Sunday, January 17, 2016

Barr Branch of the St. Louis Public Library

Barr is one of seventeen branches in the St. Louis Public Library system.
It is located at 1701 South Jefferson Avenue at Lafayette Avenue in the Gate District neighborhood.



The library is on the site of the former Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, which was lost in a tornado in 1896.
Mount Calvary Episcopal Church was organized on September 6, 1870, in the Compton Hill Mission school house, a small frame building on Henrietta Street, north of Lafayette Avenue. A lot at the head of Lafayette at Grand Avenue, 175 by 400 feet in size, was donated as a church site by Henry Shawl A church costing $12,000 was built there, largely through the generosity of George D. Appleton. The building, designed by C.B. Clark, was consecrated in 1871. By 1877, the building was outgrown and a new site was purchased at the southwest corner of Jefferson and Lafayette Avenues. A chapel was built there in 1878, followed by a church in 1882, which was unroofed by the tornado in 1896. Rev. Philip W. Fauntleroy, then rector, directed rebuilding of the church. When Rev. Fauntleroy left in 1911, there was $30,000 in the church treasury. This enabled the purchase of a church site at 3661 DeTonty Street, where a new church was consecrated in February, 1912, and the parish was free of debt. Mount Calvary Church experienced financial difficulties in the 1920's and was virtually reduced to the status of a mission by 1933. After some success' the church was disbanded and its former site is now a part of the right-of-way of I-44. (source)
The land was purchased by a successful Scottish-American dry goods merchant William Barr (1827-1908), who eventually donated it to the library in 1901. This is the Barr for whom the branch takes its name. Yes, the same Barr who merged with the May company to form Famous-Barr, a well known (albeit defunct) department store.
plaque at the Railway Exchange building: Downtown St. Louis

Inscription at the front entrance

The building was designed by the renowned German-American architect Theodore Link. Link is best known as the designer of Union Station, the gates to Westmorland and Portland Place,  and many other St. Louis classics:
Portland Place Gates: Central West End

Barr Library Cornerstone at the Northeast Corner

push back the bushes and you'll find Link's inscription

The Barr Branch has the distinction as the first of seven libraries enabled by Andrew Carnegie in St. Louis. These Carnegie branches are in many ways, our most elaborate, beautiful buildings of the seventeen branches.
At the time the St. Louis Public Library was going through tremendous growth, industrialist Andrew Carnegie was in the midst of one of the largest acts of private philanthropy in history. Carnegie credited much of his enormous success to having been granted access to a private library near Pittsburgh when he was a young immigrant. He decided to give others the same opportunity by funding public libraries. 
Carnegie’s approach was businesslike. He required that communities furnish the land for a new library and commit to its support through taxes. He gave money for what he considered dignified but practical buildings. In this manner he altered the course of history, and gave funds to build over 1600 public libraries in the United States alone. Paperwork was kept to a minimum and much of the enormous philanthropic program was carried out by Carnegie’s secretary, James Bertram. Carnegie wanted his money spent on practical results. (source)
Funds for construction of the building, to cost $72,000, were from a $1,000,000 challenge grant offered by Andrew Carnegie in 1901. (Half of this sum was to be spent on a central library building and the remainder for branch libraries on - the condition St. Louis provide building sites and tax itself adequately to support the libraries. (source)
Inscription at the front entrance

Here's a photo of the Barr Branch from 1927:
photo source: SLPL "Then and Now"

This photo is important because it shows how the library was part of a dense neighborhood before Interstate 44 butchered this part of the city to the south, and surrounding homes to the west were cleared for a parking lot. 

In April, 1995 the branch received a $1.6 million dollar renovation. The classic touches of this beautiful building were restored and much needed modernization of the interior system brought the branch up to modern standards.

The library commissioned renowned St. Louis artist Bob Cassilly to sculpt figures from Aesop’s fable “Tortoise and the Hare” at the entry of the the small courtyard entrance at the rear of the building, right by the parking lot. 
 Cassilly entry at rear of building
The hare
 The tortoise (these can be found all over St. Louis)
 bike rack for patrons in the courtyard
Cassilly also created and donated the sculpture of a lion that rests at the front entrance. Curiously, there is only one lion, the librarians I spoke to did not know whether there was only one lion donated, or if the other was lost.
The Branch had its grand re-opening March 10, 1996. The interior's original configuration was maintained to preserve its classic feel; yet the upgrades are modern and bright, with cheery yellow walls, modern lighting, elevator, central HVAC, etc.
 child seating/play area
The check-out area is pretty close to the original layout:
There are beautiful touches throughout the library. Here are just a few I noticed on my visit:

The book shelves are solid wood and backlit with energy efficient fluorescents providing that classic library look:

Stained glass, arched windows, carved wood benches, doors and hand rails:
The most intriguing discovery was the White Carrara marble sculpture located in the children's section:
The base of the sculpture has the inscription: "Franklin And His Whistle"
The sculpture is a depiction of American Founding Father and scientist, Benjamin Franklin. His whistle (held in his left hand) signifies a parable which Franklin outlined in a 1779 letter to Madame Brillon which describes becoming smitten with a toy whistle and his compulsive purchase led to much chiding by his siblings who criticized his overpaying for the toy. He used this childhood lesson to signify the dangers of greed, self-indulgence and just putting all your eggs in one basket. The full letter can be read here.

I have not confirmed who commissioned this work or how it ended up here, but I will find out as I'm logging a list of "Mysteries at the Library" that I will then take to the Central Library and ask for help uncovering these personal unknowns and update these entries as I learn more.

Yet, after a mere stroke of the keypad all signs point toward this sculpture being one of three works by Italian sculptor Pasquale Romanelli (1812-1887) done in 1863 in Italy. His other two Franklin And His Whistle works are in the Newark Library (New Jersey) and the Library of the Union League in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (source)
Contemplative juxtoposition between desire and regret

There are also meeting rooms available for the public and this is a polling place for Ward 6 citizens. There are several programs available to the public that are hosted by the librarians, including youth groups.
So there you have it, the Barr Library, the first Carnegie branch in St. Louis!

Mysteries at the Library (Barr Branch)

  1. Did Cassilly do two matching lions at the front or just the one?
  2. Who commissioned the "Franklin And His Whistle" sculpture and was it a work of Romanelli or his under-studies?

2 comments:

Adele H. said...

There was only ever one lion in the front.

Sean Milford said...

The lion has a twin on the roof of City Museum, near the base of the ramp slide.