‘This twilight air’: The rise and fall of New Orleans’ long-lost main library at Lee Circle

By Mike Scott, contributing writer

If you’re publicly lamenting the loss of New Orleans architectural treasures, you can bet your last bottle of Barq’s that it won’t likely be long before the conversation turns to the majestic public library building that once stood on Lee Circle.

Neoclassical in style and studious in atmosphere, it’s the kind of building you’d expect to find on the campus of a storied university, or maybe at Hogwarts. It’s also among the most egregious examples of the city’s historical habit of bartering its past in the name of progress.

So, it should come as little surprise that last week’s discussion of the controversial 1977 demolition of the old Temple Sinai building just off Lee Circle – to make way for a parking lot for the seven-story K&B Plaza, no less – prompted a relevant reader inquiry:

Wasn’t K&B also responsible for the demolition of New Orleans’ beautiful old main library a couple decades earlier?

The old New Orleans Public Library main branch on Lee Circle is shown shortly after its completion in 1908. Paid for with money donated by millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, it was torn down 52 years later and replaced by a contemporary-styled, seven-story office building now known as K&B Plaza. (Image via Library of Congress)

The short answer is simple: No, that one can’t be laid at K&B’s feet.

But the long answer – which follows – explains just why K&B is, and probably always will be, attached to the library building’s history.

The story of the site dates to 1890 when a wooden festival hall was built on Lee Circle to host the 26th annual saengerfest of the North American German Saengerbund, or “singing association.” Constructed atop a foundation poured for a Masonic Temple that never came to be, the festival hall could fit more than 5,000 people, including a stage that could accommodate 2,000, according to a newspaper report.

It was apparently never intended to be permanent, however. Shortly after the festival ended, it came down.

Then, on Dec. 29, 1902, millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated $250,000 – an amount that later would be upped to $275,000 – for a new main library and what would end up being five satellite branches in New Orleans.

The Lee Circle site was chosen as home for the main branch, which – designed by the architectural firm of Diboll, Owen & Goldstein – was inspired by Rome’s Temple of Mars Ultor, or Mars the Avenger.

Naturally, it featured myriad classical flourishes, including four 30-foot-tall limestone columns out front, a grand staircase leading to the portico marking the main entrance, and a copper dome on the roof.

Inside were more columns, these of the scagliola variety. Most of the floors were maple, but the building also incorporated strategically located glass flooring to aid illumination as patrons scoured the green, enamel-coated bookshelves. Antique bronze light fixtures also helped in that regard.

The cornerstone is laid for the former main library branch on Lee Circle, in an image from microfilm published March 20, 1907, in The Daily Picayune. Hailed at the time of its completion as ‘magnificent,’ the building fell to the wrecking ball 52 years later, in 1959.  (Image via Times-Picayune archive)

A 5.5-ton cornerstone was laid in a ceremony in March 1907.

That ceremony featured speeches, patriotic music and an invocation by Archbishop James Blenk, according to a newspaper account. An accompanying photo showed the day wasn’t short on American flags and star-spangled bunting, either.

“The growth and success of a city depend primarily upon the high qualities of character and intelligence in its people, and this building is dedicated to the promotion of those high qualities,” Library Board President J.H. Dillard told the gathered masses.

He added: “This building is destined to stand, dedicated to the education of the people.”

He was proven wrong on that last count some 52 years later. ­­­

That’s when work was completed on the library system’s current main branch on Loyola Avenue. And so, on Dec. 19, 1958, the city unloaded the Carnegie-funded building to a real-estate company for $279,000, a price tag that included the anticipated cost of tearing it down – and which was almost exactly the amount of Carnegie’s original gift.

By February 1959, the demolition was underway, with key parts being sold off piece by piece. Among them: cast-iron railings, a dumb waiter, pedestal lights, plumbing fixtures, marble stairways — and lots and lots of bookcases.

Where they ended up is anyone’s guess.

“Anyone who frequented the monumental old main library at Lee Circle over a period of years cannot help but feel a twinge of nostalgia in contemplating the new,” read an editorial published in The Times-Picayune on Nov. 24, 1959. “Gone is the dim, somewhat religious light and a certain air of formality that somehow seemed once upon a time to be associated with education. This twilight air the old building breathed.”

Within a month, the Lee Circle site – sans building — changed hands again, purchased by the John Hancock Mutual and Life Insurance Co., which would build the decidedly contemporary, 60,000-square-foot office building standing there today.

Designed by the architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merill of New York and built of pre-cast concrete, it was purchased in 1974 by K&B and has since been known by New Orleanians as K&B Plaza.

This story was originally published Aug. 4, 2020, on NOLA.com and in The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate.

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