Serene as it appears both outside and in, the George Latimer Central Library building bordering Rice Park is something of a monument to survival. The library often struggled in its early years and even had to close during the Depression for a short time. Yet for every dip in its fortunes, the library experienced a surge of good fortune that kept it going.
The building itself is a testimonial to the better times. First completed in 1917, it underwent a $15.9 million renovation from October 2000 to October 2002.
Even the beginning of the library in the early days of St. Paul was a challenge. Two library associations were formed in 1857, at least in part in reaction to the fact that the small neighboring village of St. Anthony (later Minneapolis) had already established a library in 1850. This was a source of humiliation for some St. Paul residents (the competition between the cities began early!), says Gary Phelps in “The St. Paul Public Library and Its First 100 Years” (Ramsey County History 18:1). Phelps quotes an editorial in a local newspaper: “It is a burning disgrace to St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota, that our sister village of St. Anthony is allowed so far to outstrip us.”
Some feared that having two library associations in St. Paul would mean neither would succeed. Another local paper warned on September 18, 1857, “… against a course of action which [would] bring into existence two societies of precisely similar character… which… [might] cause both … to fail,” according to Larry Hlavsa in “A Brief History of Public Libraries in Minneapolis/St. Paul: 1849-1900.”
However, the two associations agreed to merge. One, the Mercantile Library Association, was a subscription library and one of several such libraries around the country that were founded to educate apprentices who could not afford more formal schooling. This association had 300 books when it began. The other library was the St. Paul YMCA’s free reading room. Before the merger in 1863, the Mercantile Association Library at least once was closed due to lack of funds, October 1861 to sometime in 1863.
Even after the merger, which created the St. Paul Public Library, the organization continued to have to fight for its survival. Just before the merger, the subscription library had fewer than 300 members among the city’s population of 10,401. From 1863 to 1880 the subscribers increased slightly, to under 400, while St. Paul’s population quadrupled to more than 41,000 (Phelps). The Civil War and Minnesota’s Indian wars likely contributed to that slow growth as many men went off to fight.
One bright spot in this challenging period for the library was its popular lecture series, which helped keep the organization afloat financially from 1865 to1881. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, Bret Harte, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Horace Greeley were among the lecturers. Another bright spot was that the library’s “tottering fiscal state and lack of patronage” gave impetus to the call for a free public library (Phelps).
In 1879 the state legislature passed what Hlavsa calls “perhaps the most important piece of library legislation in the state’s history,” a law allowing communities to levy taxes for support of public libraries. This should have been good news for the library, but the city rejected the proposal from the St. Paul Library Association, led by former governor Alexander Ramsey, to establish a public library. It was only in 1882 that the city council agreed to accept that responsibility, and only in January 1883 that the library opened to the public.
From the time its service became free of charge, the library’s main challenge was outgrowing its space. It had been in the Ingersoll Block building (which stood across from where the Intercontinental Hotel on Kellogg Boulevard is now) since its earliest days. In 1889 it moved to the fourth floor of the then-new city hall, although its supporters had lobbied for the library to have its own building. The new space proved inadequate within a year, and the library board requested funding for a building from James J. Hill, who rejected their two proposals (and rejected a third in 1896).
Meanwhile, during the1880s the city’s allocation for the library was capped at $15,000 a year, so its financial struggles continued, although the collection doubled in size during the same period, from 26,500 to 51,280 volumes (Phelps). At the same time the library board continued work to get the library its own building.
In 1899 the city transferred ownership of the Market House to the public library, and that became its home in 1900 after fairly extensive remodeling. Market House was a bustling downtown hub on what is now Seventh Place, according to Paul R. Gold in “Rats, Politicians, and Librarians” in Ramsey County History 31:4, and that location likely helped the library thrive while it was there for some 15 years.
The effort for a new library building continued, however, and its leader, St. Paul attorney Edwin S. Chittendon, solicited funds from none other than Andrew Carnegie, known for funding libraries throughout the country. He enlisted the help of Cass Gilbert, but their requests were rejected twice, in 1901 and 1903. Chittendon later wrote Gilbert that the reason for Carnegie’s rejection was “J. J. Hill lives here and is fully able to provide [a library] for the city” (quoted in Phelps).
