Historic Mercantile Library reopens after a refreshing restoration

Few places in Cincinnati hold the historical significance of downtown’s Mercantile Library located on the 11th and 12th floor at 414 Walnut Street (map). While it has been in the same space for over one-hundred years, the library itself dates back to April 1835 making it one of the three oldest cultural organizations in Cincinnati. However, even with its historical significance, the Mercantile is also one of the Queen City’s best kept secrets which Executive Director Albert Pyle hopes to change with the recent renovations.

“This library deserves it,” said Pyle, referring to the renovations made at a recent preview event.

The massive undertaking led by local architecture firm Brashear-Bolton and local construction firm HGC Construction was the first major refurbishment since the Library moved into the space in 1903. Modern touches were added but a lot of attention was given to maintaining the historical feel as well. The timing of the renovation was meticulously planned as the Mercantile celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.

An example of this mix was the movement of the 16 portrait busts featuring presidents and authors, among others, to eye level mounts throughout the room. This was done so that members could appreciate the art and “hold better conversations with them,” joked Mr. Pyle.

Another balance of modernization and history comes on the south side of the reading room where an old, noisy air conditioning unit was taken out and new two story stacks were installed. According to Pyle, the old air conditioning had to be turned off during events because it was just too loud, so now the library can stay cool in the summer and remain a quiet place of solace for its members. The new stacks are made of steel beams which were actually hoisted up from Walnut Street and through the windows one morning so that they could be installed on the top floors of the building.

A final update sure to be debated between traditionalists and modernists is the fact that the card catalog is now electronic and located online through the Mercantile’s website. The modern move actually forced the library to make its first official count of its collection which totals over 78,000 books, many first editions. About 2/3 of the Library's collections can not be found elsewhere in the city.

These updates and many others are to be unveiled this week when the library reopens on January 20th.  Undoubtedly the 2,000 members will be excited by the modernization efforts that balance the 21st century with the Old World feel of the open space.  Pyle says the Library could “easily welcome in 2,000 more,” members. 

With dues starting at $45, if you spend a good amount of time around the center city it is well worth considering so that you could stop in and soak in the quiet oasis that is the Mercantile Library.

Writer: Dave Rolfes
Photography by Scott Beseler
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