

“The thing is, it just doesn’t need to be replaced,” says Andrew Weil, executive director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis. “And so I think it’s really just a matter of, they’ve got the money, they’ve told everybody that they’re going to build a new library, and they weren’t thinking about the fact that the design was significant.”

Still, Weil admits that appreciating Modernist works like the library is a little tougher, and requires a bit of an academic perspective and understanding of their importance. Because of that, a lot of the arguments from groups like Landmarks Association of St. Louis, Modern STL -- which has led the fight for the library -- and even the AIA have been falling on deaf ears.

Emil Frei stained glass windows featured at the library

photo by: Lindsey Derrington

Built in 1963 and designed by Frederick Dunn, the library features Emil Frei stained glass windows by artist Robert Harmon.

But that doesn’t mean that Weil and others agree with the demolition.

“It has a very open plan, and one of the ironies of this current controversy is that the library board has been saying they need a building that’s flexible,” says Hamilton. “Well, this building is practically all one room. What could be more flexible?”

Preservationists also say that the library board has made the argument that the Lewis & Clark structure is less viable because it has two separate stories, but point to the fact that the new library in the southern part of the county will be two stories itself.

Some also postulate that the replacement of a library on the county’s north side was used as a political tactic to pass the bond issue -- the theory being that without any direct benefit, northerners wouldn’t go for the measure. As the oldest library left in their area, Lewis & Clark was an easy target.

Preservationists say that they’ve been fighting to protect the building ever since they heard about the board of directors' building review, pointing out that members of the community advocated for the structure through contacts on the board while the county preservation office conducted a building assessment of its own.

A rendering of the 20,000 sqaure foot addition to the library

photo by: Neil Chace & Jeremy Claggett of Space Architects, Jon Hagar of Fox Architects for Modern STL

A rendering of the proposed 20,000-square-foot addition to the library that would satisfy the goals set forth by the library board for the new building. The addition would also be less costly.

A rendering of the proposed 20,000-square-foot addition to the library that would satisfy the goals set forth by the library board for the new building. The addition would also be less costly.

After the bond issue for the library’s replacement passed, Neil Chace, the board president of Modern STL and an architect at SPACE Architecture + Design in St. Louis, designed and proposed a 20,000-square-foot addition to the structure that would satisfy the board’s goals and lower their cost. Preservationists even proposed the idea of having the city of Moline Acres (in which the library sits) repurpose the property as its headquarters and traffic court. For its part, the city was willing to consider the idea before the library board put the kibosh on it.

“As of [Tuesday] morning it kind of looks like [the board] is done talking to us about this alternative plan,” says Chace. “The board’s response from the beginning was: ‘We promised the community a new library and we respect your opinions, but we’re going to follow through with a new library.’”

Now, all that’s really left to do is watch and wait.

“As scholarship progresses on Modernism and the context for it develops in this area, we’re learning more about who are the players and what are the designs that are highly significant,” says Weil. “But so many people still have a sense of what a historic building looks like in this area, and it’s a Victorian building. And this just doesn’t fit the mold.”

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

Join us for PastForward Online 2022, the historic preservation event of the year, November 1-4, 2022.

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