Central Library in downtown St. Louis

More than 3 million books, CDs, sheet music and other materials are waiting to return home to Central Library. Along with its 100th birthday, the main branch of the St. Louis Public Library will celebrate the completion of an extensive three-year restoration and modernization in 2012, a project made possible by the St. Louis Public Library Foundation’s first-ever major capital campaign. “It’s precedent-setting for the region because there’s never been a capital campaign of this size for a library,” says Foundation president Rick Simoncelli. “We’re forging new ground for St. Louis to think of philanthropic dollars of this magnitude going to a public library.”

The nonprofit organization, which supports the public library system through advocacy and fundraising, stepped up to fund $20 million of the $70 million plan to preserve the historical gems of the downtown St. Louis facility while improving its modern functionality. The library closed in June 2010, with the Foundation kicking off its ‘Central to Your World’ campaign at the same time. “We’re very grateful and humbled by the positive response we’ve had during the quiet phase of the campaign these past two years,” says Simoncelli, noting that $15.3 million has been pledged and raised so far through the contributions of corporations, private foundations and individuals, including a $4 million donation from Emerson.

The Foundation’s nine-person steering committee will now turn its attention to the public phase of the campaign, which launches May 1. A dedicated website, presence in all branches, docent-led talks, direct mail drive and a children’s component will bring more visibility to the effort. “We want to show what Central Library is about and the importance of it in the St. Louis Public Library system,” Simoncelli explains. “It’s the mothership—the nerve center from where all activity in the 17-branch system originates.”

The Foundation’s Central to Your World gala on Nov. 17, a 500-person evening of dinner and entertainment led by co-chairs Dorte Probstein, Bob Guller and Pat Mercurio, also will raise funds for Central while showcasing its improvements.

With the library set to reopen shortly thereafter on Dec. 9, the gala attendees will be the first to witness the vast changes. Having collected items since 1865 when the library system was created, the downtown branch will gain 65 percent more publicuse space while keeping the same building footprint. Some administrative staff has been relocated to a renovated building next door, and seldom-used historic materials will be moved to another facility four blocks away. In addition, a sub-basement previously used to house enormous coal furnaces will now be home to a 250-seat auditorium. While parts of Central will have modern revisions, the library has painstakingly restored many other elements of architect Cass Gilbert’s original work. “There’s going to be an interesting mixture of visual and architectural styles,” Simoncelli says. “We’re highlighting all of the historic details.”

While the historic qualities of Central will be maintained, the project also is preparing the library for the next 100 years and reinforcing its importance in the city. Support for the campaign has come from all over the St. Louis region, including businesses and individuals who may not use the downtown branch, but “value greatly what institutions like ours do for the urban population,” Simoncelli says. “Central provides free access to very rich resources, and it is an anchor of the system and downtown St. Louis. It is important to take care of and share with as many people as possible.”