Friday, February 5, 2016

Julia Davis Branch of the St. Louis Public Library

Julia Davis is one of seventeen branches in the St. Louis Public Library system.
It is located at 4415 Natural Bridge Avenue at N. Newstead Avenue in the Penrose Neighborhood.



The branch is unique in that it was the first library to be named in honor of a living person. Julia Davis was an educator and researcher of African-American history. Davis lived to 102 and dedicated her life to teaching and awareness of African-American cultural contributions. She taught for 48 years in the St. Louis Public Schools, 35 of those years at Simmons Elementary in the Ville Neighborhood...one of her students was Chuck Berry.  Then, on the day she retired in 1961 she established the Julia Davis Fund at the St Louis Public Library, designed for the purchase of books, manuscripts, etc. related to the African-American contribution to world culture.
This branch is dedicated to her collection. There's a comprehensive entry on her life on Wikipedia.
On April 21, 1974, the St Louis Public Library broke with tradition by dedicating a Branch in honor of a living person. On February 14, 1993, the new Julia Davis Branch was officially opened. Built on a land donated by the Commerce Bank, it houses the collection consisting of books, manuscripts, newspapers, art work and other research materials, which document the history and cultural heritage of African Americans and people of African descent worldwide. Davis' initial gift of $2,500 in 1961 was used to begin the Library's Julia Davis Collection of Negro and African Literature and Culture. She also donated her personal collection to the Davis Collection at the same time. 
The ground breaking for a new Julia Davis Branch at 4415 Natural Bridge was held on September 29, 1991. Land for the new Branch, the first Branch of the St. Louis Public Library system to be constructed since 1974, had been donated by Commerce Bank of St. Louis. The 15,000-square-foot building, designed by architect Russell Lewis of By Design, Inc., features a 100-seat auditorium and space for collections of 50,000 volumes. Computers and educational and recreational software packages are available for public use. The Julia Davis Research Collection, now housed at Central Library, was moved to the new Branch when it opened in late 1992 or early 1993. (source)
Katie Moon, Administrative Assistant for Exhibits and Research provided a fantastic summary of her life on the Missouri History Museum blog:
Dr. Julia Davis was a force to be reckoned with, not because she yelled the loudest or donated the most money, but because she knew who she was and had a clear vision and purpose. She was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things—and in doing so became an amazing example of a life well lived. Our city is a better place for her having lived and worked here.
Julia Davis, standing on the right, poses with other teachers who were trained in black history. Photograph, 1935. Missouri History Museum.


Per the St. Louis Public Library's "Then and Now" series, there are before and after photos of several branches (source). The branch was located at 4666 Natural Bridge Avenue (which opened in 1974):

photo circa 1977

This building is still standing today; from google streetview:


When I drove by, the building was still in use.
Then, in February, 1993 the branch opened in a new building on land donated by Commerce Bank’s Mound City Banking Center. The building architect was Russell Lewis, of local firm By Design, Inc. The general contractor for construction was Altman Charter Company.
The exterior is constructed of white metal panels. There is a large plaza in front of the entrance. Bike racks are well placed near the entrance and the street.
The interior opens up with a tall, open atrium with book returns and display cabinets.
The decor is themed with a jungle/rain forest motif with a stretch of tropical plants between the library floor and the large exterior windows to the east adding to the rain forest vibe. The carpet and Julia Davis collection also uses the palm theme.
The children's area is bright and open with toys, books, artwork, etc.
The chairs have a bird and insect theme.
Julia Davis' collection is toward the rear of the library and is available to all.
Like all the branches, seating is varied and well spaced to accommodate various needs.
Thanks to amazing St. Louisan's like Julia Davis, we have an invaluable collection and centralized documentation of the vast contributions of African-Americans to St. Louis and the world.

Julia Davis is one of five libraries that currently hold Sunday hours (along with Buder, Carpenter, Central and Schlafly).

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