Cass Gilbert's landmark St. Louis Central Library gets a reboot

A $70 million project returns large sections of the building to their original Beaux Arts beauty, while modernizing the spaces to make them more inviting and useful for today’s patrons.

On the north side of St. Louis’s Central Library, the Building Team created a fo
On the north side of St. Louis’s Central Library, the Building Team created a four-story atrium in a wing once designed to hold closed stacks. A modern entry canopy, which complements the original structure without touching it, leads into this active area. Elsewhere, historic spaces were fully restored to Beaux Arts style. Photo: Timothy Hursley
October 15, 2013

In the century since Cass Gilbert designed the flagship Central Library for the St. Louis Public Library, information science and building technology have been radically transformed. A $70 million project led by Cannon Design returned large sections of the building to their original Beaux Arts beauty, while modernizing other zones to make the library more inviting and useful for today’s patrons.

Important historic spaces, such as the central Grand Hall, have been revived, including millwork, ornamental plaster, polychrome decoration, bronze work, and marble and cork flooring. Ceiling paintings were restored, and period light fixtures were refurbished or replicated.

The Building Team replaced the outdated MEP and fire protection systems, exploiting original chases concealed within thick masonry walls. Floors in multiple areas were adapted for modern electrical and data infrastructure. The monumental front steps—565 pieces of granite in the form of slabs, balusters, railings, and wall facings—were labeled, removed, catalogued, stored, reassembled, and restored.

ST. LOUIS PUBLIC LIBRARY, CENTRAL LIBRARY
St. Louis, Mo.

 
Building Team 
Submitting firm: Cannon Design (architect) 
Owner: St. Louis Public Library 
Owner’s representative: CLR Consultants 
SE/CE, exterior restoration: David mason & Associates 
MEP/FP engineer: William Tao & Associates 
Historic preservation: Frens & Frens Environmental 
Graphics/signage: Kuhlmann Leavitt 
Construction manager: BSI Constructors
 
General Information 
Size: 185,000 sf 
Construction cost: $70 million 
Construction time: January 2010 to November 2012 
Delivery method: Design-build

The North Wing, once a repository for closed stacks, witnessed a dramatic change.

The original steel skeleton was replaced by a four-story atrium and a series of “floating” platforms. Visible through interior glazing, these levels hold compact-density shelving. A new entry canopy invites patrons to this side of the building, turning a welcoming (and less formal) face to the urban neighborhood.

Several administrative areas on the main floor were repurposed to serve children and teens, with colorful, contemporary décor and generous IT infrastructure. A 250-seat auditorium, built in a sub-basement once used for coal storage, creates space for performances and lectures.

The re-imagined Central Library reflects the civic ideals that inspired its founders—a place of uplift, but not a shrine. At last December’s grand opening, Director Waller McGuire emphasized the future. “Central Library isn’t finished yet,” he said. “It’ll never be finished. There will always be new possibilities and new ideas.”

 

The original Olive Street lobby, a counterpoint to the modern entry on the north side, has been meticulously restored, including the elaborate polychrome ceiling painting. The central Great Hall is accessible through the doors at the rear. Photos: Timothy Hursley

 

Reading rooms throughout the building were updated with new lighting and furniture, but historic millwork was preserved. The Building Team used both contemporary and period interior design, depending on each space’s function.

 

         
 

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