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Controversy Brews Over Plans To Change Lewis & Clark Library Branch

Provided by Modern STL

The potential of a merger between the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County has prompted lots of talk about differences and similarities between the two.

Here’s just one example. Both have public library systems. Each has a very different philosophy when it comes to balancing upgrades and improvements of their buildings with historic preservation.

The downtown Central Library, the crown jewel of the city library system, reopened in December 2012 after an extensive renovation. It was recently named one of 11 winners of the prestigious American Institute of Architects 2014 Institute Honor Award for Architecture in January.

In the St. Louis County, meanwhile, a controversy has been brewing about the fate of the Lewis and Clark Branch of the county library system.

As part of the county library’s Facilities Master Plan developed and approved by the Library Board of Trustees in 2012, the Lewis & Clark Branch, 9909 Lewis and Clark Blvd. in Moline Acres, was one of several — including Tesson Ferry, Meramec Valley, Thornhill, Mid-County branches and the headquarters building on Lindbergh Boulevard — that New York consulting firm Aaron Cohen Associates Ltd. recommended for demolition and replacement. 

The master plan was the centerpiece of a campaign led by then-Library Director Charles Pace to win a campaign to convince voters to approve $108 million for the county’s facilities.

Architecturally significant

However, the library’s proposal to demolish the Lewis & Clark Branch has been opposed by an array of groups. They want to preserve the 1963 building designed by noted architect Frederick Dunn. Dunn’s open design uses two interior columns and incorporates stained glass windows depicting explorers Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with their party, and scenes from their expedition, created by artist Robert Harmon with Emil Frei Studios.

Credit Provided by Modern STL
Emil Frei windows

Among those opposing the building’s demolition are the St. Louis County Historical Buildings Commission, the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the St. Louis chapter of the American Library Association and Modern STL, a non-profit group founded in 2010 with the express mission of “seeking to protect and foster a deeper appreciation for the St. Louis region’s mid-century modern heritage.”

Credit Provided by Mr. Hamilton
Esley Hamilton

According to Esley Hamilton, preservation historian with the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation and an authority on architectural history in the region, Dunn was one of the premier architects working in St. Louis from the late 1930s through the early 1960s — and the Lewis & Clark Library building is one of his enduring legacies.

“Dunn was one the three or four major architects in St. Louis during the time he spent here,” Hamilton said. “Dunn was also the architect of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis Hills, which was the first modern church in St. Louis. He also designed the State Garden Club building on the southern edge of the Botanical Gardens.”

In addition to designing several houses throughout the area, Dunn was the architect for the Steinberg Skating Rink building. The Lewis & Clark Library building was his final commission before he moved to New York City, where he died in 1984.

“The Lewis & Clark Library is clearly the most important building architecturally in the county library system,” Hamilton said. “And it’s certainly one of the most frustrating issues I’ve ever dealt with. I received a copy of a letter from Lynn Beckwith Jr., who is president of the Library Board, written to Peter Ruger, chairman of the Historic Buildings Commission, in reply to Peter’s plea to renovate the Lewis and Clark Library rather than demolishing it.

“It seems clear that the board believes they are bound by the master plan to tear down Dunn’s historic and still functional building and build a new one,” Hamilton said.

In his letter, Beckwith said, "While I do understand your reasons from a historical perspective for wanting to renovate and expand the current Lewis & Clark Branch, at the same time our patrons in North County were promised a new Lewis & Clark Branch if Proposition L was approved. While I can only speak as one member of the five-member Board of Trustees and not for all of the members of the Board of Trustees, I am dedicated to the proposition of giving North County patrons what we promised them. " 

Hamilton notes that the library board plans to save the stained glass elements of the Dunn design — but to put them inside, where sunlight or even light from the interior of the building won’t illuminate them.

“I have driven by at night,” Hamilton said, “and the stained glass panels are absolutely beautiful when you see them from the exterior of the building.”

Credit Provided by ModernSTL
Windows designed for night viewing

Plans to expand

Neil Chace, Modern STL founding member and the group’s current board president, sees the Lewis & Clark Library building as a unique and outstanding example of mid-20th century architectural excellence.

In an effort to preserve the building from demolition, Chace — working with fellow architects Jeremy Clagett and Jon Hagar — has preparedd a design that offers an alternative to demolition of the existing building and construction of an entirely new library.

Credit Provided by ModernSTL
Neil Chace

“We put together this proposed design as a way to keep the existing building viable as a library,” Chac said. “And we also worked to meet the programmatic needs presented in the county library system’s master plan.” We believe this design, which creates a new building addition and a lobby connection to the original building — plus some renovation of the original — meets those needs.

“This proposed addition and renovation adds 4,500 square feet to the existing 16,000 square feet in the original building. So it meets the proposal requirement of expanding the library to 20,000 square feet. It will also leaves the stained glass and original architectural design created by Frederick Dunn intact.”

Considering that the Lewis & Clark Library underwent an interior remodeling as well as roof repair in 2004 and HVAC updates in 2007, Chace believes that the alternative plan to be presented to the County Library Board offers a solution to space and ADA issues that will allow Dunn’s original design to remain intact.

“Before Charles Pick resigned last year, he told us that the county library would be open to dialogue on saving the Lewis & Clark Library building,” Chace said. “Now, when we’ve reached out, we’ve been told we need to deal with the County Library Board. So we’ll be there Monday to present our proposed design.”

Board meeting

The public meeting of the County Library Board is set for 3:30 p.m., Monday, March 17 at the St. Loius County Library headquarters Building, 1640 S. Lindbergh.

Hamilton will speak to the Board, Chace; his fellow architects will attempt to present their design modification, and a MoveOn.org petition to save the Lewis & Clark Building will be presented at the meeting.

In addition, citizens and residents of Green Park are expected to attempt to address the board about issues with the construction of a new library across from Grant’s Farm, to replace the Tesson Ferry Branch at 9920 Lin-Ferry Drive.

In a March 12 article in the South County newspaper, The Call, Green Park officials said that the claim in the master plan that the Tesson Ferry site was located on sinkholes and had to be replaced was false, according to a recent statement by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.