Lewis and Clark Branch Library Slated for Demolition

By: Lindsey Derrington

The Lewis and Clark Branch Library, completed in 1963, was once the pride of the St. Louis County Library system. Designed by architect Frederick Dunn, FAIA with stunning stained glass windows by master artist Robert Harmon, it was constructed as part of a progressive mid-century building program which sought to re-envision libraries in the postwar era. Yet today, as it celebrates its fiftieth birthday, the building’s future hangs in the balance under the threat of demolition.
 
Photo (left): Exterior View, Main Facade, Northeast Corner, credit: Lindsey Derrington
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photo (right): Exterior View Looking Northwest, credit: Lindsey Derrington
 
The St. Louis County Library system was voted into existence in 1946. Charged with serving 455 square miles of land (excluding independent St. Louis City and eleven smaller municipalities with established libraries), its first few years were tenuous. It had no books, no buildings, a delayed budget, and was challenged by two ballot initiatives aimed at its destruction.[1] Newly appointed Director Stewart W. Smith acted quickly, building a fleet of bookmobiles and in 1951 converting a former Dodge dealership into the system’s first library.[2] Support grew, and in 1955 county voters approved a five year “special building tax” to construct four additional branches.[3] With Smith at the helm, this populist building program launched the county system to national prominence by challenging traditional notions of library programming.
 
Smith, a former jazz musician, lifeguard, and factory worker with a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago, approached building the system with mid-century eyes.[4] He recognized the opportunity to build new libraries for a new America, ones tailored to the suburban lifestyle and imbued with postwar optimism. In his words, “I’m not interested in reaching the double-domed intellectual. He knows where the library is anyway. I want to reach Joe Doakes, fresh from the hills, who doesn’t realize how much the library can change his life.” [5] The new county libraries were light-filled and colorful, with curving bookshelves, modern furnishings, and playful section titles. Patrons could talk freely, smoke, and even bring their dogs to browse through books, records, and films to the reassuring hum of soft background music. Ample parking lots and innovative, mechanized checkout and card registration processes greatly increased accessibility. [6] Smith’s “supermarket libraries” stripped away “the unnecessary, the stuffiness, the atmosphere of intellectual snobbery” he felt were counterintuitive to keeping libraries relevant in the postwar era.[7]
 
Photo (below): Interior View, Reading Room Looking Northeast, credit: Lindsey Derrington
 
Though controversial, his vision worked.[8] Two libraries opened in 1958 - one newly-constructed and one in a renovated movie theater - and a headquarters branch opened in 1960.[9] They were wildly popular, and by 1961 the system was circulating over 3.5 million books annually and had the largest fleet of bookmobiles in the nation. It was the third largest county library system in the United States, and by 1963 offered patrons a wide-ranging collection of 700,000 books, 50,000 records and 7,000 films.[10]  
 
Construction of the Lewis and Clark Branch Library constituted the final piece of the building program. Located in the tiny new municipality of Moline Acres, it would serve the residents of northeastern St. Louis County and was named for its proximity to the launch of the Corps of Discovery Expedition. Surrounded by modest post-war suburban ranches, the site was located on a four-lane highway, increasing accessibility. Plans were announced in late 1960, with Frederick Dunn & Associates as the architect. [11]
 
 
Photo (right): Interior View, Reading Room, Northeast Corner, credit: Lindsey Derrington
 
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Frederick Dunn (1905-1984) attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology before earning his BFA and MFA in architecture from Yale between 1927 and 1933. He was a top student, winning a First Medal in the Beaux Arts Institute of Design’s Paris Prize competition as well as the prestigious William Wirt Winchester travelling fellowship to Europe.[12] While at Yale he befriended St. Louis-born Charles Nagel, Jr. (1899-1992), an assistant professor of art history and curator of decorative arts at the Gallery of Fine Arts. Nagel, who had trained in architecture as well and worked as draftsman for firms in St. Louis and Boston, convinced Dunn to relocate to his hometown to establish their own office in 1936.[13]
 
