Barr Branch Celebrates 110 Years as Community Hub

For many of the patrons of the St. Louis Public Library’s Barr Branch, the location is much more than a building.

“I feel like the biggest misconceptions about Libraries is that we are just book depositories and that’s all we do,” said Tonnya Joy, Barr’s Branch Manager. “We are so much more. We are a community hub for so many people, for a lot of people we are their only source for computer access or WiFi. There are kids who would never be able to have a book in their life without the Library, or those who get homework help. And with the many free programs we offer, we give people resources and opportunities they might not otherwise have. We are much more than just books.”

The Barr Branch open on September 17, 1906, at 1701 S. Jefferson Ave., as the first of seven St. Louis Public Library Branches built using funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. The Branch is named after William Barr, a local merchant who later combined his business to become Famous-Barr, who graciously donated the land for the Branch.

The land was formerly the site of the Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, which was destroyed in the 1896 tornado. Theodore C. Link, the architect of Union Station, designed the Library and Murch Brothers Construction Company was the contractor. At the time of its opening, the Library was furnished with the circulation desk and books from the Model Library in the Missouri State Building at the 1904 World’s Fair. The collection of nearly 8,000 volumes were “best picks” of the time by the American Library Association. Within a year of opening the Branch, the collection grew to 12,000 to meet patron demand.

That patron demand rings true to this day, as the Barr Branch continues to grow its offerings through materials and programming. Joy, who came to St. Louis after earning her master’s in library science from Indiana University with a children and young adults specialization, began working at the Branch almost five years ago as a youth services Librarian and was later promoted to Branch manager.

“One of the things I miss about being a children’s librarian is seeing the joy on a kid’s face when they finally make that connection, when they realize they can read the words in that book and they understand what those letters mean,” Joy said.

In fact, because of her connection to youth services, it’s even more meaningful to her that Barr hosted SLPL’s very first Storytime for children in 1907.

In its early years, the Branch provided meeting space for groups such as the Barr Branch of the Equal Suffrage League, Free Thought Educational Society, Lafayette Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle and children’s Sewing Club.

The Branch closed in April 1995 to undergo a $1.6 million dollar renovation that would breathe new life into the building. The facade and architectural details were preserved while interior space was completely renovated. The Library commissioned St. Louis artist Robert Cassilly to sculpt figures from Aesop’s fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare” to greet patrons in the courtyard entrance on the west side of the building. Cassilly also created and donated the sculpture of a lion that rests at the front entrance. Barr reopened on March 10, 1996, and continues to be the community hub for the neighborhood.

“I love the people aspect of libraries, I love interacting with people, I love hearing their stories and I love being able to help them,” Joy said. “It something that I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of. It’s never a dull moment in a library. People think it’s very quiet and it’s not busy, but we are always busy. There is always something going on at Barr.”