Sunday, February 28, 2016

Divoll Branch of the St. Louis Public Library

Divoll is one of seventeen branches in the St. Louis Public Library system.
It is located at 4234 North Grand Boulevard at Carter Avenue in the Fairground Neighborhood.


The library is in the shadow of the Corinthian Grand Avenue Water Tower.
The branch takes its name from Ira Divoll, the founder of the St. Louis Public School Library in 1865. This later became the St. Louis Public Library. Divoll’s devotion to education led him to become known as the “father of public libraries in St. Louis.” Per a March 25, 1966 article in the Globe-Democrat:
"Ira Divoll was superintendent of the St. Louis schools from 1859-1867. In 1865 he stated the first public school library with 2000 books. During his tenure in office, he also established three schools for Negroes, for whom up to 1867 there was no public education. Mr. Divoll is also remembered for his program of urging teachers not to spank children too severely to get them to behave. Several hundred whippings had been reported every week."
My kids' heinies thank you Mr. Divoll.

The history of the Divoll Branch dates back to December 5, 1910 when the branch opened at 1100 Farrar Street in the Hyde Park Neighborhood. It is the sixth of the seven Andrew Carnegie branches in St. Louis. The building is still standing and is privately held. Rumor has it, an artist is using the building. Along with the former Soulard branch at 706 Lafayette Avenue, Divoll is one of two Carnegie branches no longer open to the public. I will blog on these separately.
Divoll was known as one of the first St. Louis libraries to focus on the needs of children, with extensive programming and a welcoming environment for kids. One report from 1911 notes that 78 pairs of roller skates were checked in at the front door and there areas for the kids to park their goat carts.

There was a program that allowed children librarians to recorded their thoughts on daily occurrences in journals that are still available for viewing. In fact, on my visit, there was a display of these journal entries. The 1900's children's writing style is fascinating and at times hilarious.
Several entries were highlighted, including mention of schools being closed due to Spanish influenza:
And then there was that pesky William Bethel of Farrar Street who returned a soaking wet book and claimed it fell in a lake and he had to go after it:
And when robbers broke into the library and ate up all the food in the icebox:
Some rapscallions throwing peas at the girls and a near miss where someone (probably a girl) put a thumbtack on the author's seat (point up)!
And then this entry from September 29, 1927 which documented the 2nd worst cyclone in St. Louis history, which killed 78 people and seriously injured another 550 in its seven mile path (source). 
4100 block of McPherson in the Central West End 

This inclusion and catering to children was a sea change for libraries in the early 1900s, as all branches are now focused on all ages...but they originally focused on adults. Divoll has held on to the rich history of providing for children to this day.
When movies became more common in the 1920s/30s, screenings of kids movies would be shown for free.

By 1960 the population of families started moving west from the oldest parts of the city and the construction of the Interstate highway further isolated the library.

The Divoll Branch eventually moved to a new location at 4234 North Grand Boulevard in March, 1967. The building was designed by Lester Haekel of William B. Ittner, Inc. and built by the Albers Construction Company. This mid-century mod classic was exciting in that it was completely representative of the creative ideas of its time. The roof cascading down at an angle in four separate parts was very cool.


The building was considered state-of-the art at the time as it was built at a cost of $280,000 and it floats on a massive pier system built over a former quarry (Perkins Stone Quarry). The entrance of the building off a small 12-space parking lot had a sculpture court (no longer there).

The interior had a decidedly mid-century modern feel, with a round partitioned reading room complete with a Chinese dragon mural. The lighting patterns on the ceiling were configured to match major constellations and the space age. 

The opening was a big deal and is well documented in photos from that day:
Ruth Brennan, branch librarian speaks at the opening
On the occasion of the 2nd year anniversary in 1969, employees dressed up in Asian-inspired garb to commemorate the occasion.
No, that's not Miles Davis on the right...but it could be the 2nd Birth of Cool

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a program that collaborated with the nearby Holy Name School to form a volunteer library cadet program where kids could help out and see what its like to be a librarian.
In June, 1983 LeVar Burton of the popular PBS children's series Reading Rainbow visited Divoll.
Then, in the mid-1990s, plans were set afoot to modernize the library once again.  Sadly, the roofline was severely altered during this remodeling. The branch closed for renovations in 1996, when the entrance of the building was reoriented to face the enlarged parking lot. The redo was designed by architects David Mason and Associates, engineering by Richardson Engineering Group and built by Albers Construction Company. It reopened on March 1, 1998.

The interior was reconfigured and the original reading room in the round and Chinese flair was removed in favor of a more open, brightly lit and modern space. All the usual amenities are all here and the library is clean as a whistle and organized to a tee.
The most unique attribute of Divoll are the silhouettes of famous St. Louis structures that adorn the children's area. I learned these were made by one of the talented library carpenters on staff. They include the planetarium, the three water tower standpipes, the courthouses, the science center, arch, Busch-II, the hockey arena, opera house, Union Station, the basilica, old cathedral,  Forest Park Spanish pavilion, Shrine of St. Joseph (I think) and my personal favorite, the bear pits of Fairground Park.
Another library with a rich history chugging along into the 21st Century in the City of St. Louis.

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