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An architectural reflection: Renovations serve the Central Library well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2012 - Thoughtful, responsible, context-sensitive architects and their concerned and apprehensive clients should approach alterations of canonical buildings such as the Central Library Building of the St. Louis Public Library system with reverence, and perhaps with trepidation.

The Central Library renovations are now complete and the building will reopen to the public on Dec. 9. Beacon Associate Editor Robert Duffy went through the building on a recent AIA tour.

Additions to and renovations of buildings that perch high above the ordinary demand to be treated with extraordinary care. Whatever is inserted into them or added onto them should be inspired by the appearance and language of the building to which alterations are proposed. These living edifices, if consulted and studied properly, can inform decisions and prevent the inflicting of capricious or whimsical or even destructive alterations.

Too often additional space is tacked on either in a desultory fashion or in a flourish of architectural narcissism or fashion. In the case of internal renovations, there is the ever-present danger of latching onto trendy, louche interior decoration schemes. The new should be innovative but also must be guided by the original. It must never simply regurgitate the past but should yoke with the old.

The late architect Paul Spencer Byard understood renovations, insertions and additions better than anyone I’ve ever known. He was a master of integrating the old with the new, and assigned the term “combined buildings” to his work. In his book “The Architecture of Additions” he wrote, "The appreciation of a new work of art ... involves understanding its particular meaning as well as the tradition and forms that give value to its novelty and which its novelty changes and enriches. In each creative act the old and the new are inextricably entwined and inescapably beholden to each other." (italics mine.)

100 years of Cass Gilbert's genius

St. Louis’s Central Library has maintained its formidable presence downtown on Olive between 13th and 14th streets for 100 years now, but after a century of service a renovation was called for. Its administration, under library executive director Waller McGuire, and its board of trustees determined that more space could be put to good use as well.

Everyone, both insiders and the interested public, were concerned about meddling with something so tautly organized, so intricately planned and executed, a building manifesting both beauty and relevance born of genius. Although meant to stand through the ages to delight the eye and fuel the intellect, qualities cherished by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who gave $1 million to the original building campaign, it needed work.

Its architect was Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), a Midwesterner by birth, born in Zanesville, Ohio. He was reared there and in Minnesota, studied at MIT and in Europe, and worked for the celebrated firm of McKim, Mead & White. His body of work includes libraries, government buildings, including the Supreme Court of the United States, and museum buildings, including the St. Louis Art Museum, built as a palace of art for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Gilbert brought to the St. Louis library a characteristic weaving of restraint and virtuosity that grew out of a talent developed in Europe and at the McKim firm. His talents were demonstrated not only in glass, bronze and stone, and in programs of ornament and contrasts of light and dark, but also in a muscular horizontality employed in many of his buildings that referred to the sprawling vastness of the Midwestern landscape.

Our Library is a symphony of references.

  • In the first movement, there’s the classicism of Greece and Rome.
  • Second movement: the rhythmic grace and elegance of the Florentine renaissance.
  • Third, the informing influences of masters of Gilbert’s own time come into play, particularly the visual poetry of Charles Follen McKim, a principal of McKim, Mead & White. (McKim’s 1895 Central Library in Boston is a progenitor of our Central Library. That relationship is expressed clearly in its horizontality and the thrilling rhythms of arches of its façade.)
  • The final movement is short but important; because it reveals Gilbert’s willingness to experiment, seen, for example, in his bringing into the visual mix some Arts and Crafts ideas, such as the charming fireplace in the children’s library.

Yet even with all those influences and precedent bearing down upon him, Gilbert developed an architecture fundamentally his own. It was informed and ennobled by the history of Western architecture and thought, and was by nature conservative, largely resistant to an emerging homegrown, organic American vernacular that had Chicago as its mother church.
Louis Henri Sullivan, architect of the Wainwright Building and Tomb here, was its high priest, and Gilbert understood Sullivan’s decree that form and function are ever one. Considering that, he pondered the proper skin for his buildings, particularly the skyscrapers for which he became famous. But in the end he opted for tradition rather than a new ornament of organicism.

