SLCL Board, Save the Lewis & Clark Branch

“The Lewis and Clark Library is clearly the most important building architecturally in the County Library system, and it’s certainly one of the most frustrating issues I’ve ever dealt with.”

—Esley Hamilton,
St. Louis County Parks & Recreation Preservation Historian, as quoted by St. Louis Public Radio

The existing Lewis & Clark Branch can be expanded and renovated to meet the needs of 21st century patrons. Oh, and taxpayers will save $2.5 million. Win-Win.
The existing Lewis & Clark Branch can be expanded and renovated to meet the needs of 21st century patrons. Oh, and taxpayers will save $2.5 million. Win-Win.

Esley’s been around for a long time, so this has devolved into a pretty lousy situation if he’s calling it one of the worst.

You’ve probably heard the big brouhaha brewing over the fate of the Lewis & Clark branch of the St. Louis County Library. For the last eighteen months, concerned citizens and preservationists across the area have been scrambling to save this Frederick Dunn-designed gem in north St. Louis County.

In what is probably one of the finest examples of public Midcentury Modern architecture in St. Louis, the Lewis & Clark Branch embodies many of the design aesthetics favored by contemporary architecture: clean lines, large windows to allow natural light to permeate the space, and simple geometric forms. Don’t be surprised if any new library built on that site looks suspiciously similar to the Frederick Dunn beauty that’s there now. The Lewis & Clark Branch has aged well, and the Library system has maintained it well: the building has received major upgrades within the last ten years, including a new roof, and a new HVAC system.

So why tear it down? A long-term facilities report recommended the demolition. Since the building’s in good shape, it seems as though size is the issue: the consultants said the branch should be 20,000 square feet, a mere 4,000 square feet larger than the existing building. We don’t know about you, but tearing down an architecturally significant building to construct a brand-new one only 4,000 square feet larger isn’t the greenest way to do it. It’s a waste of tax dollars and an architectural treasure.

As an institution that strives to preserve written culture, we would like to think the St. Louis County Library’s Board of Trustees would extend such an impulse to preserve the buildings they occupy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Moreover, through this ongoing soap opera, the Board are proving to be irresponsible stewards of the additional funds granted them by voters through Proposition L in 2012.

In his role as President of ModernSTL — an organization that preserves and celebrates Midcentury Modern buildings in St. Louis — SPACE architect Neil Chace worked closely with SPACE’s Jeremy Clagett and Jon Hager of Fox Architects to develop a plan to add 4,500 square feet of flexible space to the existing structure. (Click here to see the full plan.) The Frederick Dunn building is saved, and taxpayers save $2.5 million dollars. Win-win, right?

The Board of Trustees doesn’t think so. Or if they do, they sure aren’t acting like they care. Even though citizens have [attempted to] vocalize their support for saving the building, and Landmarks Association, the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Association and the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects have all condemned Lewis & Clark’s demolition, it has all fallen on deaf ears.

Monday afternoon at the Library’s Board of Trustees meeting, over 100 St. Louisans came to voice their support for saving the Lewis & Clark branch and south county’s Tesson Ferry branch. At the beginning of the meeting, board president Lynn Beckwith, Jr. assured the group that everyone would be given the chance to speak to the Board, but, in an extraordinary display of brinkmanship, comments were abruptly closed.

The Library’s position doesn’t make sense. They could use the surplus $2.5 million on plenty of other projects, like, we don’t know, maybe “enhancing childrens spaces and youth, adult and senior programs” like Prop L said they could? (In case you forgot exactly what you voted for, here’s the verbiage of Prop L on page 18….note, it doesn’t specify which branches would be demoed or upgraded.) $2.5 million can buy a lot of books, computers and classes, all the things the library is in business to do. Wouldn’t mission-driven activities be a better use of funds than building demolition and construction?

Perhaps the real issue is that the Library’s representatives were overzealous to get Prop L passed. North countians were promised a new library, preservationists were told the building could be spared the wrecking ball. Prop L passed, Charles Pace — the former Library topper — is gone, and now what? Illogically, the board seems married to their short-sighted and ill-informed promise to demo an architectural treasure that can be affordably renovated to meet the community’s evolving needs. The Library Board of Trustees screwed up, and the individual board members need to be held accountable for their subsequent decisions on the future of Lewis & Clark and the equally controversial Tesson Ferry branch. In the meantime, the board’s aloof arrogance is no less than appalling, and their treatment of the people who question their decisions and offer productive alternatives is incredibly poor public policy.

Board, it’s not too late. You still have time to rectify the situation. Please, save the Lewis & Clark Branch as we know it.

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