January 31, 2013

[Video] Central Library in St. Louis, Renewed

  • By: David Weible

Atrium at Central Library of the St. Louis Public Library. Credit: Jim Balogh, St. Louis Public Library
The 7-story atrium at Central Library.

The Central Library of the St. Louis Public Library is now in its 101st year, but thanks to a $68 million restoration and renovation, you’d think it was brand-new.

The project was more than 10 years in the making and took two-and-a-half years of work, and necessitated removing the library’s entire collection and storing it on over 21 miles of shelving. The effort was aided in large part by a 1994 tax increase in the city that has allowed the St. Louis Public Library system to restore or refurbish 15 of their 17 locations.

Still, Central Library in downtown St. Louis is undoubtedly the crown jewel. Designed by Cass Gilbert, the Italian Renaissance structure began its rebirth as a 21st-century center for learning on June 10, 2010. When it reopened on December 9, 2012, it boasted the following changes:

  • Roughly 40,000 more square feet had been made accessible to the public.
  • The children’s room had been expanded to twice its previous size.
  • A new Creative Experience room was installed to allow synchronized use of iPads, computers, and other technology.
  • A specific teen area was designated.
  • A 7-story atrium was created out of what used to be the stacks, which had sat atop 4,800 glass blocks, each weighing 40 pounds.

Great Hall ceiling at Central Library of the St. Louis Public Library. Credit: Jim Balogh, St. Louis Public Library
The ceiling in the Great Hall.

The project also repurposed the building’s gigantic coal bin into a 250-seat auditorium with a stage large enough for a grand piano. This spring, the library will put the finishing touches on the project when they finish a state-of-the-art recording studio.

Despite all of these amazing expansions, the most profoundly beautiful parts of the library are those that were restored. The library spared no expense, though the project somehow came in on time and $2 million under budget. All the brass railings and fixtures were polished and restored; ceilings were repainted, touched up, and relit; three original skylights were uncovered and utilized, and original drawings were used to recreate a chandelier lighting system in the appropriate spaces.

The project also revealed that 100 years of foot traffic had worn down the marble floor in front of the help desk in the Great Hall to barely a sliver, which was then replaced in kind. And perhaps the most impressive aspect of the restoration work is that it was all done by companies in and immediately surrounding St. Louis, employing scores of locals and highlighting the incredible craftsmanship in the St. Louis area.

Since it reopened in December, the library has been averaging more than 1,000 visitors a day -- a number that, given the library’s renewed beauty and its incredible new capacities to inspire and educate, is sure to grow.

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

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