His legacy has been lambasted. In 1991, for example, the esteemed British architect, historian, curator and professor Dennis Sharp wrote in “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture” "[t]he fairly pedestrian designs created by Gilbert's firm did not prevent it from gaining popularity.”

But architect Hugh Hardy came to Gilbert’s defense about ten years later. In the introduction to Margaret Heilbrun’s excellent book on Gilbert, “Inventing the Skyline,” Hardy said modernist revisionism “rendered many American architects invisible to students. Cass Gilbert was one of them.”

He continued: “This breach in architectural thought is only now being healed, as the merits of traditional form have become apparent to an increasing audience, both public and professional, Fueled by pressure from citizens bored with faceless monotony, the preservation movement as resurrected the reputation and restored the work of an entire period of American architecture, with Cass Gilbert in its forefront.”

Hardy’s firm carried out the felicitous restoration of the East Wing of Gilbert’s St. Louis Art Museum, which has stood the test of time for its innovative qualities but also for its trenchant understanding of American Beaux Arts architecture and the sometimes challenging vocabulary of Gilbert’s language. Hardy’s work on Art Hill imbued him with a special appreciation of Gilbert, opening a window into the mind if not the soul of the building’s curator. The Museum now is getting its own addition, designed by the British architect Sir David Chipperfield.

Cannon works wonders

George Z. Nikolajevich, design principal of the Cannon Design architecture firm, feels a similar kinship to the work of Cass Gilbert and stands in awe of it. Last week he and his colleagues led a tour for the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Nikolajevich spoke of the privilege and responsibilities involved with touching something as rich and alive and absorbing as the Central Library Building. Nikolajevich is confident Gilbert gave him permission to change discreetly and to enrich generously the library building.

In Cannon firm’s design, the venerable and the old flow seamlessly into the light saturated new of this renovation. In Nikolajevich and company’s new spaces on the utilitarian Locust Street side of the building, much of the space is given over to new stacks and shelving systems. The old stacks arrangement, which, according to Nikolajevich, had become fire hazards, and the plate glass floors that once fascinated us all, have been removed. New stacks, new stairways and new floors have been inserted unobtrusively but with a beauty and free of any eccentricity or pretention. An auditorium and other services have been brought into space that initially served as boiler room or coal bin, and was either unused in the more recent past, or used for storage.

Original exterior ornamentation has been put into play with subtle references in the new design. The most arresting is a literary extension of the frieze of the Library building. Set directly beneath the cornice and marching all the way round the building, this frieze is a parade of the glorious names and titles in the literary canon, but it stops at 1910 or so. Moving down to ground level, you’ll find a new fountain at the Locust Street entrance. The piers that support the roof of the new entrance have been put to work presenting a cascade of names and titles and quotations, and when you peer into the water, you discern quotes that form a shimmering testament of bibliophilia.

Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt, who designed the typography for the fountain, was working on a photo shoot when I arrived. I told her what a great idea the names and quotations were, and how I loved the connection with the frieze. “Waller’s idea,” she said, meaning Library chief McGuire. It’s a good idea too, a subtle duet of old and new that reverberates throughout the building. 

George Nikolajevich is proud of the work he and his Cannon colleagues produced. An architect, like any artist, wants to make his or her vision indelible and transformative. But there is also the necessary business of satisfying a busload of people -- the client, patrons, donors, the public, his or her colleagues, himself or herself. But there are others. Posterity is one; the original architect, another.

Nikolajevich began a sentence with the words “to touch something such as this” and paused, and looked around at the bright, light utilitarian space he and his colleagues brought to a 100-year-old landmark building. He looked at the assembly before him, and with a smile, said he wondered if someday, somehow, somewhere he might meet up with Cass Gilbert.

“I hope,” Nikolajevich, said, “I hope Cass Gilbert will say to me, ‘You didn’t do too bad.’ ”

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