The W.L. Lyons Brown Library is an architecturally award-winning jewel. Filled with students at just about any time of day, it is often referred to as the heart of Bellarmine’s campus. But until 1997, the university didn’t have a dedicated library building.
It always had a library, of course. The first one was on the second floor of Pasteur Hall, the only building on campus when the college opened in 1950. Its collection had been gathered by Miss Betty Delius, Bellarmine’s first librarian, from donated books and contributions to a library fund. Miss Delius, who remained director of the library until 1980, continued to build the collection throughout her tenure. When the library moved into the new administration building (now Horrigan Hall) in 1954, classes were dismissed for three hours so that a “book brigade” of students and faculty could pass books from hand to hand to the new space, according to High Upon a Hill, Wade Hall’s history of Bellarmine.
The library remained on the first floor of Horrigan Hall for the next 43 years. In addition to student-accessible stacks, it had rooms for reference materials and periodicals, a lounge with a fireplace and an AV room. It also had a locked room that contained titles listed on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Prohibited Books, such as Communist Manifesto. (That list was abolished in 1966 and the books were placed in open circulation.)
By 1984, the Bellarmine library, which had begun with a few hundred random books, contained more than 100,000. But it was far from state-of-the-art, said Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, who became Bellarmine’s third president in 1990. “It was like what I imagine the library of the high school in The Last Picture Show would have been,” he said. “It was all chopped up architecturally … I would say the interior design was Early 1940s Galt House.”
In order for Bellarmine to continue to compete for the best students, the university had to have a library equal to the excellent academic programming established by Msgr. Alfred Horrigan and expanded by Dr. Eugene Petrik, he said – “not only for the students’ sake, but for the faculty’s.”
Also desperately needed: a suitable home for Bellarmine’s sizeable collection of Thomas Merton materials. Dr. McGowan, who had read Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in his Jesuit high school and couldn’t wait to see Bellarmine’s “motherlode” of Merton items, was appalled when he saw the holdings in Bonaventure Hall, stored in open boxes on open shelving and with director Bob Daggy (“a real character – he looked like Humphrey Bogart”) chain smoking in the front room. “I will never forget the faded lime shag rug.”
The Bellarmine Board of Trustees fully backed the library plan, and Chairman Owsley Brown Frazier funded an architecture competition that drew proposals from across the region. “There were fascinating drawings,” Dr. McGowan said. “One of the most provocative looked like a big cheese wheel.” While the university ultimately passed on that design, he said it was that architect who compared Bellarmine’s location on a hill with an “Italian hill town” – a description that has guided the design of all subsequent campus buildings.
The winning architects, Hillier Group of Princeton, N.J., brought “big thinking and big imagination” to the project, Dr. McGowan said. “When they were thinking about the reading room, they brought in drawings of some of those great medieval libraries, and that was the inspiration for something three to four stories tall.”
The most challenging aspect of the design was how to handle technology, which had exploded following the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991. “We knew that technology was advancing at a very rapid rate; how could we anticipate it?” Dr. McGowan said. “Miles and miles of wires were put up on trays in the ceilings, and there were very few load-bearing walls. The idea was that as things changed, you could bring technology up or down and change the walls. The library really became the nerve center for technology on the campus. It was pretty good with what we knew at the time. Of course, no one had ever thought of ‘wireless.’”
High-tech met ancient history when excavation uncovered limestone caverns cut by a river thousands of years ago. Dr. McGowan’s remark that they evoked the Scavi beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome led to joking speculation that they were a direct conduit to the Vatican.
The library building was beautiful outside and in – including the spacious, climate-controlled Thomas Merton Center on the second floor. “Since Owsley Frazier was the chair and his family was associated with Bittners, we had this top designer in the region do all the design,” Dr. McGowan said. “Mr. Frazier was very proud of the way the building developed.”
Many people and foundations helped to raise the money for the $10 million library project, including Humana, the Gheens Foundation and LG&E, and “we had a great Board of Trustees over the entire time, from the planning to the dedication,” Dr. McGowan said. “But the Brown family and Brown-Forman were the most substantial donors, and so we agreed to name the library for W.L. Lyons Brown, Owsley Brown Frazier’s uncle.” Mr. Brown, the grandson of Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, was a longtime chairman and president of the distilling company.
Mr. Brown’s widow, philanthropist Sara “Sally” Shallenberger Brown, spoke at the library’s dedication in April 1997, at which Dr. Margaret Mahoney noted that St. Robert Bellarmine had built a library for the Roman College in 1593.
Construction of the W.L. Lyons Brown Library remains one of the highlights of Dr. McGowan’s presidency. Shortly after securing the final million dollars for the project, he had a layover in Washington, D.C., on his way to Boston for a meeting. In the airport lounge he encountered his hero, Fr. Ted Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame, who had built the library at that institution while Dr. McGowan was a student.
“He said, ‘Let me tell you something, Jay: This is going to be transformational for Bellarmine. When I reflect on what I was able to do for Notre Dame, there were two big change agents. One was an $8 million check from the Ford Foundation and the other was the library. It changed everything. We got a different kind of student, we got different kinds of faculty – you will find this transformational.’
“Getting the million dollars earlier, seeing Hesburgh, having that inspirational kind of anointing of the transformational nature of the project: I could have flown alongside the plane to Boston.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org