Parkside Branch Library: A Modernist Jewel

July 7th, 2020 No Comments »

Parkside Branch of the San Francisco Public Library in 2007, before renovation.

by Woody LaBounty

The Parkside District has no designated city landmarks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t buildings that qualify for such recognition and protection.

The Parkside Branch library building at 1200 Taraval Street was the first of eight Modern-style city branches constructed by the architectural firm of Appleton & Wolfard between 1951 and 1966. Parkside’s design, admired for its “smart and functional cheerfulness,” broke the mold of previous branch libraries and created a popular new model for the San Francisco Public Library system.1

Set in the city park of McCoppin Square, Parkside’s design was markedly different from the imposing classical grandeur of the Mission, Richmond, Sunset, and Park branches. Instead of formal staircases, lofty ceilings, and fluted columns, the Parkside branch was more like a cozy suburban house with comfortable seating, natural light from angled windows, exposed toned clay brick walls, and even a fireplace. Like a midcentury ranch home, it had a patio (perhaps not as comfortable as hoped for in the foggy climate) and was surrounded by planters and landscaping (designed by master architect Lawrence Halprin) that wouldn’t have been out of place for a commuter’s domicile down the peninsula.

The Parkside branch library opened in 1951 with open space for reading with comfortable contemporary furniture and a fireplace. (Phillip Fein photograph, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAD-8582.)

The Architect and Engineer magazine described its appearance as “a good deal like a refined night club with its gay turquoise, yellow, and natural brick color scheme.” That was all right with City Librarian Laurence J. Clark: “Smart entrepreneurs make their cocktail lounges so attractive that you can’t help but stay on for another drink. Why not libraries?”2

As the San Francisco’s historic context statement on Modern architecture notes, the Parkside branch “embodied the then current library theory that called for attractive, inviting and casual library buildings that were in harmony with their surroundings.”3

Opening in June 1951, the Parkside branch was an immediate hit with patrons. In its first year, book circulation grew 250 percent over the previous branch, which had been housed in a Taraval Street storefront. By 1954, Parkside owned the largest circulation of the then 21 city branches. The city’s Planning Department quickly pointed to the Parkside Branch as the “pilot project and proving ground for the entire program of public library building and expansion in San Francisco.”4

Parkside library’s large windows brought in light and views of the landscaping of McCoppin Square. (Morley Baer photograph, Sound Business Magazine; San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAD-8587.)

Harold Wolfard is credited with bringing a Modernist aesthetic to the firm he led with Abraham Appleton, and later Appleton’s son Robert. The San Francisco library branches commissioned to Appleton & Wolfard over the next fifteen years shared an influence from informal Scandinavian design. The Marina (1953), Ortega (1955, demolished 2009), Merced (1957), North Beach (1958, demolished 2013), Eureka Valley (1960), Western Addition (1965) and Excelsior (1966) branches all shared similarities in scale, spacing, and craftsmanship as one-story, open-floor-plan buildings set in landscaped lots or parks with trellises, patios, fireplaces, and exposed masonry.

Despite being hailed soon after opening as “the finest branch library in the country,” the Parkside branch library is not recognized with any official historical designation or protection.5

San Francisco’s Appleton & Wolfard-designed libraries were nominated together as city landmarks in 2009. The Planning Department determined that the Parkside branch met the requirements for individual National Register eligibility under Criteria A (events), as conveying the broad trends in post World War II American library programming and design, and Criteria C (architecture), for displaying the character-defining features of Appleton & Wolfard’s civic architecture work in the city. With the Marina, Merced, North Beach, and Eureka Valley branches, the Parkside branch was also found to be part of a thematically related Multiple Property Listing.

Parkside Branch Library at 1200 Taraval Street, February 2020.

But large bond-funded branch renovation projects were under way, including at Parkside, so a request was made by the Library Commission to remove Parkside from landmark consideration until after renovation, so as not to delay completion. On September 16, 2009, the Historic Preservation Commission agreed that Parkside met the eligibility for listing on both the National Register and California Register of Historical Places, and warranted city landmark designation. The commission directed the Planning Department to calendar initiation of landmark designation for review after the completion of renovations. The Appleton & Wolfard Marina branch library made it through to become City Landmark #262.

The Parkside branch reopened in November 2010. The renovation was sympathetic and careful to respect Appleton & Wolfard’s influential design and vision. The building still appears to carry its significant characteristics and feeling. Now may be the time, more than a decade after it was “calendared” for city landmark consideration, to give the Parkside branch library its due.


Notes:

1. Bob Strebeigh, “Our Neglected Libraries: Branches New and Old,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 18, 1952, pg. 17.

2. The Architect and Engineer, March 1952, p. 34; “At Last, A Library With a Clubhouse Look,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 1951, p. 9L.

3. Mary Brown, “San Francisco Modern Architecture and Landscape Design 1935–1970,” San Francisco City and County Planning Department, p. 63.

4. Tim Adams, “Dedication Tomorrow for New Marina Library,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 1954; “Report on a Plan for the Location of Public Libraries in San Francisco.” San Francisco Planning Department. April 1953, page 34.

5. The Architect and Engineer, March 1952, p. 35.

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