St. Louis Public Library Addition Brings Hidden Modern to Light

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Adding to or renovating a historic structure is always a puzzling challenge for an architect. How do you pay homage to history while allowing the new creation to forge its own identity?

But the challenge is even more daunting when the historic building is the work of a master. That’s what George Nikolajevich, design principal at Cannon Design in St. Louis, faced when he took on the job of designing an addition to the city’s central public library.

In an unusual twist, his work left Nikolajevich a clear line to the present.

“Cass Gilbert gave us license to depart from the Renaissance interpretation because he did, too.”
George Nikolajevich



Library 1

In the glassed-in storage stacks, the books themselves become a design element. Photo courtesy of Cannon Design.

The north wing of the building holds the book storage stacks, an area closed to the public. And for that wing, Gilbert inserted a building within the building – a structure quite unlike the Renaissance-inspired library.

“It was a steel structure with frosted glass floors to let the light through, not attached to the rest of the building,” Nikolajevich said. “That building was exceptionally modern for its time. It would be modern today.”

Modern as it was, Gilbert’s building-within-a building wasn’t up to modern fire and earthquake codes. It had to be replaced. And in designing its replacement, Nikolajevich found inspiration on the path that Gilbert laid out a century ago.

“This north wing presented an opportunity for something new,” he said. “Insert another building within the building, only with several floors dedicated to the public, and with a new atrium. With the north wing, Cass Gilbert gave us license to depart from the Renaissance interpretation, because he did, too.”

The upper floors of the new wing are devoted to non-public book stacks, but the walls are glass, allowing the public to see inside – and making the books themselves into a decorative element.

“Now, as you move through the space, the 21st Century opens up to you,” Nikolajevich said.

On the north wing is a canopy clad in brushed stainless steel that plays visually off a water feature. Water and lighting make the entrance canopy glow at night, transforming it into a modern sculpture. The entrance works with the rhythms of the existing façade – in Nikolajevich’s words, “learning from Cass Gilbert in the proportions and the rhythm, but not desecrating him.”

Nikolajevich is a fascinating conversationalist on the topic of old vs. new.

“I happen to think this: In the 21st Century, there is an obligation to use modern technology, the history of art, and nature as an inspiration to freely create,” he said. “Imitation of the old is not creation. It’s an application of the rules laid down by others.”

He points to the Louvre and the Morgan Library & Museum as examples of old buildings that benefited from dramatically new additions. And he reminds us that creativity often triumphs in the end.

“Look at the Eiffel Tower,” he said. “Can you imagine the debate? At the time, Eiffel’s tower was outrageous. Now we take it as the symbol of Paris.”

St. Louis Public Library
1301 Olive St.
St. Louis, MO, 63109