Demolition North St. Louis St. Louis Place

Crunden Branch Library

by Michael R. Allen

In late August 2005, the elegant Crunden Branch Library (better known in recent days as the Pulaski Bank) at the corner of Cass Avenue and 14th Street disappeared. No magic was involved — just a wrecking crew working without public notice. Residents of the near north side had feared such an event for years but had not been given forewarning. Some didn’t even notice the demolition, instead finding an empty lot covered in grass seed and straw where their old landmark stood.

Photograph from 2001 by Rob Powers.

Yet the old library branch did not fall without a fight. There were valiant attempts by Landmarks Association and north siders to preserve the building. As recently as last year, a major effort to preserve the library branch building was in motion. Three students in a Washington University architecture course offered by Esley Hamilton and Carolyn Toft studied the building for their class project, concluding that the building should be restored to its original use. Student Katie McKenzie then worked on a draft nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Photograph from 2001 by Rob Powers.

Unfortunately, the nomination met with significant opposition from Alderwoman April Ford Griffin (D-5th), who has long favored demolition of the building for plans that may include construction of a new strip mall anchored by Walgreens. With the building owned by the city’s Land Reutilization, Griffin was basically the owner of the building and her will was finally carried out. At its May 2005 meeting, the Preservation Board recommended against listing the building on the National Register, but the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation approved the nomination anyway and the building will be listed on the National Register post mortem.

What a sad end for such a triumphant building, the city’s first north side library branch built through Andrew Carnegie’s grant to the city. Eames & Young designed the richly-ornamented Beaux Arts style building, and construction began in 1908. Murch Brothers built the building, which cost $51,000 to build. On September 11, 1909, the library was opened with its official name: the Frederick Morgan Crunden Branch Library.

Photograph from 2001 by Rob Powers.

This name honored the life of Crunden, an educator who became head of the fledgling public library system in 1877. At that time, the library was a private members-only entity affiliated with the St. Louis Public Schools, and its members were mostly teachers and professors. Crunden vowed to change that by transforming the club-like library into a vast democratic system he sometimes called the “People’s Library.” As any resident of the city knows, he was successful in establishing a fine citywide library system before his retirement in 1909.

The building was a fitting tribute to the erstwhile librarian. Its simple, low rectangular form with hipped roof was purely classical in form, while its faces expressed a more fanciful classicism. The brick walls were laid with an odd bond pattern: two stretchers with no visible mortar joint and a single header. The glazed terra cotta entablature, later damaged by thieves, featured a shell and dolphin motif that evoked the stability and permanence of the ocean with some whimsy. The north and south elevations had different articulation. The windows on the east and west walls were designed to house busts of famous St. Louisans. Inside, the first floor was a completely undivided reading room — the only of the Carnegie-funded branches with such a plan.

Photograph from 2001 by Rob Powers.

After many years of use, the Public Library decided to move the library branch due to perceived “encroachment of industry” on this site. In 1953, the library sold the building to Pulaski Bank and built a new building at 2008 Cass Avenue — adjacent to the Pruitt-Igoe housing project — to house the Crunden Branch Library. This incarnation of the branch closed in 1981, with no replacement, but the building at 2008 Cass still stands. Pulaski Bank made significant alterations to the building, removing entry foyer and enlarging the window openings. The bank opened the building as branch on December 31, 1954, but this branch was not open for more than 25 years. As a civic gesture, Pulaski Bank kept the basement auditorium open to use by civic organizations.

In December 1995, the Land Reutilization acquired the building and its fate seemed sealed. City planners have called for wholesale clearance of this area since the late 1950s. The few remaining historic buildings here are those that are privately owned, but even some of those could fall to make way for a “connector” ramp from Tucker Boulevard to a new highway bridge spanning the Mississippi River. One wonders what will become of the Cass Avenue Bank one block west of the library branch. Readers can be assured that the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise at Cass and Tucker will be preserved, though.

Image from September 15, 2005 by Michael R. Allen

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