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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Revamped Harvey Milk Library Looks Like Hugh Hefner's Crash Pad

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge Yep, it's the only working fireplace in the San Francisco library system. Sadly, hot toddies are not permitted. - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • Yep, it's the only working fireplace in the San Francisco library system. Sadly, hot toddies are not permitted.

Make of this what you will: The Harvey Milk Memorial Library in Upper Market, which will reopen on Saturday after a 20-month retrofitting and renovation, looks as good as it possibly can.

The wood paneling on the ceiling and abundant natural light combine to make the library's smallish interior look much larger than it really is. The children's section is utterly adorable.

click to enlarge The interior of the Milk Memorial library no longer looks like a teacher's lounge - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • The interior of the Milk Memorial library no longer looks like a teacher's lounge
And there's even an adult's section -- sort of. A working fireplace adorns the library's entrance, sandwiched in-between long, rectangular counters that all but cry out for a row of mini-skirted platinum blondes fronted by a leering Hugh Hefner in a silk smoking jacket. It's a shame you can't puff away on your Cavendish blend and sip a fine single-malt scotch in the library anymore.

Finally, thanks to the retrofitting that went along with the renovations (total cost: $5.5 million), the building is no longer so nondescript and pedestrian that it'd be a shame to be crushed by falling debris within it. Now it'd be a perfectly acceptable building to expire in, but, odds are, you won't.

It really is a charming little library -- on the inside. But, here's the rub: The Milk branch is one of eight surviving city libraries crafted by the local architecture firm Appleton and Wolfard. While the buildings' enthusiastic -- and persistent -- devotees employ the term "mid-century modern," those less enamored with the style might describe it as "Brady Bunch" or "So eerily similar to my elementary school that I'm looking for a wicker basket to throw my milk ticket in."

click to enlarge The library glimpsed through the bear cutout on one of its adorable little kiddie chairs - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • The library glimpsed through the bear cutout on one of its adorable little kiddie chairs
Could the city have erected a brand new library that doesn't look like the squat, brick version of a Soviet factory for less than $5.5 million? It's rather likely. Could it have happened without inducing a blood feud from the city's preservationists? No, no, and no. In fact, tempers are now flaring over the fate of the Appleton and Wolfard-crafted North Beach branch library. Another "fine example" of "mid-century modern" library architecture, work on this one could cost close to double the Milk's price tag -- all to preserve the historic edifice of a structure that is not only extremely foreboding to the disabled, but resembles a lavatory at a National Park.

By the way, the city's Historic Preservation Committee has initiated landmark designations on five of the eight A&W-built libraries: The Milk branch, Excelsior, Marina, North Beach, and Western Addition. Not to belabor the point, but just because these libraries are "fine examples" of a charmless, industrial style, does that mean we should pour precious millions into largely preserving them as-is? (Try telling that to the disabled guy who has to leave if he wants to use the john in at least one of these buildings).

Take a look at the McCreary Branch library building which, damaged in the '57 Daly City quake, was subsequently demolished to make way for the Milk branch's current incarnation, which stands on the same site. Which do you prefer? This or this? And it gets worse: Here are the interior shots: Old and new.

Look, there's no comparison. The building destroyed by the Daly City quake was replaced by a structure resembling Daly City. Frankly, I wish the preservationists had put their feet down 50 years ago. Back then they had something worth preserving. 

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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