It’s hard now to imagine how it couldn’t have happened, how the search for a suitable new home for a flagship library could wind up anywhere other than a stately, if forlorn, former bank building in need of a tenant and new life.
Just shy of 7 million people have walked through the double-leaf bronze front doors and into the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown Central Library since it opened in the old First National Bank building at 12th and Baltimore April 12, 2004. Readers get their literary fixes here. Students cram, and aspiring entrepreneurs shore up business plans here. Rapt crowds have filled elegant, first-floor Kirk Hall to hear Sandra Day O’Connor, Condoleezza Rice and (only a few months ago) the cast of TV’s Queer Eye, among a succession of notable speakers who’ve visited.
At its most elemental, the move 15 years ago gave the Library plenty of room for a growing collection of books and other materials. But there was more to it than that.
“There’s an old saying that the library is the people’s palace. And this really strikes people who come into it, with its grandeur and elegance, as that,” says Jonathan Kemper, the former Commerce Bancshares Inc. vice chairman and current Library board president who championed the choice.
“The Library,” he says, “is not just a source of books or materials or even information. It is, in many ways, a reflection of who we are and who we want to be. To the extent that it establishes this mirror on ourselves, it’s a prettier picture, a more attractive picture that we see. I think it’s actually inspirational.”
Even the new parking garage across Baltimore Street became a landmark, its south wall featuring 25-foot-high book spines with titles ranging from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Fahrenheit 451 and David McCullough’s Truman.
It hasn’t been a triumph for merely the Library. The restoration of the century-old First National Bank building also lent momentum to then-nascent efforts to revitalize Kansas City’s downtown. The historic area around the new Central Library — now known as the Library District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — sprang back to life with the conversion of other pre-World War II buildings into lofts, condos and apartments and the emergence of restaurants and other businesses.
The neighborhood had been “dark or there were dwindling numbers of businesses and nonprofits that were using those buildings,” recalls Kay Barnes, the city’s mayor at the time. “They were becoming less and less adaptable for businesses because of the design of the interiors, and there were increasing questions about what was going to happen to the buildings. There was talk from time to time about taking them down and starting over.”
The area’s rebirth became “a very important early symbol of what could be accomplished downtown,” she says.
The Library had begun weighing a new downtown site in the late 1990s. Its old location at 12th and Oak, leased from the Kansas City school district, was undersized and decaying, and Kemper, in particular, saw the potential in the empty, almost century-old building a few blocks away. Designed by the famed architectural firm of Wilder and Wight and twice expanded, with six Ionic columns dominating the entrance and a graceful, marble-appointed interior, it was home to a succession of banking institutions from its completion in 1906 until 1999.
Kemper sought backing for the eventual $50.2 million project from the Hall Family Foundation and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. DST Realty’s former chairman, Phil Kirk, also took up the cause. Almost $10 million in federal and state historic tax credits were procured, along with $24.7 million in private support and an $11.7 million outlay from the Library, and construction started in 2002.
An impressive new Central Library opened the day after Easter 2004.
“It’s a happy marriage of old and new,” Kemper says. “In architecture there’s been this competition — certainly in the ’80s and ’90s, and some of it continues today — as to how you deal with the legacy of historic buildings when you bring new uses to them. This was a particularly successful one in that we kept the best of the (old bank building’s) public spaces and were able to use the rest to support the Library’s operations and collections. Without a huge cost.”
Make no mistake: It’s a modern library. A whimsical children’s library dominates the second floor. The wood-paneled Missouri Valley Room houses special collections on the fifth floor, adjacent to a rooftop terrace landscaped with native grasses and trees. The expansive, ground-floor OneNorth learning and technology center opened two years ago.
At the same time, many of the architectural flourishes in the old bank were preserved: inside pillars and marble flooring, a vaulted ceiling with detailed plasterwork, chandeliers and the tellers’ windows. The bank’s steel and concrete vault was remade into a lower-level, 28-seat movie theater.
“You had this building with its rich history and beauty being repurposed . . . in a sense, pouring new wine into an old bottle in a way that was particularly good for the Library,” Kemper says. “Its stature had diminished in the old building, and its presence in the community suddenly moved back up because this building was seen as being grand — grand in the right way. It’s beautiful but also very welcoming.
“It’s interesting,” he says, “that a lot of people don’t imagine it as a bank anymore.”