If a proposed renovation to the Palo Alto Main Library goes through, local school kids could work on projects together in four new group-study rooms. Book clubs would be able to discuss the latest best-selling novel or listen to an author lecture in a brand-new programming room.
A preliminary plan to add on to the Main Library got its first airing at the Historic Resources Board meeting Wednesday, receiving mainly approval while also sparking a discussion that highlighted the tension between old buildings and modern uses.
While the library's collections would not be affected by expansion, the space available to users would increase. The group-study rooms would be located at the east and west ends of the library. A larger addition, on the eastern side facing the Palo Alto Art Center, would include a programming room for book clubs and other events, as well as expanded restrooms. The addition would occupy space that is now lawn and shrubbery, but it would leave an historic round planter intact.
In their plans, architects from the firms Garavaglia Architecture and Group 4 strove to maintain the sense of openness and melding of indoor and outdoor space that architect Edward Durell Stone's design emphasizes.
"Group-study rooms would be tucked into existing roof overhangs, maintaining transparency and the indoor-outdoor continuity, as well as the building's T-plan symmetry," architect Mike Garavaglia said.
The addition will allow the branch to provide much-needed services to users, said library staff member Nancy Eldredge.
"We don't have a large public area for people to reserve for group activities, or a large public space for lectures," Eldredge said from her post at the circulation desk.
Palo Alto resident Kirsten Missett agreed.
"Compared to other libraries in neighboring communities, our libraries need to be upgraded, especially because Palo Alto values education so highly," she said, balancing a toddler in one arm as she helped her son check out books.
If the new programming space included children's programming, it could "teach young kids to value the library and educate them early about the resources libraries have to offer," she said.
Library patron Chris Bill, who was at the Main Library Wednesday with his son, Joseph, said he would probably attend lectures if they were offered.
Aside from the potential addition, however, the preservation of Stone's original vision for the Main Library steered board members' concerns throughout the meeting.
The 1958 structure, with its low horizontality, unadorned glass walls and terra-cotta screens, is a mix of Modernist and International style touches iconic of the late 1950s. The particular blend that Stone developed made him a popular choice not just locally -- he also designed City Hall, in whose airy chamber the board held its discussion -- but also with governments worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s.
Board members disliked a suggested dramatically upward-sloping roof, labeled a "ski jump" by board member David Bower, because it seemed to diverge from Stone's more staid structure. And they were hesitant to approve of environmentally friendly features that would alter the building's appearance.
"I'm a big proponent of solar, but I can't see those round white dots at night on top of the roof," said Bower, referring to suggested Solatube lighting, or glass orbs installed in the roof that architects said could replace existing yellowing skylights and function more efficiently than electric lighting as daytime illumination.
Board chairman Michael Makinen likened the lights, which would protrude from the otherwise level roof, to "pimples."
More to board members' liking were features that would carry over Stone's design into the new space. Architects suggested extending a metal grill down from an overhang in front of the new program room, which could echo the pattern of the terra-cotta blocks that wrap around the main structure, "taking some pieces of Stone's geometry and applying it equally to all four sides," Garavaglia said.
"The conceptual approach overall is appropriate," board member Roger Kohler said.
This emphasis on preserving the building's current atmosphere is important to regular library user and scientist Anna Spudich.
"I come here at least once a week just to get out of my home office. Architecturally, the atmosphere is quite nice, and I would hope they don't change it too much," Spudich said from an armchair in the reading room. "I can use the Stanford libraries but I'd rather come here."
"I like his design of the American Embassy in New Delhi, too," she added.
Aside from design concerns, another perhaps too-modern feature raised board members' eyebrows: the architects' suggestion to digitize the historical materials collections and move the materials to basement storage. Although the materials would be accessible by the very computers that would take their place on the first floor, board members Beth Bunnenberg and Carol Murden were skeptical that this plan would function smoothly.
If a user found desired materials on the computer, then paged it from the basement, "you'll still have to wait and wait for the materials" to be brought up, Murden said.
Bunnenberg, who joked that she "almost live[s in this library," because of frequent visits to use historical materials, among other resources, said the issue should be revisited at a later date.
The study session provided architects and the city's Public Works Department early feedback from board members. Renovation plans will be revisited in a second study session in October and a final report will be presented to the City Council in December.