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Careful Redesign Transforms Midwest Library

Night exterior rendering of the Central Library in St. Louis
St. Louis’s recently completed $70-million Central Library renovation brings a Beaux-Arts landmark designed by Cass Gilbert into the 21st century.

Architects, engineers, and constructors doubled the available space in the Beaux-Arts Central Library in St. Louis by dismantling portions of a storage area and reconstituting it as a more robust but light-filled space.

February 19, 2013—In New York, plans for an expensive renovation of the New York Public Library’s landmark Fifth Avenue branch have provoked debate about the best ways to move the legacy of the building forward. In St. Louis, a smaller but no less monumental public library faced the same challenge of breathing new life into a beloved civic structure.

“Renovating a great classical structure so we’re both respectful of the building and a 21st-century library is a challenge,” says Waller McGuire, the executive director of the St. Louis Public Library.

Reopened late last year after being closed for two years, the Beaux-Arts Central Library has nearly doubled its public space, opening up spaces long off limits to patrons. The 200,000 sq ft library was a gift of the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded more than 2,500 libraries across the United States between the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Carnegie donated $1 million to the St. Louis Library system, half of which went toward Central Library.

The building was designed by Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and Cannon Design, the architect of the redesign, approached its job with care. George Nikolajevich, FAIA, the design principal of Cannon, puts it this way: “The less one tinkers with Cass Gilbert, the better.” 

 Interior view of the library's courtyard, the Great Hall

Occupying the center of the library’s interior courtyard, the Great
Hall is the grandest of Central Library’s procession of monumental
reading and research spaces. 
Courtesy of Jim Balogh and
St. Louis Public Library

The $70-million library renovation has been in planning since 2007. Before work could begin, support services and offices were moved out of the library and into a building a block away. The library’s entire four-million-item collection was relocated to a renovated storage facility nearby. (That alone presented a challenge with respect to finding a building with enough load capacity to house so many books.)

The building is essentially a hollow, rectangular donut, consisting of four long, thin wings forming the perimeter of the overall structure. In the center courtyard between the wings is an oval-shaped great hall. Much of the reclaimed public space has been created in the library’s northern wing—a seven-level stacked tower in which all of the books were stored in a giant steel structure with glass-paneled floors to allow light in. The steel book stacks were essentially a building within the building, and only connected to the wing’s outer walls on the first floor.

The tower was not open to the public, and it was definitely not up to modern fire or earthquake codes. “It was a big flue,” says Charles Eveker, a vice president of CLR Consultants, Inc., the St. Louis-based renovation consultants on the project. “In a big fire it would all collapse on itself.”  

“The seven levels of glass-floored stacks didn’t meet any modern safety codes or accessibility standard,” McGuire adds. “We were in effect forced to make the building usable or we would be backed into much more difficult choices.”

 Rendering of the second floor's Adult Literature and Biography Room

The second floor Adult Literature and Biography Room is one of
many subject-specific rooms that surround the perimeter of Central
 Courtesy of Jim Balogh and St. Louis Public Library

So architects at Cannon Design reimagined the closed-off stack tower as a vibrant public space, where patrons could move freely through rebuilt book stacks. But first, engineers had to remove all pf the light-gauge framing and glass panels of the original stack—everything from the roof structure to the bottom slab-on-grade.

Because the original structure had structural framework only at the first floor—the rest of the structure was light-frame, glass, and had no lateral stabilization—Eveker worried about what would happen “if we removed the steel flooring at the first floor.”

Workers with BSI Constructors, of St. Louis, the contractors on the project, excavated around the exterior wall of the tower—about 12 ft down—to remove the force of soil pushing inward against the wall. That reduced the potential lateral pressure on the wall and allowed crews to remove the first-floor structural system. In all, some 215 tons of glass were removed. This left a freestanding barn, essentially—roughly 130 ft long by 40 ft wide, and more than 60 ft high. From there workers removed the existing slab-on-grade, drilled the micropiles, then poured a new slab.  

To maximize the tight space, engineers pushed the mechanical spaces of the new tower into the web of structural beams that supported the floors. “Usually you push that below the floor framing,” says John Kildea, P.E., M.ASCE, the director of structural engineering for David Mason and Associates, the engineering firm with offices in St. Louis that conducted the structural engineering for the renovation. “We didn’t have that luxury here, so we ended up pushing it up into the floor framing.”

Interior view fo the Teen Lounge

The Teen Lounge provides a “third space” for teens to hang out or
study; according to the library’s executive director, young patrons
in particular value the library’s public spaces.  Courtesy of Jim
Balogh and St. Louis Public Library

This provided enough room in the wing for both the return of the library’s collection as well as a large, central atrium with wide expanses of glass to let in light and provide patrons a view of books themselves.

The interior walls of the north wing were clad in white porcelain tiles similar to subway tiles. “It’s all glistening, and all open and all visible,” Nikolajevich says. “It’s very light and airy. It looks like the platform is floating in the space. The structural system [used] the minimum amount of columns.”

Nikolajevich thought this new floating structure would be a “wonderful thing. Cass Gilbert would say, ‘why not? It’s the 21st century.’”  

Cannon designed a new north entrance into the stack tower, a stainless steel canopy with a glass vestibule tucked underneath. The thin metal entryway appears to cantilever off of the building, but it is actually not connected to the building at all, Nikolajevich says. “The columns emerge from a pool of water and echo the rhythms of the north wing,” he says. “It never touches the building but it covers people.”

The designers also created a long and thin addition to join the central great hall building to the stack tower. Beams spanning between the two buildings provide space for a new elevator lobby, restrooms, and office. A new auditorium was also carved out beneath the great hall and the north wing.

The south end of the building features an exterior grand staircase, the top of which is an elevated structural slab with storage space underneath. Keeping it free of ice during decades of winters took its toll—salt and deicers used on the sidewalks left behind chloride ions that penetrated the concrete and began to attack the reinforcing steel and supports beneath. “It was pretty deteriorated, and needed to be rebuilt,” Kildea says. The new stairs were constructed with weather-resistant concrete as well as epoxy-coated rebar.

Interior view of the Central Library's computer services room

Central Library’s computer services room offers state-of-the-art
capabilities. Workers created one of the best wireless networks in
the region with 67 wide-area network antennas spread throughout
the building. Courtesy of Jim Balogh and St. Louis Public Library

Meanwhile, grand reading rooms on the first and third floors, which had been partitioned off into office space, were opened and renovated with sleek modern finishes. Ceilings on the first floor were decorated with phrases from books and plays. Antiquated lighting systems from the 1950s and 1960s were modernized.  

Workers installed new lines for power and data and added 67 wide-area network antennas, enough to reach through the building’s heavy steel and granite. McGuire also created a wireless interactivity center on the first floor called the Creative Experience—a multimedia area of sorts where patrons can experiment with digital storytelling and music recording.

“It’s kind of unbelievable,” says Paul Goelz, the project manager for BSI. “I thought Google had capsized libraries. But I think people have come in here and are startled by the building itself.”

McGuire says usage at the library has almost doubled, and that it is the young patrons who seem to particularly value the collaborative nature and public accessibility of the new space. “I used to get the question, do people still need libraries,” he says. “I don’t get that question much anymore.”



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