[Video] Central Library in St. Louis, Renewed

Posted on: January 31st, 2013 by David Robert Weible 7 Comments

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.

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David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Architecture, Restoration, Revitalization, Videos

7 Responses

  1. Anthony Lambert

    February 24, 2013

    Why were there no exterior shots of the library when it opened and after its current renovation?

  2. Frauken Grohs Collinson

    February 24, 2013

    Thanks for this interesting article David Robert Weible. Books and libraries are most important to preserve and cherish!

  3. Diana West

    February 24, 2013

    I absolutely loved this story. I lived in the Central West End of St. Louis is my teens and twenties and used to visit Central Library occasionally. I thought it was beautiful then, if a bit dark. I am so impressed with how beautifully the renovation has turned out. I hope that on my next trip to STL I’ll be able to pop inside and have a look for myself!

  4. John A. Burns

    February 24, 2013

    A seven story atrium in place of the book stacks is a lot of books displaced. What happened to them?

  5. Deborah Rehn

    February 25, 2013

    What a beautiful interior. Who was the renovation architect? I also would love to see exterior views. Was the original structure documented so there may be a historical record of the interior space and the 21 miles of shelving? Were the shelving evaluated for significance? This brings to mind the controversial proposal currently over the New York City Public Library.
    In addition, I would love to hear about the HVAC system and energy saving measures in how to heat and cool the atrium.

  6. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    February 26, 2013

    Great question John. It’s my understanding that a lot of former office space within the building was repurposed to accommodate the displaced books.

  7. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    March 7, 2013

    Thanks for the questions, Deborah. I haven’t been able to find any info about the HVAC system or the historical value of the bookshelves, but the restoration architect was George Z. Nikolajevich and I do believe the original structure was documented. Thanks for your interest!

    Best,
    Dave Weible