As executive director of the St. Louis Public Library, Waller McGuire is understandably proud of the grand 1912 Central Library building over which he presides—and of its new renovation, completed in December by the St. Louis office of Cannon Design. But he isn’t the only St. Louisan who feels a special connection to the place. “One thing that happened over and over during the renovation,” McGuire says, “is I’d take people into the Great Hall and they’d say, ‘I remember the first time my mother (or father) brought me into this room.’ ”

St. Louis has an unusually rich architectural heritage (they don’t call it the Rome of the West for nothing), and the Central Library is one of its foremost landmarks. The building was designed by pioneering American architect Cass Gilbert, of New York’s Woolworth Building and the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Less outré in ornament and filigree than some of his other projects, the library is an instance of the master in one of his more restrained moods. For a century, the Central Library has been a mainstay for the surprisingly bookish denizens of the Midwestern metropolis: According to a recent study from Central Connecticut State University, St. Louis is the country’s ninth-most literate city, and its 17-branch library system is ranked third in the nation for overall quality.

With a building that means so much to so many, the architects at Cannon had to tread carefully. Design principal George Nikolajevich, FAIA, spearheaded the project for the office, and from his earliest involvement in the commission he understood the needle that the team would have to thread. “My point all along was this: Cass Gilbert is a unique, precious American architect,” he says. “This is an important building in the city, and one has to be careful when one deals with that—without going into the trap of unnecessary imitation of the historical style.”

Such middle-way approaches are hardly unfamiliar, and certainly recent precedents abound of significant historical buildings receiving contemporary interventions. (Think of the Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, addition to New York’s Morgan Library, or of the Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, expansion of London’s British Museum.) What made Cannon’s challenge unique was the double nature of the commission: Gilbert’s plan is laid out as a kind of five-leaf clover, with the Great Hall at its middle. Four of the five wings required a bit of functional repurposing, sensitive restoration, and technical upgrading to meet the needs of the 21st century. Cannon brought in a full retinue of consultants and specialists to see that the job was done correctly.

The fifth and northernmost wing, however, required a thorough overhaul. It contained what Nikolajevich terms “a building within the building”—a steel-frame structure, housing the library’s nearly 4 million items, which was completely disengaged from the masonry that helped support the upper floors. This embedded structure had to be removed for reasons of fire and seismic safety. Cannon’s solution, unique among the proposals in the library’s invited competition, was to replace the existing structure with another, rather different one: This time the interior frame would be opened up and light-filled, with the collections and reading spaces visible from behind glassed-in enclosures. “We’ve exposed the books on the upper level,” Nikolajevich says. “We use the books as decorative elements, enriching the beauty and color of the space.” These revealed spaces, complemented by a sleek new marquee along the northern façade, make for a grand atrium entrance on a side of the library that previously turned its back to the poor, minority neighborhood behind it.

Already, the public response has been positive, and the approval extends beyond the nearby community and its thousands of loyal library users. In the run-up to the renovation, McGuire traveled extensively to look at new libraries in other cities, such as Chicago’s Harold Washington Library and the Rem Koolhaas–designed Seattle Central Library. Today, he claims, it’s St. Louis that’s become a model: “We’re having people visit us now.”

Project Credits
Project  St. Louis Public Library, Central Library Renovation, St. Louis
Client  St. Louis Public Library
Architect  Cannon Design, St. Louis—George Nikolajevich, FAIA (design principal); Thomas Harvath, AIA (project principal); Richard Bacino, Thomas Bergmann, AIA (project management); Stephen Johnson, FAIA, Bradley Lukanic (library expertise); Lynn Grossman, AIA (interior project architect); John McAllister, Erik Mease (project design); Matthew Huff, AIA (project architect); Stephen Brown, AIA, Daniel Stewart, Ruofei Sun (project team)
Environmental Graphics and Signage  Kuhlmann Leavitt
MEP and FP Engineering, Audiovisuals  William Tao & Associates
Structural and Civil Engineering, Exterior Restoration  David Mason & Associates
Lighting Design  Derek Porter Studio; William Tao & Associates
Historic Preservation  Frens & Frens
Architectural Support  Grice Group Architects
Fountain Design  Hydro Dramatics
Acoustical Consultant  AcoustiControl
Security and Technology Consultant  Faith Group
Code Consultant  Code Consultants
Exhibit Design  Heller Studio
Construction Manager  BSI Constructors
Owner’s Representative  CLR  Consultants
Size  185,000 square feet
Cost  $70 million Materials and Sources
Acoustical System  Golterman & Sabo; Baswaphon; RPG
Building Management Systems and Services  Delta Controls 
Carpet  Interface; Karastan; Tandus
Ceilings  Armstrong; Ceilings Plus; Ecophon
Curtainwalls  YKK AP America (interor); Wausau (exterior)
Doors  Ellison Doors (entrance doors); VT Wood Doors; Total Doors
Fabrics  Designtex
Flooring  Expanko (natural cork); Global Granite (travertine tile); Roppe Safe T Cork (rubber floor)
Glass  Viracon (salvaged glass); Pulp Studio; McGrory Glass; Skyline Design; Oldcastle
HVAC  Daikin AC VRV System; Price Air Devices 
Library Shelving and Custom End Panels  Spacesaver
Library Equipment  3M
Lighting Control Systems  Lutron
Lighting  St. Louis Antique Lighting (custom lighting and restoration); G Lighting (custom lights on shelving); Color Kinetics; Cooper; ELP; Elliptipar; Erco; Focal Point; Gotham; Hydrel; Io; Kurt Versen; Ledalite; Neo-Ray; Selux; Times Square; Williams
Masonry and Stone  Salvaged Vermont white marble (flooring and base); Global Granite (salvaged and new Tennessee marble flooring); Quarra Stone (granite pavers, granite walls); Cambrian Black granite fountain floor;  Polycor  (black granite fountain floor and white marble countertops); Belden Brick (pavers and face brick)
Metal  Bead-blasted stainless steel; Contrarian Metals (exterior canopy); Oxidized Bronze; Modern Metals (interior trim); Stuart Dean (bronze refinishing/restoration); Prepatinated copper (exterior trim); Zahner
Millwork  Quarter sawn white oak; Gravois Planing Mill; Rulon Company; Waterhout Construction 
Paints and Finishes  PaintSmiths (decorative painting and finishing); Sherwin Williams
Plaster  Niehaus Construction Services (decorative cast plaster); USG; National Gypsum
Plumbing and Water System  Chicago Faucets; Elkay; Haws; Kohler; Zurn Industries 
Roofing  Firestone
Seating  Irwin Seating (auditorium seats)
Site and Landscape Products  Forms and Surfaces (bike racks)
Skylight  Wasco Products
Wallcoverings  Designtex (custom printing)
Wayfinding  Engraphix (custom signage)
Window Shades  Lutron; Mecho Shade