One hundred years after its completion, the St. Cloud Heritage Museum (originally Veterans Memorial Library) remains as a symbol of the city of St. Cloud and a rare example of civic Prairie School architecture in Central Florida. The rectangular plan, one story, box type design is evocative of the small bank buildings of the Prairie School in the upper Midwest. The bold geometrics of the stucco are reminiscent of Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, a work that was underway when Isabel Roberts was an architectural designer / draughtsman in the Frank Lloyd Wright Oak Park Studio.
Images Courtesy of John Dalles
The architects and their design were approved by a committee established for that purpose. The contractor, P. E. “Pete” Morgan, was also the contractor for the then-new Osceola High School (1923).
The cornerstone was laid in May 1922, and the building was dedicated on February 11, 1923, to great fanfare.
The building consists of one large room, divided at will by folding doors which remain today, a Lincoln alcove for relics, a librarian’s room, a small kitchen, and lavatories. At the time of its completion, it was widely acknowledged to be “the best building in town”.
Main Facade from right
Elements of the design which tie the building to the Prairie Style include: grouped casement windows with geometric muntins, strongly defined cornice and window surrounds, flat roof, water table base, and the bold sign inset in the façade. Although it is not a large building, it has a large presence.
The Veterans Memorial Library is closely connected to the Jewel Box Banks of architects of the Prairie School, notably, the Home Building Association of Newark, Ohio, by Louis Sullivan, and the First National Bank of Dwight, Iowa, by Frank Lloyd Wright. While the purpose of the building has changed over the years, the original features remain and are a significant contributor to the architectural heritage of Central Florida.
Veterans Memorial Library is one of the best remaining works, and most accessible to the public, of the designs of the architectural firm Ryan and Roberts, consisting of two women architects: Ida Annah Ryan and Isabel Roberts, whose pathbreaking practice was centered in Orlando in the 1920s.
Main Facade from left
Both women are important figures in the history of women in the profession of architect. Ida Annah Ryan was the first women in the U.S. to earn a Masters’ Degree in Architecture (from MIT), and had a prolific career in the Waltham, Massachusetts, area before relocating to Central Florida circa 1920. Isabel Roberts is best known as the client for her eponymous Prairie School home in River Forest, Illinois. What had been lost to history – her professional architectural training in the Atelier Masqueray in Manhattan, and her contributions to architectural design in the Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright – has in recent decades shed new light on her career.
These two women formed an architectural partnership in Orlando in 1920 and created landmark buildings throughout the decade, some of which remain today. Many are private homes, and so, they are not open to visits. On the other hand, the Veterans Memorial Library welcomes visitors, and as a civic building, it is easily viewed on the exterior beyond its limited hours of operation.
The history of the building is this: A committee was formed to create a new library in St. Cloud, the entire effort was spearheaded by the Women’s Club of St. Could, who had established the city’s first library in the train depot nearby.
Isabel Roberts’ brother-in-law, John B. Somerville, served on the building committee; this connection resulted in Ryan and Roberts obtaining this commission. In 1922, an outline of what was desired was given to the architects. The plans they submitted were subsequently accepted with enthusiasm.
The building, although described at the time as being of “Grecian” style, is in fact reminiscent of the "jewel box" rectangular designs of many of the Prairie School small bank buildings of the upper Midwest by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Purcell and Elmslie, and others.
The library is constructed of hollow tile with stained stucco exterior, well-maintained, and still in use today. Although it is not a large building, it has a large presence, due to the bold geometric lines of the main facade. Prairie Style themes in addition to the "box bank" massing include the grouped windows, the flat roof, the strongly defined cornice and window surrounds, and the use of casement windows with geometric panes. The symmetry and the central door also reflect the Prairie School bank building motifs.
Some observers see a direct connection to lines of Unity Temple in Oak Park, in this little gem of a building. Notably, in the monolithic effect of the stucco, and the use of horizontal and vertical banding to achieve a harmonious balance, and to focus the eye on the finer elements of the design. Indeed the banding of the chancel of the interior of Unity Temple bears a similar design. The use of a motto or saying inscribed in or on the building is also an element shared with Unity Temple and other Prairie School works. News report of the day record that the architects insisted on a motto; Carlyle's, "The true university is a collection of books." In addition, architectural antecedents can also be found in the smaller Carnegie Libraries scattered across the country, many of which rely on a similar one-large-room floorplan to the Veterans Memorial Library.
The library was dedicated on February 11, 1923. Sixty members of the Grand Army of the Republic, and forty members of its auxiliary, the Women's Relief Corps, marched to the Library for the flag-raising ceremony. After the ceremony, the Women’s Club handed the building over to the city of St. Cloud. In 2005, it took on its present use as the St. Cloud Heritage Museum. The building is owned by the City of St. Cloud; however, the museum is operated solely by volunteers of the Woman's Club of St. Cloud, whose clubhouse is next-door.
Today, the only non-original feature of the main façade is the railing on the stairway, required for safety concerns. It is easy, therefore, to see the architects’ design as it was envisioned and implemented, a century ago.
The Veterans Memorial Library serves as a reminder that accomplished women architects were at work and thriving in their practice in Central Florida in the years 1920-1930. This building is one of their first shared efforts as an all-women partnership and remains a signpost to what women were doing here, and in other parts of the country, when the field of architecture was opening up to women.
Although they were readily accepted by their many clients, both Ida Annah Ryan and Isabel Roberts had challenges being accepted by the profession, simply because they were women. Ryan was constantly rebuffed in her attempts to join the Massachusetts chapter of the AIA – these obstacles were due only to her gender. Isabel Roberts never did achieve AIA membership, and so was styled as an architectural designer or as a landscape architect in the later years of the 1920s, to silence the critics.
Porch Ceiling Detail
Even so, they were a part of the remarkably collegial collection of architects practicing in Central Florida during the roaring twenties. This Orlando Group of architects sought to achieve an architecture particularly suited to the Florida landscape. This was an intentional effort they all shared. Here is how they described it in an article from “The Florida Circle” of May 1924:
"Just as architects of old created styles to harmonize with their environment, so have the architects of Florida been creating, from native motifs, a style that is carefully adapted to the climatic conditions and surroundings of the state. This style has an individuality all its own and should have a fitting name to express its origins . . . The Florida Association of Architects will give a prize of $25.00 for the name selected." Submissions were to be sent to Murry S. King, Florida’s first registered architect. The contest was to conclude in November 1924 and the winning name announced thereafter.
Ryan and Roberts designed many other works in Central Florida, from private homes, to churches, and public buildings. The most recognizable being their competition-winning Lake Eola Band Stand and the Amherst Apartments, both of which are no longer standing
The city of St. Cloud is home to a collection of additional buildings by Ryan and Roberts, and many are within walking distance of the Veteran’s Memorial Library. Their St. Cloud works include:
The Peoples Bank Building, 10th Street at New York Avenue
Pennsylvania Hotel, 1110 10th Street
Fisk Funeral Home Chapel, 1107-1111 Massachusetts Avenue
The Jeffries Elementary School, 1200 Vermont Avenue
Dr. William H. Dodds Residence, 1016 Florida Avenue
Visit the OFApaedia Buildings page for the Veterans Memorial Library.
Learn more about Isabel Roberts and Ida Ryan.
Additional reading about Isabel Roberts and Ida Ryan by John Dalles.