MCM Library: The Lewis & Clark Branch

9909 Lewis-Clark Blvd (aka Hwy 367)
Moline Acres, MO

Having recently visited 2 different libraries within 30 minutes in South St. Louis City, I got to reminiscing about the importance of libraries to our communities and to my personal history.  Which reminded me that the St. Louis County Public Library system has a written plan to eventually demolish the Lewis & Clark Branch in North County.  NOCO did a brilliant job of reporting this last year.

I am all for modernizing libraries to serve a new century; in St. Louis City, they have spent (and continue to spend) millions refurbishing existing libraries, and have done a brilliant job helping historic buildings remain vital and indispensable. St. Louis County is now in the middle of appraising their stock, and it’s troubling that their first thoughts are to demolish rather than refurbish.

Especially when they have a branch like Lewis & Clark, designed by renowned architect Frederick Dunn.  His works are so important that Esley Hamilton will be speaking about it on October 17, 2010 as part of the Landmarks lecture series. And his groundbreaking church in St. Louis Hills was covered here this past summer. So, from the perspective of historic preservation, the Lewis & Clark Branch is clearly a contender on the name of Dunn, alone. Enlarge the aperture to include the context of its place in a developing North County of the 1950s-60s, this library gains even more reasons to be celebrated and elevated with a sympathetic update and remodel.

After WW2, North St. Louisans drove out Broadway to the Halls Ferry Circle into North County, which found Hwy 367 building up rapidly with businesses and homes.  In the tiny inner-ring suburb of Moline Acres, they built this library in 1963, and right next door in 1964 they built Top of the Towers, which became the hub of everything that was cool, sophisticated and modern. Read more about Top of the Towers here.

This nucleus of activity allowed ranch home subdivisions and churches to spring up around them, and an exploding population contributed to the spread and dominance of far North St. Louis County. These are important chapters in the evolution of Metro St. Louis, especially because high design and skilled craftsmanship were still a standard part of our progress.

On a personal level, this building means a lot to me. By the mid-1970s, my divorced mother and I were living in nearby Black Jack, and money was tight, leaving no babysitter budget. My mother came up with the brilliant idea of using this library as a free babysitter for her grade school child. At least once a week, she dropped me off at the front door and let me know “you have only one hour to pick out books for the week.”  This turned out to be an hour of productive freedom for both of us.

An hour never seemed like enough time, so I had to stay focused on researching and procuring before time was up, constantly looking over my shoulder at the clocks on the wall to make sure I got to the check-out counter before my mom arrived. This kept me well-behaved and quiet while stockpiling books and records that fueled curiosity and expanded knowledge. It also bolstered my sense of responsibility, independence and love for a building that felt like my personal playground.

The historical importance of a building comes from its design and its contributions to the community it served. All of the National Register buildings in Metro St. Louis made it onto the list because of these factors, and all of them required additional updates and remodeling to keep them viable for the present and the future. The Lewis & Clark Library falls into this category, and as we wade into the historical importance of mid-century architecture, it deserves much deeper thought than the wasteful decision to demolish.

Rolling Down Memory Lane

Within a few days of each other, I ran into two different vehicles that overwhelmed my memory, creating a rush of intense appreciation for them. Which was a strange, new sensation, as vehicles of any kind usually mean nothing to me.

Almost cried when I was alongside this St. Louis County Public Library book mobile tooling down North Lindbergh. it’s been years since I’ve seen one, and decades since being inside one.

As a grade schooler, my Mother used the library as a free babysitter. She’d drop me off at least once a week and come back an hour later to pick me up. During that time, she shopped and ran errands in peace and productivity while I scoured the shelves and checked out stacks of books.

Once every 3 or 4 weeks, the Book Mobile would come to the apartment complex where we lived in Black Jack, MO. The Book Gods shined down upon me, as the Mobile parked directly in front of our building for 2 hours. This was the equivalent of a junkie getting a free hit or two; I could return and get more books autonomously! There were even a few times where I’d check out a book, run upstairs to the apartment to read it, and have it finished in time to run back down to the Mobile to return it and get another book to replace it.

Why am I shocked that there are still Book Mobiles? Why do they seem so old fashioned, all of a sudden? There’s an obvious old age joke to be made here, but is it more than that? Do they seem old fashioned to any of you?

Idling in a grocery store parking lot was this vintage Trailways bus.  My first thought upon spotting it was a record I checked out from the library filled with TV and radio bloopers. One of my favorites blunders was a live radio ad for Trailways, wherein the announcer jubilantly says, “This New Year’s Eve, take Trailways, and leave the drinking to us!”

Aren’t the lines of this thing gorgeous? Now I understand why they made metal toy versions of them, and why the grade school boys were always snapping over who got to play with it next. It just looks cool.

And in that parking lot, I saw 4 different men leave their cars to walk up to the bus and stare admiringly at it while chatting with the bus driver, who was just as jazzed as they were. It was like watching their inner 8-year olds peeking out for a minute or two, and it was a great thing to see.