"Adult Education" is one of many pieces from the St. Louis Public Library art collection on view at the Mercantile Library.

"Adult Education" is one of many pieces from the art collection of the St. Louis Public Library on view at the Mercantile Library.

The St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis has extended a helping hand to an old friend, and it’s bound to benefit many patrons of two of the region’s most revered institutions. The art collection of the St. Louis Public Library’s central branch was moved recently to the St. Louis Mercantile Library on UMSL’s campus during renovation of the historic downtown building. Central library closed this summer for two years during the reconstruction.

“We are excited to exhibit these beloved works alongside the art of the Mercantile,” said John Hoover, director of the Mercantile. “Often the art held by libraries became emblematic of the literary holdings of those institutions. It is interesting to compare works in the two oldest St. Louis library and permanent art collections – landscapes, portraits, genre scenes – which became very familiar friends to patrons for over a century in both our institutions.”

Waller McGuire, executive director of SLPL, has overseen the extraordinary move of the central library’s entire collection. The artwork was the last to leave the building.

“I believe I was the last person out of Central, spending Saturday alone packing the paintings and bronzes for shipment to be displayed by our colleagues at the Mercantile Library,” he wrote in a recent newsletter.

Diane Freiermuth, deputy director of SLPL, said most of the collection has been moved to UMSL with the exception of three sculptures which are due to arrive soon.

“We were thrilled that the collection would be available to a new audience and didn’t have to spend the next two years in storage,” Freiermuth said.

The artwork, formerly scattered around the downtown library, is now displayed in one section of the Mercantile’s first floor. Visitors can browse through an electronic slide show with detailed information about the works. Many of the works complement the Mercantile’s collection of 19th and 20th century American painters and sculptors. The collection includes Mississippi River landscapes by Frederick Oakes Sylvester; an oil painting by Martyl, known for her work with the St. Genevieve, Mo., Art Colony; and a mural design by J.C. Leydendecker, a well-known commercial artist and illustrator at the turn of the 20th century.

Opened in 1846, the Mercantile Library is the oldest general library in continuous existence west of the Mississippi River. The Mercantile Library’s historic collections of Western expansion and the history and development of the St. Louis region were moved to the UMSL campus in 1998. The partnership has made the collections more accessible to the citizens of the St. Louis region and researchers around the world.

The St. Louis Public Library began in 1865 as the Public School Library Society of St. Louis. In 1893 and 1894, St. Louis voters supported a property tax that made the library’s services available to all city residents. Thanks to a generous gift from Andrew Carnegie in 1901, the magnificent downtown central library and six branches were built. The historic central library, designed by Cass Gilbert, is expected to reopen in 2012, its 100th anniversary.

To celebrate the collaborative spirit behind the installation, the Mercantile Library will host a “Coffee in the Gallery” tour 10:30 a.m. Oct. 22 for supporters of the St. Louis Public Library, members of the Mercantile Library and the campus community. Call 314-516-7242 for reservations.

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Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel

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