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Lewis & Clark branch could fall in St. Louis County Library master plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16 2012 - St. Louis County Library may demolish eight of its 20 existing county branches as part of the system’s 10-year facilities master plan. But before it could do that -- and then rebuild or rennovate -- voters would have to approve a $108 million bond issue Nov. 6.

Included in the master plan, created by Aaron Cohen Associates, a consulting firm from New York, is a $76.9 million budget to replace eight of the system’s 20 branches, another $12.7 million in renovations, and $9 million in additions and upgrades. Among the branches recommended for replacement is the system’s headquarters at 1640 S. Lindbergh Boulevard. But the proposal that has gotten the most attention would replace the Lewis & Clark branch in Moline Acres.

The combination of renovations, additions and upgrades, and complete replacements of buildings would allow for more flexibility in catering to each community’s individual needs.

Charles Pace, director of the county library system, said many of the branches were built more than 30 years ago. He also said that although the master plan is only preliminary and a final decision has yet to be made, the $108 million project is a much-needed overhaul.

“We have a really excellent library system here in St. Louis County. What (SLCL) is trying to do is preserve that and grow that for the future, and not just rest on our laurels and become some antiquarian book shop,” he said. “We have to think long-term … not just what’s happening today but 10, 20 or 30 years down the road.”

According to the 83-page document prepared by ACA, the libraries will need flexible seating arrangements to help serve what would become multipurpose spaces. Each environment should have the ability to cater to various audiences such as children, families, teenagers, adults and seniors.

“We believe there is an opportunity to dynamically support the region by creating opportunities to gather and collaborate at the public library. As we embrace an increasingly digital world, the library buildings need to be designed to engage the children of St. Louis County in new and different ways,” the document states.

The branches already incorporate new technology such as free wireless internet access but Pace said he would like to see select branches offer other new technology, such as “content creation labs” where people could create and edit their own videos and music.

While SLCL has its own vision for improving the already widely used county library system, ModernSTL President Michael Allen said he does not see the vision in quite the same way.

Allen said he’s worried that another mid-century modern architectural structure, SLCL’s Lewis & Clark branch in Moline Acres, will soon be flattened if the $108 million bond issue is approved this fall. The master plan would replace the 16,000 square foot branch at 9909 Lewis & Clark Blvd., designed by Frederick Dunn, with a $6.5 million 20,000 square foot building on the same site.

Allen said SLCL should give the building a second glance before making a final decision.

The branch stands out among its peers because its stained glass windows, reinforced concrete, massive sloped roof, and triangular dome in the entryway, Allen said. The stained glass windows, which feature the famous trailblazers Lewis and Clark and their guide, Sacagawea, is generally considered the building’s most prominent design feature. The windows were designed by Robert Harmon, of Emil Frei Stained Glass Co.

Harmon and Dunn had previously worked together in 1939 on the St. Marks’ Episcopal Church on Clifton Avenue. Dunn is also responsible for a handful of residential designs, two of which are side by side on De Mun Avenue.

“They’re sort of colonial in detail but their forms are extremely modern,” he said. “They were around the same time as (St. Marks’ Episcopal Church) and they were ahead of the times (in the) wide use of modernist design principles in St. Louis.”

Although Dunn had designed several residential homes and various buildings in the St. Louis area, Allen said St. Marks and the Lewis & Clark branch stood out as the architect’s two largest-scale designs here. Dunn moved to New York the same year the Lewis & Clark branch was completed, Allen said.

“That was sort of his last hoorah of his career,” he said.

ModernSTL’s Lindsey Derrington points out on ModernSTL’s website that the building has already undergone renovations over the past decade including a new roof, carpeting, signage, HVAC system, furniture and parking lot.

The consultant firm’s recommendations does not take each branch’s historic, cultural or architectural significance, if any, into account – and Pace said he wouldn’t argue that the recommendations had been based primarily on age and condition.

This is one reason Pace said a more detailed study of each branch will be conducted, which he hopes to have completed before the election. Pace also said he will make a recommendation to the SLCL board next week to conduct a preliminary study to see what alternatives there are, if any, for the Lewis & Clark branch. Regardless, the needs of the community will rank first and foremost, he said. If a replacement building is necessary, he hopes to preserve essential pieces of the original structure within the new building.

“What I’m most concerned about is what would best serve the needs of the people in that community. If that’s best done by preserving the existing building, then that’s fine. If it requires a new building, then that’s the way it will go.”

Pace also said aged buildings are more difficult to maintain. He said he believes replacing the existing building would be more cost effective than doing major renovations on the current one.

The Lewis & Clark branch is 46 years old -- four years shy of being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places -- but Allen said being on the list wouldn’t necessary make it immune to demolition in this case.

Making it on the list only prevents federal funds from being used for a building’s demolition, he said. Because SLCL is raising its own money, no legal safeguards could prevent demolition from happening if the $108 million bond issue is approved by voters this fall.

“The only way we’re going to get anything is if the library trustees and (Charles Pace) agree to it voluntarily,” Allen said.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Lauren Leone