Mid-Century Modern Midtown

Praising Pius XII Memorial Library

by Michael R. Allen

Last week The University News, St. Louis University’s campus paper, published a letter to the editor that I wrote about proposed changes to Pius XII Memorial Library, a fine work in the Modern Movement style.

Here is the text of the letter:

I read “University Librarian Staines addresses Senate: with great interest. As an architectural historian, I am concerned that St. Louis University does not recognize the value of Pius XII Memorial Library. Built in 1959 from plans by Leo Daly and Associates, Pius Library is an exquisite example of how modernist architects used repetition and juxtaposition of material, minimal ornamentation, clear forms and open space to create dramatic and functional spaces. To some, Pius Library may seem like an outdated facility, but to others very unique qualities are evident. Here we have a carefully-detailed and well-preserved mid-century library containing such fine details as matched wood species between desks and doors, ample natural light in the upper reading areas and widespread use of colorful ceramic tiles and marble to punctuate wall expanses. The furniture itself is architect-specified and an integral part of the interior harmony.

Very few strong modernist university libraries have survived renovation projects like the one Staines envisions without significant loss of historic integrity. At the present time, historians like myself are involved in reinterpreting the mid-century architectural legacy that includes buildings like Pius Library. There is growing scholarly appreciation of buildings from 1930-1970, but there is also rampant demolition and alteration hampering efforts to record and study what was built in that period. Thankfully, St. Louis has responded to this reappraisal by showing interest in thoughtful preservation of modernist buildings. From the cherished Ethical Society building to the under-renovation Plaza Square Apartments, mid-century architecture has found some respect here.

Many universities have newer libraries that are comfortable but not as significant as Pius Library. St. Louis University should consider the legacy left by a careful, sensitive renovation that enhances the qualities that make Pius Library part of our city’s architectural heritage. The very fact that St. Louis University retains its modernist library in such fine condition sets it apart, and is worth celebrating.

Built St. Louis and B.E.L.T. have extensive photographs of one of the region’s best mid-century university buildings.