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Central Library's $50-million plan ~STL~

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Our cultural centerpiece

By Jane Henderson

POST-DISPATCH BOOK EDITOR

10/23/2005

library1023.jpg

Plans to renovate the downtown public library would include a 300-seat auditorium, an atrium, a cafe and a screening room. Backers hope the $50 million project can respect the building's architectural heritage.

When the St. Louis Public Library turns 100 in seven years, its director hopes it will serve readers like never before.

He plans for the Beaux Arts beauty to add more wireless technology, a 300-seat auditorium and a new plaza for reading, people-watching and drinking coffee.

Its historic ceilings will be restored and humdrum offices moved out. It will offer more space for the public, including bigger areas for genealogy, regional history and children's literature.

And, not least, it'll provide restrooms with 2012's amenities rather than 1912's.

"We want to give the city the cultural centerpiece it deserves," Waller McGuire says.

A man marking his one-year anniversary as executive director this month, McGuire is moving forward on a "concept design study" for the central library - considered one of the most important and architecturally significant buildings in the city.

And there sit the potential land mines:

As downtown's cultural centerpiece, McGuire says, the central library must preserve its architectural heritage. But to serve 21st-century readers, it also needs to meet modern fire and earthquake codes, update technology and welcome new residents.

The cost to restore ceilings, keep the marble and add modern plumbing: perhaps $50 million.

"That price may be a bargain for a city's main library," McGuire says.

The concept

As deputy director under executive director Glen Holt, McGuire helped organize the building or restoration of 12 library branches, with two more to go. Plans to renovate Central Library developed under Holt, who retired last year, but no capital campaign got going. Now, McGuire says he's pushing for a solid date to start renovating the Italian Renaissance building, designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1912.

The library's board of directors has approved the design study by Hillier Architecture, based in Princeton, N.J.

Hillier's plans show an atrium and "winter garden" on the north side of the building, facing Locust Street and bustling Washington Avenue, making the building more inviting. When McGuire had lunch at a new restaurant on Washington, he says, a waiter divulged that he thought the building's rear facade, with its tall, narrow windows, looked like "a jail."

Inside the library, plans call for transforming the lackluster ground floor (derided by workers as resembling the "Greyhound bus station") by adding, among other things, a Center for the Reader, cafe bookstore and screening room.

On the main floor, plans include restoring the magnificent ceilings of the fine-arts room (decorative plugs of plaster were taken out in the 1950s for fluorescent lights), the Great Hall and other area. A new computer center might triple the number available. Twenty are in the Great Hall; eventually, there might be 200-300 throughout the building.

The library would keep the same number of books and materials but make more accessible to the public, McGuire says. Old offices and meeting rooms would become rooms for special collections, genealogy and St. Louis history. Staff offices and a parking garage would be built across the street in another building the library owns.

"Right now the building is designed around the research collections," McGuire notes. That was part of the early 20th-century theory of a library. The massive staircase on Olive Street leads readers up into the aristocratic world of art, literature, poetry. Readers of popular fiction and children's books found themselves on the more utilitarian ground floor until they were good enough readers to ascend the marble staircases, McGuire says with a laugh. "We don't think that way anymore."

What he wants is "a whole new, in effect, general-interest, browsing, popular library on the first floor of the building. It will be both convenient and easy-to-use and bright and beautiful."

(long article)

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