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Downtown library ready to open its doors on renovation that marks its 100th birthday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 5, 2012 - “Dream!” is just one of billions of words inside millions of books in the renovated St. Louis Central Library.

But this particular directive to wish and fantasize is literally writ large upon the wall of the children’s fiction room. Nearby, the word “Be!” is the library’s brief missive to maturing minds in the teen hub.

But it’s another two-letter word -- “do” -- that, while not spelled out on any wall, is possible through endless opportunities inside the 190,000 square-foot building at 1301 Olive St., downtown.

Beginning this Sunday, library patrons can not only browse three floors, they can huddle around meeting tables with embedded computer screens, figure out how to fix their old refrigerator, check out a laptop, learn about their ancestors, and listen to authors or view films in a sleek 250-seat theater (the first movie on tap is the locally filmed “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” scheduled for Dec. 27).

Some of these possibilities are new. Others just take place at the Central Library in more up-to-date surroundings. Today, the library offered a sneak preview of its $70 million renovation that began more than two years ago and was completed in time to mark its 100th anniversary. Library executive director Waller McGuire summed up the challenge of the undertaking with a reference to the enormous size of the library’s collection.

“Perhaps if you can imagine moving with 4 million items being carried out of the building and then being carried back in, you get some idea of what this project was like,” McGuire said.

The renovation retained many of the original ceilings, floors, shelving and other practical and decorative items, honoring the roots of the the iconic Italian Renaissance, Cass Gilbert-designed building.

“It was always our intention to preserve one of America’s great buildings while giving it another century of life as one of America’s great 21st-century libraries,” McGuire said.

Blending old and new

Entering the library on the Locust Street side provides a large, clear view of old meshing with new: a three-story atrium defined by sharp angles and contemporary glass stair railings but surrounded by original white-tiled walls. Another nod to history is the re-use of 1912 glass flooring as a backdrop to the lobby checkout desk.

Original handcrafted ceilings remain in several rooms, hanging over hundreds of oak desks that date back to the library’s 1912 opening. The design of a century-old bronze gate is duplicated in new lighted, glass panels on the ends of bookshelves and on the wall of the theater lobby. All fluorescent lights, installed decades ago, have been removed and replaced with fixtures holding energy-efficient bulbs.

Project architect George Nikolajevich of St. Louis’ Cannon Design said the modern touches would have made the original architect proud.

“We, that live in the 21st century, should design with an eye on contemporary expression,” Nikolajevich said. “I think if Cass Gilbert were alive, he would probably agree with it because he was doing, at the time, very much the same thing.”

More space, more experiences

Moving the administrative offices across the street helped create 83 percent more public space inside the library. Additions to the children’s areas include soft seating in various shapes and a “Live-brary,” an area with tables, chairs and sink where arts and craft can flourish.

“We do not expect this to be a quiet area,” said first floor manager Scott Morris.

A “Creative Experience” room for adults offers meeting space and useful technology for nonprofits, educators and other groups. Computer screens inside tabletops provide white boards for sketching out ideas that can be shared on a small, adjacent wall screen or a larger one visible to all four such pods within the room. A reservation system is being worked out to make sure meeting schedules don’t conflict.

The science and technology room contains a plethora of practical information. Pamphlets from nearly every appliance ever manufactured are stored there and librarians are on duty to help you locate the right one, even for that 1986 stove you’ve been meaning to repair.

“I’m sure you can find it here, and it will break down the instructions and you’ll be able to fix it,” Morris said.

In the genealogy room, experts are standing by to help trace your lineage. Even some information believed to have been be lost in fires or during the kidnapping of Africans for American slavery is available in the library’s collection.

Of books and art: similarities and differences

The St. Louis Art Museum and the Central Library -- which each debuted major renovations this week -- have much in common. Cass Gilbert is the original architect of both the museum and the library, and both projects have caught the attention of the international community.

But there are no comparisons to make when it comes to fundraising, according to McGuire. The majority of the library’s renovation funding -- $50 million -- came from bonds, tax credits and profit from the sale of a building next door. Two million more must be raised from philanthropists to meet a $20 million goal. The Library Foundation board expects to hit that mark through a $750,000 challenge grant.

The Art Museum garnered much more -- $162 million -- from private, corporate and foundation donors for its new East Wing, $32 million more than it needed to complete the project. But the museum has a long history of capital fundraising, McGuire said. The library only pulled together its effort in 2008, and its success since then, in a bad economy, speaks volumes about its ability to raise more money.

There are many other distinctions.

“Museums and libraries are very, very different,” McGuire said. “We’re supported very well through the people of St. Louis through their tax dollars, and I must say the capital campaign has gotten support not just in the city but throughout the region and the state.”

Another of the library’s unique qualities is the way in which it’s steeped in the American tradition of making information accessible to the public, McGuire said. He pointed out that it’s important to applaud the library’s role as a source of information at a time when many other nations are trying to keep information out of the hands of their people.

“America works very hard to make it available, and this is a shining example of that American idea,” McGuire said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.