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As bankruptcy predators began salivating over publicly owned treasures in Detroit--namely, the assets  of the Detroit Institute of Art--I visited the newly renovated, taxpayer-supported St. Louis Central Public Library, and remembered a thing or two about progressive values...

More after the squiggle...

The $70 million renovation of the St. Louis Public Library--funded to the tune of a $50 million bond issue, with $20 million more in private donations--has elevated a fading public asset  into a state-of-the-art city gem.

Using the original bones of the 100-year old building, designed in the early 1900s by Cass Gilbert, the renovators have kept all of the exterior walls intact, while rethinking the old, dark stacks, restoring natural light, rejuvenating the magnificent ceilings, opening up big new public spaces, and generally creating an exciting, inviting place for exploring and learning.

I am obliged to admit, here, that as a suburbanite, before today's tour, I hadn't set foot inside the downtown library in at least two decades. So, I'm far from an expert on the place, and I'm eight months tardy in touring the renovation. [[It reopened, after a two year shutdown for the life-changing renovations, in December 2012 to celebrate its centennial.] Like other suburban residents, I had driven past it and/or parked near it many times, when I went downtown for the kinds of events non-city-dwellers travel to: Cardinals' baseball games, a visit to the Gateway Arch, and special events. But going inside to do research or just look around was not my thing--especially in the dawning of the Google age--and when a perfectly adequate, suburban library was within five minutes of my house.

But earlier this year [2013], when the downtown library renovation started getting rave reviews, I knew it was time to make the trip--an easy 25-minute drive that I hadn't bothered to take in so many years.

Our tour group was led by a very knowledgeable docent--a chemist by profession--who reminded us about the private-public partnership of the early 1900s that gave birth to the St. Louis Public Library system in what was then America's fourth largest city. It all started with good old Andrew Carnegie, who provided the initial funds for many of the municipal libraries around the country--a lot of which are still standing as the biggest buildings in many small towns. After Carnegie kickstarted things in St. Louis, the citizenry got involved and passed a property tax to provide public funds for an asset then widely regarded as essential to the cultural and educational health of the city.

Our docent pointed out the role played by architecture in creating a--literally--enlightening environment. And the 21st century renovation continues that wise tradition, allowing in even more sunlight than ever.

Cass Gilbert [he was chosen as the architect because he had designed the St. Louis Art Museum for the vaunted 1904 World's Fair, and, by the way, the U.S. Supreme Court building] also incorporated into the building many decorative details aimed at reminding us of the importance to a civilized society of literature, art and intellectual inquiry. The renovation has retained and polished up details such as the stained glass windows and the names of authors chiseled into the walls. The 21st century renovators have added their own literary touches, too, including an outdoor infinity fountain with famous literary quotations that shimmer under the glassy water's surface. In the fiction section of the library, the first sentences of well-loved books are embossed on the ceiling in huge letters, as if to remind us of the pleasure of starting a book and wondering where it will go.

The huge [it takes up a full city block] Beaux Arts-style building has that cathedral-like feel that is meant to inspire you. [I generally am not inspired by that church-y thing; rather I feel that they're trying to make me feel small and insignificant. But I'll give the library a pass on that, because it is a building of its time, and because the renovators had the wisdom to leave well enough alone, while improving on things that--in the name of 1950s modernism--had been subjected to some misguided changes--such as the dropped ceilings that have now been eliminated, revealing the original, airy vaulted architecture.]

And speaking of ceilings, some of them are simply amazing. In the large room dedicated to art books, Gilbert recreated a ceiling he saw in Italy in the late 19th century. The library renovators had to remediate some very ill-advised modifications that had been made along the way to accommodate fluorescent [ugh!] lighting fixtures. But they have done a brilliant job of restoration, right down to removing the ugly fluorescents and replacing them with the beautiful chandeliers [rewired with LED] Gilbert installed at the beginning. There are other ceiling and light-fixture marvels in several other of the public spaces--so beautiful that staring at the ceiling--an activity usually reserved for the inattentive or bored--could become a worthy habit.

