In the early 20th century, Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of seven community libraries in San Francisco. For Cow Hollow, one of the city's northern neighborhoods, the English-born architect Ernest Coxhead—known for his many churches throughout California—designed a petite but stately Beaux Arts building with the rounded profile of a basilica. "This is the nicest of the older branches," says Paulett Taggart, principal of Paulett Taggart Architects, who collaborated in a joint venture on a LEED Gold–certified restoration of the 1918 masonry structure with Tom Eliot Fisch, now known simply as TEF. With pale terra-cotta pilasters on the facade and 30-foot-high coffered ceilings inside, the 7,432-square-foot Golden Gate Valley Branch Library cuts a classical figure on this tree-lined residential street.
As part of the Branch Library Improvement Program, a ballot measure that funded seismic and accessibility upgrades for the city's aging catalogue of libraries, Golden Gate Valley came up for its modernization in 2007. Like mechanics repairing an engine, the architects took the building apart and then put it back together in better working order. To boost seismic safety, they removed the roof, saving the clay roof tiles, and inserted two steel moment frames into the library's north and south walls. The architects installed plywood sheathing and replaced the roof, putting the original tiles back everywhere except on the south slope, where they installed photovoltaic panels in a spot largely hidden from public view. "It went back together in such a way that it felt as if it was new again," says TEF principal Bobbie Fisch.
To let the original building do the talking, the architects avoided big interventions. Because the library's main floor is about five feet above street level, a typical wheelchair ramp would have had to wrap around half the building, including the east-facing apse. "It would have done so much damage to the iconic view of that curved wall," says Taggart. Instead, the architects designed an understated 700-square-foot addition at the library's western edge, set back from the street in a formerly empty courtyard. This simple wood and steel box, clad in neutral aluminum panels, houses an elevator and stairwell that serve the main floor and the lower-level community room.
Though the building lacked any historical designation, the library administration took the extra—and inherently sustainable—step of preserving the interior. Behind the scenes, the architects replaced the hot-water system with a high-efficiency boiler, reduced water usage by 39 percent by adding low-flow plumbing fixtures, and installed new fluorescent lights with sensor controls in intermittently occupied spaces. They also replaced the operable panels in the building's tall arched windows, allowing the library to rely entirely on natural ventilation. In part because the architects reused everything possible, the project achieved 98 percent construction-waste diversion.
What patrons see, though, is a lighter and brighter interior, relieved of decades' worth of ill-advised interventions. The architects removed acoustic ceiling tiles—which had been covering the ceiling coffers—and a mess of fluorescent bar lighting that looked more big-box department store than literary retreat. They emphasized the coffers' depth by adding acoustic plaster and a coat of off-white paint, and hung fluorescent pendant lights at the same intervals as the original fixtures. Concealed behind the cornices of the restored redwood and oak shelves, uplights brighten the walls and emphasize the height of the room.
Everywhere the architects made improvements, they took care to keep new and old from matching precisely. New segments of wood in the bookshelves have a subtly different hue, for instance. "It was a really light touch," says Fisch. "We didn't want to come in and make it look as if it all happened in the same era, but [we did want] to keep some of that character and that patina." By making their upgrades visible yet subtle, the architects delivered a modern library that preserves the authenticity of the original.