There Nagel and Dunn were part of a young group of artists and architects struggling against St. Louis’ conservative tendencies, counting Grace Lewis Miller (of Richard Neutra’s 1937 Miller House) and Charles Eames (who left for Cranbrook in 1938) among their friends.[14] With Eames they were members of the Paint and Potter Club, a Saturday night social gathering “where the local intelligentsia met to drink and to discuss art, design, and life,” as well as paint and practice various crafts.[15] At the time most of Nagel & Dunn’s commissions were for Revival style homes for the well-to-do, but in 1938 they were chosen to design St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis City, a stunning modernist composition of masonry, stained glass, and sculpture in the vein of Eliel Saarinen. It was the first modernist church in the region and garnered national attention.[16]
 
Nagel & Dunn dissolved in 1942 when the latter entered the Navy. Dunn served as Curtis-Wright’s chief construction engineer in St. Louis before reassignment to submarine construction in Philadelphia.[17] Nagel would serve on the jury for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and embark on a decorated career as director of the Brooklyn Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery.[18]
 
Photo (left): Interior View, Reading Room, Northeast Corner, credit: Lindsey Derrington
 
After the war Dunn returned to St. Louis to establish Frederick Dunn & Associates. The city’s attitude towards modernism was rapidly changing; Washington University was churning out a new generation of young modernists while Dunn’s contemporaries such as Harris Armstrong and Joseph Murphy were coming into their own. His own firm flourished, producing award-winning works such as the Bobe Residence (1953), Faith-Salem Church (1954), Steinberg Memorial Ice Skating Rink (1957), and the National Council State Garden Club Headquarters (1960).[19] Dunn’s early interest in traditional arts translated into the modern idiom continued, and he routinely incorporated the work of important sculptors and artisans in his designs.
 
Photo (right): Interior View, Entrance Lobby, Dedication Plaque, credit: Lindsey Derrington
 
Dunn’s selection for the library project came at the height of his career in April 1956 and by 1961 the design, executed in collaboration with associate Nolan Stinson, Jr. (1922-1997), was in place. [20] The steel-framed building was rectangular in plan with a shed roof rising from its rear. Its charcoal gray brick base gave way to aluminum and glass curtain walls wrapping around its main and side facades to optimize natural light. [21] Set into a sloping site, it presented a one-story front to the street with its basement level visible to the rear. The main reading room – virtually free of vertical supports – and library offices were on the main floor, with closed stacks, a 250-seat auditorium, and two meeting rooms below. Upon its completion the highly functional building was elegant in its simplicity, with its sole decoration focused on stunning stained glass windows by artist Robert Harmon.
 
Harmon (1915-1999) was at the forefront of his craft during the middle part of the 20th century. Born in St. Louis, he attended Washington University’s School of Art and was hired by the legendary Emil Frei & Associates stained glass studio in 1936. He became lead designer and helped push the studio into the modern era with national award-winning designs. In 1948 Harmon moved his family to the Ozark Mountains in Arcadia, Missouri, where he operated a rural studio and continued designing windows and mosaics for Frei remotely. [22] He was one of twenty artists chosen for the American Federation of Arts and Stained Glass Association of America’s national exhibition “New Work in Stained Glass,” which the State Department took on a European tour in 1955 and 1956.[23] He had executed designs for over 200 churches by 1961, with some of his most stunning work executed in collaboration with Dunn on St. Mark’s Episcopal and Faith-Salem Evangelical.[24]
 
Photo (left): Rendering ("Robert W. Wright Gets Contract for New County Branch Library," St. Louis Construction Record, 12 September 1961).
 
Placed at the northern end of Lewis and Clark’s main façade and echoed in smaller blocks of colored glass embedded throughout the curtain wall and in tiny hopper windows, Harmon’s design imbued the otherwise symmetrical building with a delicate asymmetry. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are featured along with their Shoshone guide Sacagawea and her baby Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Flora and fauna, including a buffalo in sprint, are interwoven with abstract patterns to complete the stunning composition.
 
