Today I had the pleasure of going to St. Paul’s Cathedral’s Library. It is a small library that is nestled on the first gallery floor flanking the cathedral. Before I go on to describe the lovely experience I had today, I must point out that there was no photography allowed in the cathedral or the spaces I will be describing other than the library. I will do my best to explain my experiences as clearly as possible without being exhaustive (although it would be entirely too easy to do so, but I digress.) Our guide for the tour was a soft spoken man named Mr. Wisdom (no, I am not joking). He dressed in a navy suit and adorned silver hair. Mr. Wisdom is the current librarian and was most gracious on the tour.
As for a brief history on the cathedral, it is currently standing on the highest point in London and was built in the 16th and 17th centuries by Sir Christopher Wren. Its current construction was created after the original cathedral burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666.
The library’s only point of access is found by climbing a winding staircase that wraps around a central pillar. (The pillar now has an elevator inside of it, but the original architect wanted it to be a space for a telescope!) The staircase is dimly lit with warm lighting and concrete floors and walls. The steps have modern black grips placed on the edging, but the cathedral’s original concrete interior can still be seen peaking out from underneath.
Once you climb the hundred and forty stairs to the second floor, you make your way though a green wooden door. The door is heavily bolted from the inside, as the library and its surrounding spaces are restricted from the public. Once inside, you enter small concrete room with two dome shaped windows on either side. Through the window on the right, you can see the top of the cathedral’s arched ceiling billowing out. The quarter dome gives the illusion of looking at the cathedral’s magnificent ceilings inside out. The window to the left opens as a door and provides entry to a wide set hallway that gives the feeling of an attic with its wooden beams, low set windows, and almost empty space. The few objects that reside in this hallway consist of a few marble busts and a wall of shelving that contains concrete and stone remains of the churches that stood previously on the cathedral’s sight. We are warned not to touch them as they are very brittle and will easily crack.
Once through the attic-like hallway, we stop in front of a large, dark wooden door to our left. The door is unlocked and we step inside to the library. There are a few things that hit you right when you walk in the door – first is the grandeur of the space. There is a gallery level that looks over the main floor – both house hundreds on hundreds of worn leather books. The books live in chocolate stained wooden shelving. The underside of the gallery walkway contains beautiful wooden motifs that elegantly curl as to create an illusion of the gallery’s weightlessness despite the large amount of books that they help support. Among the various busts and artifacts strewn across tables on the main floor, the objects that call for the most attention are the white stone fireplace and the portrait of the London Bishop that hangs above the mantel. Two large, arched windows stand across the form the entrance on the gallery level. They ascend until they touch the vault ceiling. The windows are framed by vertical relief sculptures of books and organic shapes and life and are each topped with a capital of a crown. The large, but intimate space makes it almost impossible to feel anything but breathless. The desire to sit in this warm, but delicate library in front of the fireplace while carefully thumbing through beautifully bound books is overwhelming.
The second, and I think most distinct attribute of this library is the petrichor originating from the books themselves. The “old book smell’ that passes through your nose with each deep breath humbles you – mirroring the sense of awe that transpires inside the cathedral.
Perhaps this feeling is not by accident. Mr. Wisdom explained the importance of symmetry within the walls of of one of the Britain’s most magnificent cathedrals. He described the physical layout and floor plan of St. Paul’s and how how everything, from the rooms that edge the basilica to the parallel staircases tucked away behind bookcases, were symmetrical. So, maybe the mirroring achieved between the cathedral and the library supports this notion of symmetry – flowing seamlessly from the physicality of the spaces to the underlying feeling that they rouse within their patrons.