In a large space dedicated to St. Louis history and books, the library has added a touch of nostalgia that will probably be lost on anyone under 50, but worth noting. In the center of the room stands a large wooden case, filled with small drawers. Medicare-eligible people will recognize it as a card catalog--the erstwhile "search engine" we all learned to use in grade school. But, rather than relegate it to the dust pile, the library has given it a place of prominence and has cleverly populated its 3-by-5-inch drawers with index cards on which are written short notes jotted down over the years by librarians who recorded found tidbits as they ferreted out information for library users. Next time I have an afternoon with nothing to do, I'm going down to the library to slide out a couple of those drawers and flip through the cards, just for fun.

I left the tour feeling awed by the building, and ashamed of myself for not having appreciated it before. And I thought about how lazy Google has made me, and how much knowledge I haven't tapped into...yet.

But I also felt thankful to the wise people, a century ago, at the height of the Progressive Era, who valued learning and who understood that books and knowledge and the tools of inquiry should be available to everyone--and that these things are essential public assets in any community. In an era when intellectual curiosity is scorned, when learning takes a back seat to test scores, and when cities like Detroit contemplate gutting their cultural heritage, the progressive values that created places like the St. Louis Public Library are worth restoring.

Originally posted to Lefty on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 07:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Good post. I was in that library last winter. (10+ / 0-)

    It's beautiful.  St. Louis City is coming back over time.  More houses being built.  Still has problems, but it is not dying.  

    Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

    by TomP on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 08:16:03 AM PDT

  •  StL (8+ / 0-)

    I just visited that wonderful library to look at their picture archives- looking for documentation on  the mule trade in Missouri. The library is a true gem, and St Louis should be proud.
    It's hard to describe in words the feelin one gets upon entering it- it's a true cathedral of learning.
    Ah...but the 30 year old shelter a block away is now under is the city park where homeless people congregate.
    The renovation of the library has focused the attention of development vultures on the old buildings around the library, and for some, "cleansing" downtown of the poorest residents is now a financial priority.
    Placing a jewel in the middle of a depressed area can have either of two results- it will raise the value of the city for all, or provide fodder for speculators, the few.
    The "all" must include all citizens. The library itself has good common-sense policy regarding the poverty in the surrounding blocks-
    Anyway, please visit if you are a resident or tourist, and thanks for the word on this valuable fabulous building.

    I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

    by old mule on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 08:48:54 AM PDT

  •  This is just one more example of why St. Louis (12+ / 0-)

    is at the top of our list of potential places to relocate to when the hubby and I retire next year.

    "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's the thing you know for sure that just ain't so." Mark Twain

    by Expat Okie on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 08:50:12 AM PDT

  •  Excellent post... The library is amazing......... (9+ / 0-)

    I attended the first mayoral debate there in the basement theater that was once the old coal bin.  It's a good place to kill a rainy weekend morning.  

    The library renovation is an excellent investment in the City and its culture.  StL has a tradition of investing in its culture and ensuring that is accessible to all.  Our art and history museums, science center and zoo are free to all, and admission to the botanical garden discounted for StL City and County residents.  City and County residents thougt these institutions and access to them important enough that they voted to create a tax district, tax themselves, for their support.

    FWIW, I'm a very proud resident of StL's Tower Grove South neighborhood.

    •  investment (4+ / 0-)

      I live in Texas now, a state that invests in nothing for th people and brags about it, but my home is Minneapolis. What a contrast between Minneapolis and St Louis, which I visit frequently. Minneapolis closes branch libraries, restricts hours, and stops maintenence of city parks- "fiscal responsibility" of course.
      Visiting Forest Park, the Library, Shaw's!
      Can anyone here recite the quote re taxes posted in bronze just inside the Library's main entrance?
      I like hangin at the coffee shop near Shaw's Garden, Mokabee's...and the restaraunt downtown  with all the ancient motorcycles...and looking at the (unfortunately disappearing) President Grant era Italianate buildings on the old north side...
      Problems with schools, segregation, jobs...but trying hard to deal with them. St louis is a great city.

