Historic photo of reading room of South Branch libray

The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association is opposing the city’s plan to tear down and rebuild the South Berkeley Branch and Tool Lending Library.

BAHA sent a letter to the planning department on July 16 protesting the proposed demolition because the existing building on Russell Street, designed by architect John Hans Ostwald in 1961, is an “architecturally significant building and a very fine example of Mid-Century Modern architecture.”

BAHA would like the city to either adapt the new design to save parts of the building or build a new branch library on another site.

“It’s a gem,’ said Anthony Bruce, BAHA executive director. “It’s a small building and it really shows some of he design esthetics of that period —the use of wood in the interior and the indoor-outdoor aspects of it “

The city is preparing an Environmental Impact Report on the proposed demolition, and is asking the public for comments by August 16.

Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Committee has already reviewed the design for a new building and has not expressed concern about the demolition. However, the committee will review the matter again after the city completes the EIR in the fall.

As part of the planning process for the branch library renovation program, library officials and the architect, Field Paoli, met numerous times with a subcommittee of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, according to Donna Corbeil, the director of the library.

The architects drew up various designs, including some that would have preserved the main reading room, which was built in 1961. (The library has been renovated twice since it was completed, once in 1974 to add a meeting room, and again in 1991 to add the tool lendng library.)

But those designs didn’t work well, according to a report prepared by the Planning and Development Department. In order to reuse the main reading room, the architects would have had to add a second story to the library, which would have required more staff.  Measure FF, which is funding the renovation of the branch libraries, expressly prohibits any of the funds from being used for new programming.

In addition, the eaves jutting out of the room are only 9 feet high and working those into a new design created a cramped and claustrophobic building, said Corbeil.

“It started to feel for everyone that it wouldn’t be a respectful interpretation of the current building by taking one piece and sticking it behind a new building,” said Corbeil. “It did not come together well from a design or operational perspective.”

“It’s a concrete block building,” she said. “It was a cute design for its time, but it was really built on the cheap. “

BAHA wants to “go on record saying this is an important historic resource,” said Bruce. Ostwald, who died in 1973 at the age of 49, also designed the Bancroft Center and St. John’s Presbyterian Church, according to the BAHA website.

“Berkeley has always sought out the best architects for school and civic buildings,” said Bruce.

BAHA is also opposed to plans to tear down and rebuild the library’s west branch.

If the new design is approved, the South Berkeley Branch and Tool Lending Library will be torn down in 2012 and will reopen a year later. The building will go from 5,400 square feet to 8,656 square feet. There won’t be any expansion of services, but there will be more computers and seating, the library will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the structure will be seismically sound.

While Corbeil is in favor of building a new structure on the site, she said the city wants to respect its citizens,

“This is the community’s library,” she said. “We are here to give our opinion, but it depends on what the community wants.”

Renderings of new South Berkeley Branch Library

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...