The $300,000 Lewis and Clark Branch Library opened to community acclaim on Tuesday, January 8, 1963.[25] Natural light flooded its reading room, tinted by the yellow and reds of Harmon’s windows. Almost completely open in plan, freestanding shelves allowed for relaxed but efficient circulation and Eames and Saarinen furnishings by Knoll enhanced its modernity.[26] Airy, utterly welcoming, and surrounded by 160 parking spaces, Lewis and Clark was the fullest embodiment of Smith’s vision and by far the most architecturally sophisticated branch in the county library system. [27]
 
Librarians reported on the enthusiastic stream of patrons flooding the building upon its opening – housewives in the mornings and early afternoons, hundreds of children after school (“It looks as if the school busses emptied at the door”), and entire families after dinner.[28] The auditorium played host to popular “Family Affair” presentations where patrons gathered to show their travel slides, its two meeting rooms were in constant demand, and children’s story hours and film screenings were regular features.[29]
 
Photo (right): Reading Room Looking Southeast in 1963 (Nell Gross, “Something New in Suburbia,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 July 1963).
 
Fifty years later, the Lewis and Clark Branch Library remains in constant use by its 45,000 patrons.[30] The St. Louis County Library system, now twenty branches strong, is the busiest in Missouri and circulated 14.4 million items amongst 6.3 million visitors in 2012.[31] Yet this success has come with a questionable push to revamp the system’s facilities. In 2012 Library Director Charles Pace lobbied hard for and won a $108 million, voter-approved facilities plan to replace, renovate, or add to various branches throughout the system. [32]  Lewis and Clark, based on consultants’ recommendations from 2008 and 2012, is one of the branches slated for demolition. [33]  
 
There are no specific complaints lobbied against Lewis and Clark – indeed, the 2012 study notes that all of the library system’s facilities are well-maintained, and Dunn’s building has had several upgrades in the past ten years including a new roof and HVAC system. [34] Rather, demolition is recommended based on the building’s age and perceived obsolescence with no consideration for its architectural or historic significance, let alone its potential for reuse.[35] Size is a questionable issue, since the 16,000 square foot Lewis and Clark is to be razed for a marginally-larger 20,000 square foot building despite the fact that the system is developing a new 15,000 square foot prototype at another, equally-busy branch. [36] There is no indication that the possibility of adding to the building – an entirely feasible solution given its spacious site – has been entertained.
 
Modern STL, the St. Louis County Historical Buildings Commission, Landmarks Association of St. Louis, and AIA St. Louis have all called for Lewis and Clark’s preservation as one of the most impressive modern designs in the region. It is the only county library from the mid-century building program which remains almost entirely intact and in use. While Library Director Pace had tepidly maintained that the consultants’ recommendations were not set in stone, he abruptly resigned in the summer of 2013 and the building remains in limbo.[37]  His vision for the county libraries was not so different from his early predecessor’s – while Pace felt that “libraries have ‘evolved’ over the years to the point where they should be more like community centers than warehouses for books,” Stewart W. Smith stated that “We have people-centered, rather than book-centered, libraries.”[38] Advocates can only hope that the St. Louis County Library Board and its future director will realize that demolishing the Lewis and Clark Branch Library would not only destroy an important piece of St. Louis’ architectural heritage, but a crucial piece of its own history.
 
AUTHOR BIO:
 
Lindsey Derrington received her Masters in Preservation Studies from Tulane School of Architecture in 2011. She is the board secretary of Modern STL, a Docomomo US Friend Organization and St. Louis’ non-profit advocacy organization for the preservation of modern architecture. 
 
All images are of Lewis and Clark Branch Library (1963) designed by Frederick Dunn, FAIA with stained glass by Robert Harmon.