      I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

      by old mule on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 03:01:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  A Big Part of the Institutional Success (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        TomP, RiveroftheWest, Zwenkau, admiralh

        Are dedicated revenue streams most of which are shared with the County (though not the library) through property taxes only targeted for those institutions.  

        Forest Park and Tower Grove have public-private partnerships, but some of the city parks are not as well maintained (some are though).  

        The City itself is facing long term problems and has had to cut quite a few services, but keeps its nose above water mostly.  

        •  housing (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, ArchPundit, admiralh

          Driving around Old North just floored me- even with all the destruction, still a huge number of Italianate houses- built when Grant was president, many, that in SF or most other big cities would sell, when renovated, for two to five million dollars. Students of architecture history will weep, as will students of urban planning.
          three story brick house, 12 foot ceilings, fireplaces, full stone basement, Mansard attic, for $25,000????
          St Louis could have made itself into another....ah well.

          I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

          by old mule on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 07:13:35 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  A Real Loss (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Old North is one of the better North Side neighborhoods.  Did you make it to Crown Candy?  

            The neighborhood has actually improved a great deal in the last 15 years or so and I have a few friends who live there.  

            But yes, there are a lot of buildings especially on the North Side of the City that are beyond repair now and are an incredible loss both architecturally and culturally.  

            Saint Louis has made mistakes, but a lot of the problem is the larger trends it has faced.

            Saint Louis had 850,000 people in 1950.  It now has about 320,000.  Saint Louis is bound by the State Constitution in its boundaries so where many inner ring suburbs would have been annexed in other cities, Saint Louis is bound by hard limits on growth.  Saint Louis was especially hit hard by the lending practices in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s that largely would not loan money for many city neighborhoods and encourage buying in the suburbs.  

            Combine that with segregation and racism and a city that had a mix of white and black neighborhoods on the north side became largely a white southside and black northside. Starting in the late 80s then African-American families moved in fairly large numbers to the northern suburbs and the Southeast portion of the city leaving the Northside more and more vacant.  There are a few healthy neighborhoods, but that includes Old North which still has a number of problems.  

            East Saint Louis had 80,000 people and was 50 - 50 white - black in 1960.  It now has about 25,000 people and is 99 percent black.

  •  They are Baining Detroit. Even the gun nuts are (5+ / 0-)

    using it - guns are the only thing standing between you and death in Detroit. Buy guns.

    Detroit is a disaster area, needs to be declared a disaster area, and needs to be fixed.

    It seems like the GOP is either seceding from the Union or pushing Americans out of the Union.

  •  Great spotlight on STL Library thank you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, cotterperson, hwy70scientist

    I need to go check this out myself, for me it's just a short 10-minute Metro ride away!

    And St. Louis is a big Democrat town, sometimes with Kansas City we can hold off the red-rural votes, but not lately; the earl grey contingent of the gop has taken over much of this state.

    The Democrats care about you after you're born. --Ed Schultz

    by micsimov on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 12:33:42 PM PDT

  •  Link to photos (6+ / 0-)

    Thanks for this diary, Gloria.  I wasn't aware it had been renovated, it looks great.

    From Alive magazine:

    Exploring the Newly Renovated Central Library

    The photos of the ceilings are wonderful.

    "The international world is wondering what happened to America's great heart and soul." Helen Thomas

    by Betty Pinson on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 01:48:57 PM PDT

  •  Hey!! I'm under 50 and definitely know what a (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gloriasb, TomP, RiveroftheWest

    card catalog is!!!  I used several from grade school through my college years.  I'll be 48 next week.

  •  Library is Incredible (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, RiveroftheWest

    I need to head back--several years ago I was working on the Fair Housing Impediment Report for the City of Saint Louis and copied down the 1916 segregation ordinance down at the main library.  While stomach turning it was an amazing law in the detail how to segregate the city.  I need to go and copy it down again as I lost that copy.  

  •  $70 million for a library in this digital age? (0+ / 0-)

    The modern tools of inquiry are much more cheaply accessed through servers than bricks and mortar.

    It really should be viewed as a monument.

