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Midcentury Madness?
New SF preservation commission may landmark mediocrity
North Beach Library
Courtesy San Francisco Public LIbrary

San Francisco’s cramped North Beach branch library, a relatively unheralded midcentury structure a few blocks from the bay, has been on track to be replaced by a spacious new building by local firm Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects. But the plans may be derailed by the city’s new Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The commission is initiating landmark status for the North Beach branch, along with several other libraries designed in the 1950s and ’60s by defunct firm Appleton & Wolfard. 

The action may portend greater architectural conservatism in a city already known for its impediments to new building. If the libraries get the stamp, it will set a precedent in the city for landmarking a noncontiguous group of buildings, adding a “discontinuous historic district” to the existing categories of historic and conservation districts. In such a multiple-property listing, a whole group is under consideration: Individual buildings do not have to rise to the level of landmark-worthiness.

Preservationists argue that Appleton & Wolfard’s low-slung buildings are important socially as well as architecturally. They were part of the city’s second wave of public libraries, following the Carnegie libraries of the early 1900’s (many of which have been landmarked). Designed along a residential rather than institutional model, the libraries have open reading rooms, large plate-glass windows, and outdoor patios. “This group of libraries is a very good example of civic buildings of this period, and embody certain modern ideals, with a connection to the outdoors and a sense of transparency,” said architect Andrew Wolfram, one of seven HPC commissioners. “It’s a set of buildings that are unlike any other buildings in the city.” Consultants contracted by the city to perform a historical resources evaluation found that the North Beach branch “appears to be individually eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.”

But others in the architecture community are puzzled by the choice to elevate a body of seemingly minor works. “Appleton & Wolfard are not key names in the history of midcentury architecture in San Francisco, and this particular building has no architectural merit,” said Pierluigi Serraino, author of NorCalMod, who was commissioned by local residents to research the issue. Architectural historian Mitchell Schwarzer commented, “It’s a nice little building, but architecturally it doesn’t cry out for landmarking. On the other hand, there are a lot of great modernist buildings that are not on the landmark list, so there’s a kind of asymmetry here. Many of them are starting to hit that critical 50-year mark, so the remedy would be to make an effort to landmark the really important ones.”

The landmark initiative comes towards the end of a major library capital improvement effort, funded by a $106 million bond issue in 2000. The eight Appleton & Wolfard libraries were originally slated for renovation. According to city library staff, it quickly became apparent that remodeling the North Beach and Ortega branches would be impractical when the neighborhoods in question needed much larger spaces. Plans for new buildings were drawn up for both branches. After going through basic scrutiny by the planning department, which deemed it not a significant historical resource, Ortega was demolished this past September. The demolition drew the attention of the HPC, which decided to hold off on landmarking two other Appleton & Wolfard branches currently undergoing renovation, but to include North Beach.

HPC will weigh in on more buildings going forward, as new historic districts from the city’s neighborhoods survey—including SoMa, the Mission, Market/Octavia, and Bayview—come online. “If this collection of libraries becomes landmarks, one wonders what the selection criteria will be for determining a landmark,” said Marsha Maytum of Leddy Maytum Stacy. “It has ramifications for how we can evolve as a city and address challenges in the future.”

Lydia Lee