The biggest obstacle of all for the library occurred in 1915, and like its other challenges, turned out in the long run to be a blessing in disguise, because it rallied public support.
When the library had moved to Market House, Alexander Ramsey had objected: “The move to that hall would be from a fire-proof building to constant risk of fire” (Phelps). Sure enough, in 1915 the building was destroyed by a spectacular fire that burned “throughout the night and into the next morning, taking twenty-two hours and thirty-one minutes to extinguish.” The firefighting involved every piece of St. Paul’s equipment, even the old-style horse-drawn steamer engines, and required assistance from Minneapolis as well. Eighteen firemen were injured, and 5 million gallons of water were used in putting out the fire (Gold).
The fire likely began when a vat of candy in a store below was left unattended and boiled over, extinguishing the gas burner under it and initiating a gas leak which later resulted in an explosion. The library rented the lower floors of Market House to commercial tenants like the candy store to help offset its operating costs.
Fortunately, planning for the new Central Library had begun well before the fire. According to the library’s own history (www.sppl.org/locations/central-history.html), work began on acquiring a new building in 1909, the Rice Park site was selected in 1910, ground was broken in 1914, and the entire building was completed in 1917. It cost $1.5 million, and garnered much praise then and now. James J. Hill finally had made another offer of funds, one that resulted in the James J. Hill Reference Library adjoining the Central Library and sharing the same building.
Praise for the new building included Dr. W. Dawson Johnson’s article in Western Magazine in 1918, “The New St. Paul Public Library: Bringing a Modernized Service to the People of the State.” In the article, Dawson says the library’s “newness is excelled only by its beauty and its usefulness,” and notes it “is said to be one of the most beautiful in the country.” Likewise, R. Clipston Sturgis praised it in his 1920 article in The Architectural Record: “Taken altogether the library is a very notable addition to the group of fine libraries that has been growing up [in this country].” Sturgis notes the challenges faced by architect Electus Litchfield, who had to meld the needs of the public building supported by taxpayers with those of the privately financed Hill Reference Library–not too fancy, not too plain.
Sturgis also cites the fine location of the building, which then had a view of the river that has sadly been lost: “The disposition of the building on its site is one of the finest achievements of those who planned this library.” His sentiments are echoed years later by local author Larry Millett, “Ever since it opened in 1917, St. Paul’s Central Library has been one of the indisputably great buildings of the city. No other public building in St. Paul–or Minnesota, for that matter–is more beautifully wedded to its site or more sure in its handling of classically based forms.”
Litchfield’s creation (working with Charles Soule, a library planner, as consultant) is of Tennessee marble on the outside and gray Mankato stone on the inside. Its architectural style is Italian Renaissance Revival, characterized by round arched windows and classical columns, among other features. Some of its highlights include the Youth Services Area with the historic puppet stage designed by Magnus Jemne, a renowned local architect; and the spacious Nicholson Information Commons, formerly the main reading room (note especially the ceiling adorned with publisher marks from the 1910s and the portrait near the center memorializing a painter who died in a fall during the restoration). The St. Paul Room, with all materials related to the city, including Winter Carnival scrapbooks, together in one spot, is on the mezzanine level. Also notable is the stair lobby on the second floor, which is filled with symbolic sculptural friezes designed by Ulysses Ricci of New York. The magazine room on the third floor, named the Greenleaf Clark room after a major donor to the library’s construction, is an elegant area with another highly decorated ceiling.
The library was renamed in 2014 in honor of George Latimer, former St. Paul Mayor.
More important than the impressive building are its contents. Despite the library’s struggles, it has served the city’s people for more than150 years by making knowledge accessible through books and other materials, branch libraries, services to the homebound, bookmobiles, youth services and other amenities. That precious service is best described by Charles Ingles, who in 1932 wrote about his experiences in the library: “My own first membership was given me as a Christmas present in 1877. It was the most highly prized of all my presents for that year.”
January 2006, revised January 2019