The original booklet for the City Library described it best:
The main purpose of the building has been kept in mind throughout its planning and construction; namely, that this structure is a library building, not an art gallery, a museum or a place of amusement; that its purpose should be reflected in its architecture and that its plan should be adapted to its needs. That a library contributes, as nothing else, to the education, culture and refinement of the community, and that in addition to the education obtained from books is that which comes from surroundings of quietude and refined good taste. That a love of beauty is an element of good citizenship and that to inculcate this lesson is a proper part of the general educational function of the library…
These same principles were clearly and astutely followed in the recent two-year renovation of this Cass Gilbert 1912 structure. Award-winning architect George Nikolajevich of St. Louis-based Cannon Design melded Gilbert’s original vision with his own modern interpretation to take the library forward for the next 100 years.
A little background regarding the building: The site on which it stands was originally an Exposition Building dating to 1884 and demolished in 1907. Filling the city block between Olive and Locust streets, and 13th and 14th streets, the new library—a four-level building faced with cut granite from Mt. Waldo, Maine—cost an estimated $1.5 million to construct, with a third of the money coming from Andrew Carnegie. The 190,000-square-feet building is in the Italian Renaissance style, a favorite of the Beaux Arts period. The exterior highlights include carved medallions, shields, ornamental designs and inscriptions by famous writers. My personal favorite is from Mr. Carnegie himself: I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes.
The interior is equally adorned with the finest of materials and craftsmanship. The level of quality is evident from the visitor’s first encounter with the bronze entrance gates that one passes through to enter the building. Ceilings hand-painted in the Beaux Arts style, alabaster and marble lamps, stained glass windows by Gorham, and carved wood and plasterwork all have been painstakingly cleaned, repaired and freshened. Of note, the Fine Arts Room ceiling was based on a ceiling in the La Badia Church in Florence, Italy, built in the 13th Century. The ceiling in the Periodical Room also was based on a ceiling in Florence, Italy, the Biblioteca Laurenziana that was designed in the 16th Century. In each case, attention was paid to scale to make them appropriate for our space.
Now, add to all of this the updating of the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, flooring and lighting that needed to be done to this 100-year-old gem and you can understand why the planning took 10 years and the restoration took two years to complete. All of this was executed with the same level of standards for the original structure using only the finest of craftsmen and tradesmen. An example is the removal, cleaning and reinstallation of the steps of the front entrance. Each slab of granite was labeled, removed, cataloged and stored; and then reinstalled in the proper order—all 565 pieces!
There is far too much to cover in this article; you just need to go and see it for yourself. How wonderful that we have leaders, philanthropists and caring citizens who recognize the value of a library and all that it does to improve our community. Kudos to all who made this happen! For more information, visit slpl.org.