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The Simple Philosophy Behind St. Louis's Spectacular Central Library Renovation

In short: The books should be more prominent than ever.
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Timothy Hursley

The Central Library in St. Louis has been a city landmark since the architect Cass Gilbert first designed it a century ago. Its 185,000 square feet occupy a full block of downtown, with a grand stone stairway rising off of Olive Street and opening onto an ornate central pavilion that feels like something quite the opposite of a reading nook. To put it succinctly, the whole building looks as if it were designed by the same man who dreamed up the Supreme Court (as, in fact, it was).

Today, its grandeur is one of its great assets, turning the city's central book hub into a historical monument. But the 21st century library primarily aspires to be something that Cass Gilbert's building was decidedly not: flexible – in programming, in mission, in space, in anticipation of a changing future. "Central library is anything but flexible," says Waller McGuire, the executive director of the St. Louis Public Library. "It is a mountain of granite, and it has stunning, but very divided spaces."