Saturday, July 2, 2016

When Beer and Architecture [Almost] Come Together

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

While driving through the small city of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County's vaunted wine country recently, I decided that the only logical thing to do was to stop for a beer. As is often the case with these things, this little impromptu stop led to an amazing architectural discovery - the Sonoma County Public Library and the legacy of architect Francis Joseph McCarthy. 

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

This past February during the raging El NiƱo storms, I spent a few weeks driving up the West Coast researching architecture and photographing buildings for upcoming book (yes, my timing was impeccable... more on that in another post eventually). When I hit Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, the one spot on my list that I didn't want to miss was Santa Rosa. Now, there was no architectural reason to stop in that city, as far as I knew. I was there for the beer. It may seem a bit incongruous to seek out breweries in California's wine country. But that region is actually one of the best places on the planet for that sort of thing, with breweries like Lagunitas (in Petaluma) and, of course, Russian River Brewery. 

Every year, around late February, Russian River makes a beer called Pliny the Younger, which is the subject of myths and legends, and is about as elusive as a unicorn. I'm a huge beer fan and have tasted most of Russian River's beers - but not that one. Seemed to me that since I was going to be in Santa Rosa in February while Russian River released their fabled beer, my odds were pretty good that I was finally going to get a glass of the magical, over-hyped elixir. 
Photo: Russian River Brewery

Alas, nope... 

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Photo from

I was greeted by crowds lined up out front of the brewery that snaked around the block - in the rain! It quickly became clear that this was not happening. I had no idea there were that many people in Sonoma County. 

But as I sulked back to my car across the street, I realized that I was parked in front of a very interesting modernist building in brick with redwood sculpted screens around it. At first, I thought it was some sort of phone or utility substation, because I saw the rear first. Then, I saw that it was actually the main library for the county. It's a beautiful building and I was surprised that I hadn't heard of it before - or the architect whose name was on a bronze plaque by the door - Francis Joseph McCarthy. 

This guy... 

mccarthy portrait
Francis Joseph McCarthy (1910 - 1965). Photo: Francis Joseph McCarthy Collection at the UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design.

Not to be confused with this guy...

Senator Joseph McCarthy was basically the Donald Trump of his day - at least as far as using xenophobia and demagoguery to further his political career. Google him if you're not familiar. 

It was grey and overcast, and starting to rain, and I needed to move on to my next destination. So I took a few quick snapshots and left - disappointed because the conditions weren't great, the library was closed at the time, and I doubted I'd get the chance any time soon to come back (I don't get to that part of the world very often).  But I filed that bit of info away and did some more research later.  

Quick snap from that morning discovery. Entrance to the library with Charlie Brown. Charles M. Schultz was from the area so there are a lot of references to him and his Peanuts characters, including at Santa Rosa Airport. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Overcast skies mean flat, dull light... But still, those screens and that fence! Photo ©Darren Bradley
Peaking over the stone wall at the courtyard. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Turns out Francis Joseph McCarthy was a well established architect in Northern California, specializing in library buildings and other institutional and civic projects. 

mccarthy rendering
Rendering of San Leandro Library by Francis Joseph McCarthy. This library was the envy of Santa Rosa when it was built.  See the YouTube video for lots of great view of this library, including all the Eames furniture. 
UC Berkeley School of Environmental Design Archives.

McCarthy was born in Sydney, Australia by American parents. He studied architecture at Stanford and the California School of Fine Arts, and then worked for William Wurster and a string of other architects before setting off as his own in 1941. 

McCarthy's work encompassed the full range of residential, municipal, and commercial commissions throughout California, before he came to specialize in library buildings. He designed the Stanford University Library, Santa Rosa Public Library, and Inyo County Public Library, among others. McCarthy was also a founding member of Telesis, an organization formed in 1939 by design professionals of varying disciplines who were interested in invigorating city and regional planning in the Bay Area. In 1957 he was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. 

I suspect that he's not more well known now because he died very young, of a heart attack at age 55 in 1965. 

But now back to the Sonoma County Public Library. Like many cities throughout the US in the late 19th and early 20th century, Santa Rosa's first public library was a Carnegie Library. 

carnegie library
The Santa Rosa Free Public Library was built with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 1904. This unreinforced granite building was severely damaged just 2 years later, in the great earthquake of 1906 that leveled San Francisco. But it was repaired and used until it was abandoned in 1960 after being deemed unsafe for use by the fire marshall. 

Only two years after it was built, the Carnegie Library was severely damaged in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It was made of unreinforced granite blocks, so it's a wonder it survived at all. But it was repaired and used for another 54 years until it was deemed too unsafe to use and evacuated in 1960. 

The library was then forced to relocate to a rented, second floor space in small, temporary quarters above a hair salon. Friends of the library produced a video at the time which contrasted San Leandro's modern library with all of the amenities, and "using all of the latest 20th century techniques designed for living" against the tiny, inadequate Santa Rosa Library. It was an attempt to shame the city fathers into building a new library. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 12.03.13 AM
One of the best scenes in the video is where this girl has to lead her two younger siblings past the entrance to a den of vice to get to the library. Poor girl looks terrified. 

It took a while, but the shaming worked. Turns out, McCarthy would design both libraries. 

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Photo from the cover of the pamphlet that was made for the inauguration of the library in February of 1967.
Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library. 
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Floor plan and additional information provided in the pamphlet printed for the inauguration of the library in February of 1967.
Courtesy of Sonoma County Library.

I didn't think I'd get the opportunity any time soon to return to Santa Rosa and visit the library. But fate can be funny that way, and only a few short months later, I found myself back there for another job. So now I have more photos to share. 

The Sonoma County Library is a beautifully preserved example of McCarthy's work, illustrating some of his characteristic design qualities such as the walls of glass and the sculpted redwood screens, which provide a regional aspect to his work, and elevate the building from utility to art. 

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View of the courtyard and sculpture garden of the library. The granite sculpture is called "Shadows of the Future", created in 1919 by Beniamino Bufano. Photo ©Darren Bradley
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Another view of the Bufano sculpture. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The wood sculptural screens also serve to keep the direct sunlight off all of that glazing. 

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Interior view. Too bad the Eames chairs aren't there anymore... Photo ©Darren Bradley

The overall effect is certainly spacious and filled with light. 

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

The interior is open and modern, just as the Friends of the Library had hoped, but there is a nice sense of restraint and calm, overall. 

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The book stacks. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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The original stained glass clerestories are an art installation by Donald V. Drury. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The stone walls use blocks of granite from the original Carnegie Library. The wood sections are another art installation. I assumed they were also designed by the architect, but they are actually by the sculptor Stefan A. Novak. They are made of redwood, like the screens. 

santa rosa library walls
Photo ©Darren Bradley

The library is remarkably similar to McCarthy's design for San Leandro Public Library, which is exactly what the citizens of Santa Rosa asked for in their newsreel. Even now, I was happy to see how the locals seem to appreciate their library. 

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View from the landing of the stairs. Photo ©Darren Bradley

A very special thank you to Ms. Vandy Tompkins, the Reference Librarian at the Sonoma Public Library, for her warm hospitality and wealth of information about the building, the history of the library, and the artwork. Recommend you go in and say hi if you get the opportunity to visit. 


Unknown said...
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Mridul Kabra said...
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Anonymous said...

That's really cool! Can we use some of those images on our blog?

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Destry Alecto said...

Francis Joseph McCarthy was an amazing architect. I own and live in a home designed by him in 1948 and it is very very modern for that time. It was in Sunset Magazine in 1949.

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