Renowned and in the Red, Marin Library in Danger of Closing
An elderly Frank Lloyd Wright stood on a hillside in 1957 and envisioned government offices anchored by a cavernous domed library symbolizing a center of knowledge.
Three decades later, Marin County is considering closing its main library, the center of the famous architect’s last major work, to help offset a $1.4-million deficit in the library system.
The debate has brought an outcry from parents and architects, who consider the building a national treasure.
“It’s kind of sad that this is the legacy we’re leaving to Frank Lloyd Wright,” said PTA president Harriot Manley.
Other cities and owners of Wright buildings have grappled with the expense of maintaining his grand designs. One in five of the 500 buildings he designed was destroyed. Others were converted to bed-and-breakfasts, offices and gift shops.
“Would you throw away a Van Gogh because the painting isn’t in perfect shape? His buildings are also works of art of that caliber,” said Gheda Gayou of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago.
Library Operating on Contingency Fund
Wright died three years before the library was completed in 1962, but his design was mostly upheld--the library sits atop the four-story county government building, directly above the supervisors’ chambers.
“He told me, ‘We’ve got the seat of learning above the seat of government,’ ” said San Francisco architect Aaron Green, who oversaw the construction. “He said the children of the county would have to go through the halls of government to get to the library. That in itself is an education.”
Green, now 81, said it makes little sense that one of America’s wealthiest counties can’t afford to maintain its main library.
The library system lost $1 million in a budget cut several years ago and is operating on a contingency fund that will run out next year. Raising taxes would require a ballot measure. Instead, library commissioners suggested closing the central branch, which would save $894,000 a year. They will vote April 14 whether to recommend closure to county supervisors.
“The commission has an overall responsibility for a whole library system and keeping it working,” commission member Larry Kramer said.
There are nine other libraries in the county, but none stands out like the one at the Marin County Civic Center, about 15 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The structure, topped by a massive teal-blue roof and glistening gold spire, was featured in George Lucas’ futuristic movie “THX1138" and the 1997 science fiction film “Gattaca.”
Residents continue to embrace the library even if the inside seems dated. Getting there requires climbing stairs and an escalator, limiting access for the handicapped. The space under the 25-foot-high dome, which Wright intended as an open reading room, is cluttered with stacks of books.
The old man also would not have been pleased by other changes at the civic center, which include a leaky roof over what he envisioned as an open-air mall, and a jail that was added in 1994, Gayou said.
Wright cared deeply about how his buildings would be used--he was even known to go into the houses and rearrange the furniture, said Gayou, who is preparing to send a “letter of concern” to Marin County’s library commissioners.
“He was very eccentric and definitely had a vision for what he thought his architecture should be,” she said. “If they’re saying the library at the civic center is not important, then who knows what’s next? The whole thing can’t be a jail.”
If it is closed, a new home would be needed for the library’s California History Room, a 7,000-piece collection of early maps, extensive Wright documents and material on nearby San Quentin Prison.
Higher Taxes Could Give Building New Lease on Life
It isn’t the first time residents have rallied behind the library.
In 1961, Supervisor William Fusselman, a candy-factory owner, wanted the civic center, then partially built, to be turned into a hospital. In 1983, supervisors voted to move the library because of a similar budget deficit. Protests put an end to both plans.
At least one library commissioner predicted that elected officials wouldn’t dare close the library after so much opposition, which has included a petition and a “read-in” by about 250 parents and children on the civic center’s steps. Supervisor Frank Kress said higher taxes may be the only way to keep the library open.
Whatever the outcome, Marin County architect Marielle Rutherford said Wright would be proud, not dismayed, if he were alive today.
“Once again it shows that the public is very vocal about defending this building,” she said. “And it proves Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea, that the library is an icon of the democratic process.”