An impressive feat of red-brick architecture, Keio University’s Old Library has been a cherished symbol of Keio University for well over a century. In order to preserve this historic building and important cultural property for posterity, the university began significant restoration work in 2017, with renovations ending in late May 2019, marking a new chapter in the university’s history as Japan as a nation ushered in the new Reiwa era. The Old Library retains its architectural beauty and is bound to become a place that tells the story of Keio’s history and preserves its legacy for centuries to come.
In 1906, plans to build a library were announced to commemorate Keio University’s 50th anniversary, at which time fund-raising for its construction began in earnest. Donations immediately exceeded the target of 300,000 yen (the equivalent of more than one billion yen today), but there was to be an unexpected turn of events. Some officials made the argument that the university should build a wooden structure to reduce construction costs and use the rest of the money to establish an institute of technology. However, then-president Eikichi Kamata was staunchly opposed to this idea, saying that the use of funds raised in the name of building the library for any other purpose would be tantamount to "losing the trust of the public." He also stipulated that the library must be constructed using fire-resistant materials. Thus, it was decided that the library would be built of brick, and in April 1912, the last year of the Meiji era, an elegant red-brick library appeared atop the hill of Mita with high-arched windows in the neo-Gothic tradition.
Not ten years after the library’s completion was the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which it escaped relatively unscathed with only surface cracks in its exterior walls. Though repairs and expansions were made over the next two decades, much of the interior of the main building was lost in the Tokyo air raids of May 1945, including the reading room, office, and attic in the first set of stacks. But thanks to the relentless firefighting efforts of night-duty faculty and staff, coupled with the prior demolition of nearby wooden buildings in preparation for times of disaster, the spread of fire was stopped and most of the books in the library's collection were saved. Fortunately, the most valuable books in the collection had already been safely stored elsewhere. According to the memoirs of night staff during the air raids, Mr. Shinobu Origuchi, who was a professor at the time, came to Keio the following morning to find the building still smoldering. "He stopped in his tracks, staring speechlessly at the burning library. Eventually, he looked back and asked a single question: ‘Are the books safe?’ When I replied that the fires had not affected the library’s collection, he smiled for the first time that day and began to make small talk," the memoirs recall.
A shortage of materials following the war did not stop the university from restoration work on the library, and by 1949 the building had been restored to its former glory. In 1961, the library was expanded to accommodate an increasing number of books, and in 1969, the original structure was designated as an important cultural property.
The library has been retrofitted with a base isolation system by lifting the entire building and installing base isolators underneath. This way it is possible to make it earthquake-resistant without damaging the original structure, ensuring an earthquake-resistant structure while, at the same time, preserving the building’s status as an important cultural property. The recent renovations focused on the main building and second floor of the Old Library.
In addition to seismic retrofitting, renovations were carried out to restore the building’s aging roofs and exterior walls. The war-twisted iron structures in the library attic have been left, however, as a testimony to the war it survived, though this area remains closed and off-limits to the public.
Construction, which commenced in February 2017, was completed at the end of May 2019. The Old Library is currently slated to reopen in Summer 2020 once the interior is finished, fitted with the Fukuzawa Yukichi Memorial Keio History Museum, where the university will highlight its rich culture and tradition and share its founding principles with the public.
*This article appeared in Stained Glass in the 2019 autumn edition (No. 304) of Juku.