Central Library Marks Its 15th Anniversary: A True ‘People’s Palace’

Nearly 7 million people have walked through the bronze front doors of the downtown Central Library since it opened in the old First National Bank building at 12th and Baltimore in April 2004. 

Readers get their literary fixes here. Students cram, and aspiring entrepreneurs shore up business plans here. Rapt crowds have filled 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.



The move 15 years ago – converting a stately, if forlorn, former bank building into an elegant new home for Kansas City’s flagship library – provided ample room for the Library’s growing collection of books and other materials. But it served an even grander purpose.

“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.”

Opened April 12, 2004, the new Central Library wasn’t merely 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.

That rebirth became “a very important early symbol of what could be accomplished downtown,” says Kay Barnes, the city’s mayor at the time.

Even the Library’s 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.

 

Image of Jonathan KemperFormer Commerce Bank executive Jonathan Kemper spearheaded the repurposing of the old First National Bank building into the Central Library. He’s now president of the Library’s board of trustees. (Kansas City Public Library photo)
Image of the Library's parking garage which has book spines.
Twenty-two giant book spines adorn the north wall of the Library parking garage. It draws international interest. (Photo by Mike Sinclair)

Library officials 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, it was home to a succession of banking institutions from its completion in 1906 until 1999.

Work on converting it into the Central Library began in 2002, and doors opened the day after Easter 2004. The project’s $50.2 million cost was underwritten in part by $24.7 million in private support and almost $10 million in federal and state historic tax credits.

Kemper calls it “a happy marriage of old and new.”

Image of the children's area at the Central Library with people sitting together for storytime.
Kids and their parents enjoy an activity in the Central Library’s whimsical Children’s Library. (Kansas City Public Library photo)
Image of the Library's parking garage which has book spines.

The bank vault in the lower level of the old First National Bank building now serves as a movie theater. (Kansas City Public Library photo)

Many of the architectural flourishes in the onetime 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.

But 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.

“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.”

A version of this story, written by the Library’s Steve Wieberg, appears in the March-April edition of KC Studio magazine.