    •  Or, toddle. . . (0+ / 0-)

      A learning center. I don't think digital can do what the new/old Central Library can do, esp. considering the potential of its near  neighbors, the old Kiel Opera House and lotsa others.
           With Grand Avenue dead beyond repair, the Symphony needs to move either back downtown or out to the Clayton Shaw Park area.  The Central West End is never going to be more than it is, and thank God for it, but Grand Ave. is kaput.
      Or so it seemed to me, living in vastly underrated StL for
      45-years.  I so much miss the old place! But, then, where I
      am now ain't bad! :)
      Santa Fe

  •  the cultural assets (0+ / 0-)

    are the only reason to go to detroit.

    •  Art there (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Expat Okie

      One difference between StL and Detroit- when I visited the Detroit Institute of Art I saw that many, many of the acquisitions occurred during the period 1918- 1930, Dodge, Hudson, many plutocratic family dynasties gave. But it stopped dead in 1930. The priceless German altar carvings, 19th C French paintings, all gotten in the 20s.
      On the other hand, the St Louis art museum in Forrest Park continued to get art even in the worst years of the depression, for example, French modern paintings worth millions today were gotten in, say, 1933 at then-high prices.
      I asked my native amiga what accounted for the willingness of the then- "cultural elite" to fund art at a time of dire crisis, and she couldn't tell me.
      But now the city is wealthy beyond measure in art.
      Will Detriot be forced to strip itself of its public treasures now?
      Any art minded St Louisans know the history of Depression philanthropy in their city?

      I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

      by old mule on Wed Jul 24, 2013 at 08:25:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  assests...and art (0+ / 0-)

      Yes...the DIA is beyond price, and should be considered and protected as a national treasure.
      Remember the term "asset stripping"?
      We shall see if the public treasures of Detroit, which the city and the donors intended for all, will pass into the art market and thence into the hands of the 1%.

      I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

      by old mule on Wed Jul 24, 2013 at 08:28:46 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  We visited St. Louis for the (0+ / 0-)

    first time this year for the First Robotics Championship.  I was very impressed!  Free museums, good public transportation (we rode the train quite a bit), downtown was very clean.  We went to the zoo and the science center and a Cardinals game, among other things.

    We did, however, see quite a bit of racial divide.  Is it mainly a function of the city and the suburbs?

    If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement ~Robert Reich

    by k8dd8d on Wed Jul 24, 2013 at 08:39:18 AM PDT

  •  Loved this diary. I was born and raised in St. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Expat Okie

    Louis but relocated to Texas in 1966.  Haven't been in StL in years but have been back in Missouri since last year.  I wonder if the wonderful Prom Magazine is still in existence.  Prom was devoted to all the high schools in both city and county, public and private.  It was fun to be able to read about and see pictures of activities in all the other schools.  To this day, if I meet someone from St. Louis, the first thing said is "where did you go to school?" (I graduated from Ritenour in 1958.)  It happened again last year in Colorado Springs when a nurse tending to a friend said she had previously worked at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.  We had a good laugh over the question.

    ""How long does getting thin take?" Pooh asked anxiously." -- A. A. Milne

    by pittie70 on Wed Jul 24, 2013 at 09:05:49 AM PDT

    •  schools (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pittie70 you are a working- class white person?
      My partner went to St. Francis Xavier and has told me how high schools identify religion, class and race in StL...she guessed Ritenour would have been Jewish in the 60s or 70s and African-American later?
      St Louis has a long fascinating history...

      I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

      by old mule on Wed Jul 24, 2013 at 10:23:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Actually, Ritenour was not Jewish. African- (0+ / 0-)

        Americans starting coming into the school in the 1960s.  I believe at one point there was a gang problem but when I was there we were all lily-white, mostly Christian or Catholic and with some exceptions, conservative.

        ""How long does getting thin take?" Pooh asked anxiously." -- A. A. Milne

        by pittie70 on Wed Jul 24, 2013 at 03:05:13 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  StL (0+ / 0-)

          Thanks. Your city has a fasciinating history, really enjoy digging into it.

          I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

          by old mule on Thu Jul 25, 2013 at 08:38:18 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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