Generous American benefactor Andrew Carnegie gives Rheims an Art Deco library.
The library was built in the period 1921-1927, under the direction of Rheims architect Max Sainsaulieu (1870-1953), and formally opened on 10 June 1928 in the presence of French president Gaston Doumergue and US ambassador Myron T Herrick.
The new library was remarkable for the quality of its materials, the richness of its ornamentation, and a very practical approach to the layout of its spaces, something rare in France at that time. The building is designed around a strict distinction between public space, storage space and working space for staff. The architect made a study of examples overseas (Geneva, Fribourg, Zurich, Basle, Brussels, Louvain, Leyde ...) as a basis for his design. Encouraged by his son Louis, he opted for a modern aesthetic typical of the Art Deco style. Generous funding of 200,000 dollars from the Carnegie Foundation gave him the chance to use superior materials and include rich decoration, for which he called on the period’s great names in decorative arts:
The building is entered via a short flight of steps that represent the ascent to knowledge. At the entrance, two plain pilasters are surmounted by a classical fronton decorated with engraved bushes that symbolise the flowering spirit.
Over the entrance, the engraved motto of the library reads in Latin: Educunt folia fructum (from flowers come fruit). The bas-relief designs are the work of sculptor Edouard Sedley. The main facade, decorated with mosaics by Biret, is pierced by imposing wrought-iron gates by Schwartz-Haumont, gold medallist at the 1925 Paris Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.
The reading room with its oak floor and mahogany panelling lends an atmosphere of serenity appropriate to study. The room is lit by three lateral bay windows and a large glass ceiling (verrière) — the work of Nancy artist, master glassworker Jacques Gruber. The verrière, depicting an open book on the Rheims coat of arms, is listed in the supplementary inventory of historic monuments.
The exhibition hall is part of the original structure, designed to display the library’s treasures and particularly notable for its floor: a feat of marquetry that juxtaposes squares of oak and mahogany. The ceiling features a cornice in the form of upside-down stairs, which is typical of the Art Deco aesthetic.
Collections are stocked in storerooms (only accessible to library staff) behind the reception desk. Spread across five levels, these have space for up to nine linear kilometres of documents. Their semi-circular layout, owed to Max Sainsaulieu, makes for an unusual star-shaped radial pattern.
The Rheims Carnegie Library in the new millennium is home to 400,000 documents, with space for 45 workspaces and reading rooms. Its multimedia capability includes Internet access, consultation of CD Roms and digitised collections. There is an exhibition hall, a 42-seat conference hall and a 30-seat lecture theatre.