In 1933 it was decided by the University to construct a separate building for the library which was then still located in the Old Arts building. With a contribution of £10 000 from mining geologist Dr Hans Merensky, construction started in 1937. General Jan Smuts laid the cornerstone on 11 October 1937 and on 15 April 1938 the building was officially opened.
“This country has given me so much that I am only too happy to be allowed to help it to develop and to be able to give back to it a fraction of what it has given to me...” - Hans Merensky, at the opening of the Merensky Library.
In designing the building, architect Gerhard Moerdyk was influenced by various styles, including Art Deco, Neo-Classicism, Arts and Crafts, as well as local styles such as Cape Dutch and Regency. Moerdyk himself described the building as a study in Persian style, with influences from Africa including the Zimbabwe and ancient Egyptian ruins. He used local materials and incorporated symbols of African origin. The prominent zigzag pattern, for example, is taken from the Zimbabwe ruins and represents water and fertility, the crocodile as a water figure and the bird as a symbol of space, symbolizing the freedom and creativity of the author. The curving of the walls symbolises an open book. The green bevelled glass windows were imported from Italy and helped to minimise heat from the sun and also protected paper against ultraviolet light. The design of the building is a source of controversy and speculation with some claiming that Moerdyk used it as a practice run for the design of the Voortrekker Monument, as there are many similarities between the two buildings. Today this national monument serves as the Edoardo Villa museum and also houses amongst others, a Mimi Coertse, Marita Napier and the largest South African sheet music collections.