[1] Clarissa Start, “Success Story of the County Library,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 October 1958.
[2] St. Louis Country Library Staff, The History of St. Louis Country Library: Historic Overviews of Individual Branches, 1997.
[3] “County Library Reports Circulation at Record High,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 May 1962.
[4] Margaret Sheppard, “Modern as a Supermarket,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 February 1960; Clarissa Start, “Success Story of the County Library,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 October 1958.
[5] Clarissa Start, “Success Story of the County Library,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 October 1958.
[6] Ibid; Margaret Sheppard, “Modern as a Supermarket,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 February 1960.
[7] Clarissa Start, “Success Story of the County Library,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 October 1958.
[8] Margaret Sheppard, “Modern as a Supermarket,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 February 1960.
[9] Clarissa Start, “Success Story of the County Library,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 October 1958; St. Louis Country Library Staff, The History of St. Louis Country Library: Historic Overviews of Individual Branches. 1997; “County Library Reports Circulation at Record High,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 May 1962.
[10] “County Library Reports Circulation at Record High,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 May 1962; “Reading Boom Overworks Cramped County Libraries,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 18 May 1961; “County Libraries Lent 3,500,000 Books Last Year,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11 April 1963; Nell Gross, “Something New in Suburbia,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 July 1963.
[11] “Library to Be Built on Moline Acres Lot,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 8 December 1960.
[12] American Architects Directory, 1956, p. 148; Harris Armstrong, Construction Record, September 1954; “Postwar House: Headmaster’s Home at Country Day School,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 October 1949.
[13] American Architects Directory, 1956, p. 399; “Charles Nagel, 92; Architect Ex-Director of Art Museum,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 February 1992.
[14] Stephen Leet, Richard Neutra’s Miller House, p. 50; Patricia Degener, “Buildings of Elegant Rightness By Frederick Dunn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1983.
[15] Patricia Degener, “Buildings of Elegant Rightness By Frederick Dunn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1983. Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century, p. 13.
[16] Walter A. Taylor, “A Survey: Protestant Church Design in America,” Architectural Record (July 1939).
[17] “Postwar House: Headmaster’s Home at Country Day School,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 October 1949; Harris Armstrong, Construction Record, September 1954.
[18] “Charles Nagel, 92; Architect Ex-Director of Art Museum,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 February 1992.
[19] American Architects Directory, 1956, p. 148; American Architects Directory, 1962, p. 184.
[20] Letter from Stewart W. Smith to Frederick Dunn, 2 April 1956; “Library to Be Built on Moline Acres Lot,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 8 December 1960.
[21] “Lewis and Clark Branch Library Opens,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 January 1963.
[22] Jack Rice, “Controversial Cross in Christ Church Chapel,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 September 1961.
[23] “3 St. Louis Artists In State Department Show, 7 December 1955.
[24] Jack Rice, “Controversial Cross in Christ Church Chapel,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 September 1961.
[25] “Lewis and Clark Branch Library Opens,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 January 1963.
[26] Nell Gross, “Something New in Suburbia,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 July 1963.
[27] “Lewis and Clark Branch Library Opens,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 January 1963.
[28] Nell Gross, “Something New in Suburbia,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 July 1963.
[29] Ibid; “Lewis and Clark Branch Library Opens,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 9 January 1963.
[30] Aaron Cohen Associates, St. Louis County Library District Facilities Master Plan, 2012.
[31] Rich Corno, “County Library Is State’s Busiest,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 March 2013.
[32] Aaron Cohen Associates, St. Louis County Library District Facilities Master Plan, 2012; Paul Hampel, “St. Louis County Seeks Tax Hike for Library Makeover Plan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 April 2012; Scott Bandle, “New Buildings, Renovations In Cards for County Library System,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 December 2012.
[33] Robert H. Rohlf Associates, Facilities Master Plan, 2008; Aaron Cohen Associates, St. Louis County Library District Facilities Master Plan, 2012.
[34] Aaron Cohen Associates, St. Louis County Library District Facilities Master Plan, 2012.
[35] Ibid; Letter from Charles Pace to Jane P. Gleason, 29 June 2012.
[36] Aaron Cohen Associates, St. Louis County Library District Facilities Master Plan, 2012.
[37] Jane Henderson, “St. Louis County Library Director Charles Pace Resigns,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 July 2013.
[38] Margaret Sheppard, “Modern as a Supermarket,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 14 February 1960; Paul Hampel, “St. Louis County Seeks Tax Hike for Library Makeover Plan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 April 2012

 

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