11 September 2011

In branch library settlement, losers outnumber winners

The recent Branch Library lawsuit settlement between plaintiff Concerned Library Users (CLU) and the City of Berkeley has sealed the fate of the South and West Berkeley branch libraries.

Few Berkeley residents, within or without the affected neighborhoods, have fought to preserve the library buildings, and few are mourning their imminent loss. And who can blame them? Both libraries, in their current state, are not beloved civic monuments that could galvanize a mass preservation movement.

Indifference aside, most Berkeleyans probably believe that a beautiful building is an asset to its neighborhood, and that a beautiful civic building is an asset to its city. Yet after decades of neglect, compounded by unsympathetic additions and “improvements,” both South and West Berkeley branch libraries are ugly in the eyes of most beholders. Nobody fights to save ugly buildings.

But most Berkeleyans were never made aware that behind the 1970s façade marring the West Berkeley Library lies the original handsome Beaux-Arts building of 1923, or that above the incompatible light fixtures in the South Berkeley Library’s reading room hides a magnificent ceiling.

The West Berkeley library was the first Berkeley building built as a branch library and the first library to be funded entirely by the city. Previous libraries had received donations from Andrew Carnegie, who gave away more than $40 million between 1886 and 1919, paying for 1,679 new library buildings across the United States.

The West Berkeley Branch Library emulated the elegant style of the Carnegie libraries. Its architect was Berkeley resident William K. Bartges (1894–1970), who was active here in the 1920s before moving to Sacramento, where he spent 30 years working for the State of California’s Department of Architecture. He retired in 1961 as Supervising Architect.

One of the West Berkeley Branch Library photos included here was taken in the early 1970s, shortly before the remodel that obscured the façade. At that time, the building was already 50 years old and in need of sprucing up, but its elegant lines were still apparent.

In 2003, the West Berkeley Branch Library was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark, Structure of Merit. The following year, a renovation plan (see photo) that would have restored it to its former appearance failed to receive a state grant.

As late as 2008, when the citizens of Berkeley voted to approve $26 million in library bonds for the renovation of the four branch libraries, the Branch Libraries Facilities Master Plan called for retaining the existing library building. Since then, the renovation was judged too expensive, and in 2010, a new boxy design by Harley Ellis Devereaux was unveiled.

The South Berkeley Branch Library, designed by John Hans Ostwald in 1960, is one of Berkeley’s Mid-Century Modern gems (see additional information). Although not a designated landmark, it was identified as architecturally significant and underwent CEQA review (see the Initial Study). This building received the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission Community Award in 1965 and the American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Award of Merit in 1966.

This library, too, was deemed too costly to preserve, and is to be demolished and replaced with a new building designed by Field Paoli.

By the time CLU brought in architect Todd Jersey to design affordable alternative plans that would include the restored original buildings, it was too late. Nobody was willing to listen. Jersey was hounded into throwing in the towel with a public apology, which left CLU no choice but to settle.

While the residents of West and South Berkeley will receive functional new libraries, everyone in Berkeley will lose two fine examples of distinctive civic architecture. The new designs are not in the same caliber as their predecessors, and will not make up for their loss.

The lawsuit settlement calls for a $100,000 preservation fund, to be used for the physical restoration and preservation of other city buildings and some private structures.

One wonders what $100,000 can do for a single building, let alone a number of them. I would award the entire sum to the South Berkeley Community Church, a City of Berkeley Landmark located at the intersection of Fairview and Ellis streets. This very distinctive building, designed by Hugo Storch in 1912, is sorely in need of restoration, and the congregation has limited means.

Let the loss of two distinctive buildings be compensated for in part by saving a third.


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