Public Comment

Why Architectural and Historic Death Sentences for Berkeley Public Library’s South and West BranchesShould be Rejected by ZAB and LPC -- Vote Scheduled Thursday, April 14, 2011

By Peter Warfield, Library Users' Association
Tuesday April 12, 2011 - 09:47:00 PM
The original facade of the West Branch library
The original facade of the West Branch library
The ceiling fixtures of the West Branch library
The ceiling fixtures of the West Branch library

An architectural and historic death sentence for two of Berkeley Public Library’s excellent branch library buildings -- demolition with replacement by new buildings -- is scheduled to be considered at a joint meeting of two Berkeley city bodies Thursday, April 14, 2011, and we think it would be a shame to condemn these two buildings to irreversible oblivion. 

Especially as very few people have ever seen the buildings as originally built. 

A joint meeting of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) and Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is to consider permits to demolish South Branch and West Branch libraries. The meeting is to begin at 6:00 pm in the Maudelle Shirek Building, 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, second floor, Council chambers. 

The West Branch library at 1125 University Avenue was named a Berkeley “Structure of Merit” several years ago. The South Branch library, at 1901 Russell Street, was considered eligible for landmark status by a report commissioned by the Library and published in 2008. 

The report title is, “Berkeley Public Library, Branch Libraries Facilities Master Plan, Volume II,and it said the following about South Branch library: 

“It appears the property is eligible to the California Register for its association with [architect John Hans Ostwald] and potentially for its design characteristics.” 

We wrote to ZAB and LPC about their consideration of permits and the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in a letter dated April 12, 2011 as follows: 

Both of these buildings have architectural and historic value for Berkeley and beyond, and deserve to be saved for their own qualities and for their association with excellent architects. 

Sadly, almost no one seems to have seen the beauty and charm of the originals. That is because renovations to West Branch in the 1970s obscure original features that are of excellent quality, and because South Branch’s features are also obscured by attic-like filling with bookcases and other equipment that blocks views of key features. 

For example: 

The West Branch façade on University is covered over by the 1970s renovation. And the coved ceiling with its “wood crown molding” is completely hidden by the dropped ceiling panels installed as part of that renovation. 

The South Branch has bookcases backed right up against the floor-to-ceiling windows that are at the front of the Adult reading room, and a similar arrangement in the Children’s room. The original idea of a welcoming appearance from outside -- passersby able to look into a place of reading and study and books -- instead has become the view of the backs of bookcases. 

Please examine some original West Branch views, which can be found in the Noll and Tam Facilities report commissioned by the library for six figures at this url: 

[Note the report can also be found using this shorter url:] 

Pages 71-72 show West Branch’s original and current façade; pages 74 and especially 75 show the current and original wood crown molding. 

Further, Page 122 shows two photographic views of the original South Branch library. Page 124 (top photo) shows the current situation of the backs of bookcases placed directly against the picture windows. 

With respect to the Final EIR comment responses [responses to public comments], they often appear dismissive and argumentative; we are glad to see that the mitigation measures have been tightened slightly, but the conclusion [provided in the Final EIR] remains: [if demolition were to occur, it would mean, for both branches,] substantial adverse change to a historical resource that “would remain significant and unavoidable.” [Emphasis in the original.] 

Please spare these worthy buildings for the use and enjoyment of all in the future. 

Members of the public can express their opinions at the meeting and by making written comment to the ZAB secretary at or at the street address c/ Steven Buckley, ZAB Secretary, 2120 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704. 

Peter Warfield is Executive Director of Library Users Association. He can be reached at 

Some of his previous Commentaries about Berkeley Public Library’s Measure FF - related plans have appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet since May, 2010, and can be found at (for the most recent),, etc. down to Additional excellent Commentaries in the Planet have been written by Steven Finacom, Judith Epstein, Helen Rippier Wheeler, and others.