21 July 2010

Public library demolitions

Adult reading room, South Berkeley Branch Library

We are dismayed to learn that the Library Board of Trustees is planning to demolish two branch libraries: West Berkeley and South Berkeley. The Library Bond Measure FF, which passed in the November 2008 election, promised an altogether different outcome. The ballot language specified that “bond proceeds would be limited to renovation, construction, seismic, and disabled access improvements, and expansion of program areas at the City’s four neighborhood branch libraries” and that “plans for renovation include restoration and refurbishment of historic features at the branch libraries as part of any renovation.”

The West Berkeley Branch Library (William K. Bartges, 1923) was designated a Structure of Merit in 2003, and any application for a demolition permit should require CEQA review and a public hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The South Berkeley Branch Library, designed by John Hans Ostwald in 1960, is one of Berkeley’s Mid-Century Modern gems. Although not a designated landmark, it was identified as architecturally significant and is undergoing CEQA review (see the Initial Study). The 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.

Ostwald, who died at the age of 49 in 1973, designed other public buildings in Berkeley (the Bancroft Center and St. John’s Presbyterian Church are two) and numerous residences. His name guarantees immediate interest when one of his coveted residences is put on the market. In the the South Berkeley Library, Ostwald created an intimate structure on a domestic scale that fits within the surrounding neighborhood. The low building is constructed of concrete block (intended to be left unpainted) and has eaves broad enough to shelter the entrance walkway. The indoor-outdoor esthetic is further enhanced by an outdoor reading patio. The use of natural wood gives a feeling of warmth to the two reading rooms—one low-ceilinged and intimate, the other lit by a skylight in the apex of a high wood-paneled ceiling, whose four sloping sides dramatically echo the slope of the hip roof. The meeting room addition of 1974 was designed by Ostwald’s office, and its design is highly compatible with that of the original library.

In the Branch Libraries Facilities Master Plan released in July 2008, historic consultant Frederic Knapp stated that “Ostwald was a relatively prolific architect, achieving recognition in the region for designs exemplifying many contemporary architectural values. It appears the property is eligible to the California Register for its association with him and potentially for its design characteristics.”

In the same Facilities Master Plan, Noll & Tam Architects recommended the following (italics ours): Stabilization and repair: The exterior portions of the original building are among its most deteriorated features, though they appear very easy to restore. The concrete block, windows, trim, and other portions should be repaired and repainted as needed. Reversal of incompatible alterations: The adult reading room could be restored in large part by removal of the existing lighting, repair of the original ceiling, and replication of lost features. Restoration of the original lighting would measurably increase the historical integrity of the building in a way likely to be readily understood by many visitors. The same is true of the skylights.”

One alternative to demolition should be relocation of the library to a nearby site. We hope that the Environmental Impact Report will include an evaluation of alternative sites for a new library building and options for adaptive and sensitive reuse of the existing building.

See BAHA’s EIR scope comments.

Comments may be sent until 16 August 2010 at 5 pm to Aaron Sage, City of Berkeley Planning Dept., 2120 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704, or by e-mail to asage@cityofberkeley.info.


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