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May 8 / Avery Moore

A Tale of One Library

South Branch Library located at the corner of Russell Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Berkeley. Photo: David Wakely Photography

The new South Branch Library in Berkeley opened a year ago last May, after four long years of programming, design, demolition, and rebuilding. Its community is now back in force. Adults line up early to claim a computer, seniors select from a choice of lounge chairs, and children crowd into story hours. A small sign on the storefront of the Teens Room lets everyone know that after 2pm this is teens-only space.


The new building had a serious reputation to live up to, having replaced a 1961 library– designed by the offices of prominent mid-century modernist Hans Ostwald. In its early years, the original library had a well designed, simple elegance– two small rooms framed with concrete block walls, the highest blocks filled with colored glass. A pyramidal hemlock ceiling with center skylight capped the main adult reading room.


But by 2008, South was the smallest and arguably the most rundown of the City’s four branches. It had major seismic and ADA issues, was outdated and outgrown.

The Browsing Room. Photo: David Wakely Photography

We met this design challenge in several unexpected ways. Where the 1961 structure turned deliberately inward, with site walls screening views in and out, the new library windows open broadly to the street. Where the former library had a quiet repose and low profile, the new central browsing room rises 24 feet in height, filled with daylight and cooled by operable clerestory windows. At the far east end of the room, leaf-patterned art glass from Skyline Design brings in more light while providing privacy from and for the adjacent Thai Buddhist Temple.

The Tool Lending Library in action - see their impressive inventory online. source

The Tool Lending Library in action – see their impressive inventory online. source

For 35 years, the South Branch has shared its small site with the city-wide Tool Lending Library, a well loved program that lends tools free of charge to Berkeley property owners or anyone over 18 with a Berkeley Driver’s License. Opened in a trailer on the property in 1979, the program relocated 12 years later into a trailer-sized building attached to the existing library. Tools eventually overflowed into a variety of claimed spaces around the site. The new library design provided a larger, 1,000 square foot combined public and workshop space, where dedicated staff offer everything from a weed whacker to extension ladder or cement mixer.


Bold “Library” letters pinned off exterior steel trellises now announce both library services to the surrounding residential community. The bright yellow and brown color palette takes its cues from the prototypical Tool Box and construction machinery.

Bold signage inside and out. Graphics by RSM Design

Bold signage inside and out. Graphics by RSM Design

Over the past five years, all four of Berkeley‘s branch libraries were improved under a voter-approved $26 million bond measure. At South, people wanted more space for users and staff, improved technology, and better lighting. The building design includes energy efficient features throughout, from solar roof panels to radiant flooring. On the practical side, users really needed more places to sit, and we gave them that in spades, upping the seating count from 21 to 87, including benches overlooking a small Zen garden on the east side.


Opening this new facility was neither quick nor easy. It was a lengthy process of public meetings, hearings, and environmental review. There were also legal proceedings over whether to partial preserve and expand the existing facility. Working with a subcommittee of the Berkeley Landmarks Commission, our team in the end determined that surrounding the original adult reading room with new additions would not be architecturally respectful nor as functional as new facilities. Drawings and photographs of the 1961 library are now archived at the Main Branch. By 2011, the Environmental Impact Report was approved, the lawsuit settled, and the new South Branch went forward.


Such success stories do not happen without steadfast public and private commitment: A Board of Trustees, Library Director and staff who supported each library team and program; the Berkeley Public Library Foundation which raised more than $4 million for new furnishings and equipment at all four branches; a construction manager who oversaw multiple construction projects; a dedicated contractor who machined each salvaged piece of hemlock ceiling from the original reading room ceiling to be reused in the new community room.

(c)Wakely813410 cropped

One of the hallmarks of the original building was its peaceful quality. We retained that, even with the much more outward-focused, naturally lit space. We kept the interiors spare and consistent, bringing the exterior’s warm rust and sand-colored finishes inside. In lighting and materials, we aimed for simplicity– cedar siding, porcelain tile, a combination of maple and reclaimed cypress millwork. A Stephen De Staebler sculpture, previously hidden in a dark corner, was cleaned and re-installed in prominent view, with new mosaics commissioned from Gina Dominguez nearby.


South Branch has long served a well-established, diverse, historically lower-income population. At the corner of Russell Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, it is easily accessible by bus and bicycle, by BART and by foot. Close to several public schools, it’s also two blocks from the new Ed Roberts Campus, which provides a range of services to the disabled community. When longtime patrons came through the front door during the branch’s reopening last year, we saw them look up in amazement at the clerestory-lit browsing room. It was also great to see people in wheelchairs, one with a companion dog, move freely through the tiled open lobby– not possible before.


Everything about the users is diverse—age, background, abilities, needs, reasons to come. —but they all share this community place.


avery1 bwAvery Taylor Moore is a Principal at Field Paoli with over 30 years of experience. She oversees our higher education and community projects. Avery is currently working on the UC Davis Memorial Union Renewal.   

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