The Carnegie Library in Reims is an undeniably Art Deco dream. But it’s also incredibly easy to miss. Located directly opposite the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, the building is literally dwarfed by its palatial neighbor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has traditionally served as the coronation site for French kings. During World War I, the church was also known as a safe haven, with a red cross flag marking the building off-limits as a military target. Perhaps it’s fitting, or at least poetic, that the library next door was built after the First World War to provide a different kind of sanctuary, making it an unexpected entry in The Daily Beast’s The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries.
Reims is a city of about 180,000 whose rural reputation is bolstered by the fact that it also serves as the unofficial capital of Champagne — meaning many visitors are likely to experience the region’s charms while tipsy. But after the First World War, the city looked significantly different. Thanks to the German occupation, Reims had endured the horrors of war, including loss of life, business interruption and significant structural damage to over 60 percent of its buildings.
Enter Andrew Carnegie.
It may seem odd that a Scottish-American philanthropist should address post-war efforts, or that his donations would take the form of such a specific form of infrastructure. However, like almost every building, the existing library was severely damaged. And Carnegie loved the kind of giving that enabled people to help themselves. The guy also loved libraries, built over 1,689 of them across the United States, and spoke of them with the kind of heightened reverence usually reserved for romantic partners.
“There is no such cradle of democracy on earth as the free public library,” he once remarked. “This republic of letters, in which neither rank nor office nor wealth are given the slightest attention.”
And so Reims, along with two other frontline cities, Leuven, Belgium, and Belgrade, Serbia, received $200,000 for reconstruction through the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
That lump sum would be worth about $3.93 million today. But although much of its collection was destroyed in the City Hall bombing, the institution has taken the money a long way. To create its new permanent home, it turned to semi-local architect Max Sainsaulieu, a graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Having completed the Basilica of St. Clotilde in Reims, he was well acquainted with ornate neo-Gothic architecture. At first he looked for inspiration in libraries in Switzerland and Belgium. Ultimately, however, he settled on Art Deco as a style that was perceived as more modern.
The 44,000-square-foot building opened to the public on June 10, 1928—in the presence of the French President—and was smaller than most of the region’s major libraries. (A hiccup of a building compared to the 624,307-square-foot footprint of the National Library in Paris.) However, great importance was attached to adornment, which still makes it one of the loveliest places in the world to stop for a book. And thanks to a 2005 restoration by architects Jacques Bléhaut and Jean-Loup Roubert, the experience of entering the library remains largely unchanged — save for some much-needed changes to allow for better accessibility and air conditioning.
With its exterior columns and lace-studded ironwork by Schwartz-Haumont (the company that won a gold medal at the 1925 Art Deco Exposition in Paris), the Carnegie Library has all the hallmarks of a modern temple. (It also has one Bibliotheque Sign so stylized it makes Wes Anderson weep — proving how well the aesthetic has aged.) To enter, one must climb a short flight of stairs to “ascend to knowledge,” and bear an engraved motto by the sculptor Edouard Sedley, which reads: “Educunt folia fructum” or “flowers lead to fruit”. (One can imagine Andrew Carnegie’s delight at all this high-profile, library-based imagery.)
Likewise, the lobby strikes with a larger-than-life Gravitas that splits equally between art gallery chic and detective agency foreboding. Behind the public area is a semicircular storage unit with 400,000 books on five levels. But here in the public space, there’s room for additional flourishes, including an opulent stained-glass skylight by Jacques Simon and a green marble and onyx fountain that – symbolism beware – represents nothing short of “the source of all science and knowledge.”
The library prioritizes function without sacrificing form. After all, what good are 100,000 books printed between the 16th and 18th centuries (including 8,000 that are considered particularly rare) if you can’t really get hold of them? Dark wood shelving, a nine-row card catalog, and chevron-patterned floors line the reading rooms and ‘Salle de Lecture’—all design elements we consider college hallmarks. But even the “more modest” reading rooms are flanked by rounded stained-glass windows that bathe would-be knowledge-seekers in natural light. (Feel free to draw your own symbolism here.)
In 1983, the Carnegie Library of Reims was declared a historic monument. It continued to serve as Reims’ main library until 2003. Now it’s just one of seven loan books scattered across the city. (Though it’s still arguably the most aesthetically pleasing.) Some of Carnegie’s statements continue to sound overly poetic. (“A library is superior to anything a community can do to help its people,” he observes. “It is a never-failing spring in the desert.”) However, the success story of Reims’ rebuilding has confirmed his idealism. No matter who you are, egalitarianism and knowledge are a beautiful combination.
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