SF CHRONICLE: Battle over preserving North Beach Branch Library

SF Chronicle

Battle over preserving North Beach Branch Library
John King, Chronicle Urban Design Critic

Sunday, June 26, 2011

 Last year, as San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission called for the North Beach Branch Library to be declared a city landmark, I argued in print that the structure was nondescript at best.

The objection was futile, as I expected it would be. Here’s what I didn’t expect: Half a dozen respected local preservationists thanked me privately afterward for the piece. They, too, felt the library fell far short of landmark status, but hadn’t wanted to say so publicly.
I’ve thought about this reticence, and I suspect it’s partly why the preservation movement – a key element in the protection of our cities these past 40 years – has become the punching bag of detractors who say it’s out of control: Members too rarely call their brethren to task. They defer to the feelings of their most self-righteous – or cynical – allies, and they don’t realize that the image of extremism at some point could undermine the cause itself.

Not every proposed change spurs a fight, as you can see by the construction site where Timothy Pflueger’s Transbay Terminal stood from 1939 until last year. But contention is often the norm in such cities as San Francisco or Berkeley. A fervent voice declares this or that building to be of sacred value for this or that reason. More established preservationists either line up in support to show they aren’t a bunch of Victorian-hugging elitists, or keep a polite silence.

North Beach Branch Library is a textbook example of how a good movement can go astray.

The bunker-like structure at the corner of Mason and Greenwich streets is the fifth of eight branch libraries designed by Appleton & Wolfard, a local firm largely forgotten until the recent spat. It opened in 1959 with a design that – to quote the nomination to the National Register of Historic Places – “incorporated the popular, regional, suburban residential qualities typical of Mid-Century Modern Design in Northern California.”

You may think this definition is pablum, but the key word is “modern.” There’s a subset of preservationism that – rightly – feels modern architecture doesn’t get the respect it deserves. No matter that North Beach isn’t particularly good modernism, even by Appleton & Wolfard standards. By rallying around it, the larger community could feel it was striking a blow for all those gems that are under siege elsewhere in the country.

The nomination also touches on historic worth, which the register declares to be “significant” if a structure is “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.” In this case, the hook is that North Beach – I quote the nomination again – “was a reflection of principles of the modern public library promoted by the American Library Association after World War II.”

Language like this opens the door to the abuse of preservation, whether by a true believer, a clever obstructionist or a planner who views an older building only through the prism of impeccable restoration.

In the well-meaning effort not to be exclusive, the guidelines are so broad as to downplay architectural quality (who is to judge “quality” anyway, right?) and to exult all “patterns or trends in history” as equal. If someone is devoted or duplicitous enough to make a case for a particular structure, success is more likely than not; indeed, the State Historic Resources Commission moved the library’s nomination to the register to Washington with a 4-1 vote of support.

Even if boosters win a particular battle – and the library can be demolished as planned even if it does make it onto the register – the long-term effect is corrosive. Too many dubious “landmarks,” and at some point the common person will come to see the preservation movement as just another single-issue special interest group.

We need the historic preservation movement, because it defends our shared culture. And the more that its leaders accept the notion that not all old buildings are created equal, the stronger it will be.
E-mail John King at jking@sfchronicle.com. Submit your comment to The Chronicle at www.sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.


This article appeared on page E – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle