Steedman murals in the Great Hall – visitors to the main St. Louis Public Library (SLPL) in downtown St. Louis, MO will have the unusual opportunity to see books from the Steedman Architectural Collection on display through May of this year. The exhibit is in the library’s Great Hall – itself worth the visit – with selected images from Steedman books, like Hugh Ferriss’ 1920s rendering of the Telephone Building in St. Louis, enlarged as a backdrop to the display cases.
In 1928, St. Louis industrialist George Fox Steedman donated his collection of rare architectural books to the St. Louis Public Library.
Mr. Steedman (pronounced “stedman”) was president of the Curtis Manufacturing Company, a St. Louis firm that manufactured industrial machinery, but he had a great love of architecture. In the early years of the twentieth century, he traveled in Europe purchasing many of the most influential and beautiful architectural books ever published, with St. Louis architect Louis LaBeaume as his adviser.
Steedman’s express purpose for this generous gift was “to develop better architectural work in St. Louis” by providing access to “books of an inspirational character to students and practitioners of architecture” and its allied arts.
In addition to books, Steedman donated funds to house the collection in a room designed to resemble a 16th c. English gentleman’s library, built into one of the internal courtyards of the main library building (designed by Cass Gilbert, 1912), off of the Fine Arts Department. The Fine Arts librarian selects books to be added to the collection, together with advisors from the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), as Mr. Steedman requested.
The original library of about 600 volumes was extremely rich, as it included such titles as the 23-volume folio set of the works of Piranesi; 16th century editions of Vitruvius, Palladio, and Alberti; works by Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, Robert Adam; and much more. Over the years it has been greatly enhanced by judicious and enlightened acquisitions and donations, and now comprises over 1500 volumes. Its strengths are in Classical, Western European, and Early American architecture, and it now includes influential 20th century works, including early Frank Lloyd Wright publications, tracts by Louis Sullivan and Le Corbusier, and Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. Recent acquisitions include books by and about contemporary architects such as Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid.
If you aren’t able to see the current exhibition in person, this online exhibit will give you a small sampling of the riches in the Steedman Architectural Collection. Or take a look through the SLPL catalog via their website.
Partly because of Steedman’s gifts to SLPL and a consistent focus through the years, the main central library’s general architectural collection is a first-rate resource. It’s used by architects, designers, urban planners, landscape architects and by anyone else interested in learning about buildings and cities, about specific structures in St. Louis like an old houses or churches or commercial buildings, the history of specific neighborhoods, old photos of St. Louis (including Digital St. Louis), newspaper clippings, maps, architectural and design magazines going way back, trade publications – it’s truly a treasure house. And it’s free.