Renewals/Returns: New Life of an Old Building – Part 2

 This is Part 2 of a two-part series featuring Chris Fraser. Read Part 1 or check out his work live.

MM: How did the idea develop for Renewals/Returns?

CF: I’ve been preoccupied with the link between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Public Library. If you walk in and around the museum you will find traces of the building’s former life. The names of literary greats, from Shakespeare to Goethe, adorn the outside. Epigrams line the perimeter of the central stairway, extolling the virtues of books. Get too bogged down in the details of the space, and it becomes difficult to see the museum housed within it.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Like many Bay Area residents, I’m concerned about the eviction crisis. What happens to a city when one group rapidly displaces another? Can a city preserve its civic memory? A city must be allowed to change if it is to remain vital. But do we have an ethical responsibility to preserve elements of the past? As a visitor to the museum, I might be struck by the history of the space. But as a resident, I am more concerned with stewardship.

Research for this project began at the new Main Public Library. I looked through archival materials, walked the space and paid attention to how people use the library. One of the librarians introduced me to a book on the history of the library. I was struck by the fact that the old library had reached capacity by the mid-1950s. Before renovations, the building at 200 Larkin Street had vaulted ceilings. It made for a beautiful space, but it also caused overcrowding. Officials had been trying to build a new library on its current site since the ’60s but were thwarted by budgetary constraints, apathy and a desire at one point to put the new opera house on that land.

I walked the space, inside and out. It’s incredibly vibrant, with a diversity I don’t usually associate with the city. The library is more than a collection of books. With classes and counseling centers, it serves as a hub for the community. Walking around the outside of the building, I noticed that the architects had made efforts toward introducing traces of the old architecture, most notably the cross-hatch pattern over certain of the windows.

Cross-hatch pattern over certain of the windows

I went from there to the museum. I was struck by just how busy it also was. I guess I’ve always been there on off hours. But on a Sunday afternoon, the museum matches the vibrancy of the library. With archival images of the old library in mind, I took a leisurely walk. I tried to imagine the Gottardo Piazzoni murals in the stairwell. During renovations, these murals were moved to the de Young. I tried to imagine the first-floor galleries as giant reading rooms and noticed that through a gap in the ceiling on the edge of the space, you can see clear up to the original ceiling. I lingered for over an hour in Samsung Hall, former home of the Reference Section. It is, in itself, a remarkable public space. It’s such a luxury. Rather than using it for exhibitions, it’s left empty. People walk in and stare. They look up, they walk, they interact. While I was there, two young women danced for at least 15 minutes. Evidently this was a ritual. They come often together.

This got me thinking about how the museum uses this space. Such care was put into preserving traces of the library, sometimes to the detriment of the work. Does the ornate ceiling on the third floor complement the art/artifacts? Do the inscriptions in the stairwell contribute to the appreciation of Asian art? I have my doubts on both counts. But they do perform the important task of maintaining civic memory. These elements prevent us from considering the museum as a place outside of time or place. They present the museum as a steward of heritage.

Interior of Main Library - Reading Room. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Interior of Main Library – Reading Room. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

MM: As you started your research for this project, you were telling me about conversations you have had with librarians who worked in this building when it was the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. What information did you gather from these exchanges and how did these conversations help to shape your thinking?

CF: The librarians I’ve spoken to are incredible. Not only have they helped me track down rare books, films and other archival materials, but they have also shared their own stories of the Old Main with me. Based on their enthusiasm, I would guess that no one else had inquired about the building in the past decade.

Andrea Grimes has a mind like a steel trap. She began working at the library in 1962 and was with the History Center at the Old Main. She directed me toward materials both in and out of the official catalogue, sent me home with a book on the inscriptions found in the Old Main/New Asian, and let me watch a documentary video from her own collection.

There is lingering angst over the move from the Old Main to the new. For all of its flaws, there is still great affection for the old, stately building. But the real ire is reserved for those library officials who presided over the move. In their zeal for an architectural marvel, they neglected to make enough space for the books already on hand. Upwards of 200,000 books were carted off to the dump to free up space.

On my second visit to the History Center, librarian Penelope Houston gave me a poem she had written in 2003. “On Visiting the New Asian/Old Main” recounts the poet’s first visit to the Old Main after its conversion to the Asian. In the poem, she senses the ghosts of the library—sounds of librarians shuffling and carts passing by—and mourns their absence. At the same time, she’s thinking about the newly waged war in Iraq. The library building is precious to her, but how does it compare to the preciousness of buildings, cultural histories and peoples the American forces were destroying?

Houston’s poem is reminiscent of the ode Edward Robeson Taylor delivered upon the dedication of the Old Main. In it, Taylor ties the opening of a new public library to the First World War. While Europe was destroying its cultural treasures, he observed, San Francisco was creating a new one for the ages. Separated by a century, the building remains personal for both Taylor and Houston. It’s more than a container for books or works of art or antiquities. It houses our fears and aspirations. It represents the collective memory of a people, needs and hopes.

Interior of Main Library - Delivery Hall. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Interior of Main Library – Delivery Hall. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

MM: What do you want to address through Renewals/Returns?

CF: I want these continuities and exchanges to be the subject of my project at the museum. The Asian Art Museum leaves the de Young but offers them the Piazzoni murals, as if in exchange. The Main Library moves to a new location but preserves elements of its former architecture. The Asian Art Museum renovates the former site of the library but preserves many of the former library’s most noteworthy features. Watching a video of someone walk through the old Main Library, I was drawn to a sign at the circulation desk that read “Renewals/Returns.” That phrase seems to encapsulate much of what I am hoping to suggest with this project.

Chris-Fraser-at-work

To mark these continuities, I will be covering certain windows in the museum with a daylight correction film that references the crosshatch window pattern. By emphasizing this one shared element, I wish to draw attention to all of the other ways in which the library and the museum participate in a linked history. Additionally, I will be reproducing a pamphlet made for the dedication of the building in 1917 for use as a tour map of sorts, emphasizing what remains and what has changed. Lastly, I will be adding ambient sound of some sort, taken from the new Main Library. Collectively, I am hoping these elements create confusion between past and present.

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