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Hidden Wonders, Episode Seven: Powell Library

(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Savannah Tate

March 6, 2018 1:24 p.m.

UCLA’s beloved Powell Library has not always looked the way it does today. After the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, the building underwent a renovation and restoration process by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects — with consultation by historic preservationist David Kaplan. Host Savannah Tate speaks to Neal Matsuno of MRY Architects about the visible divisions between historic and contemporary design in the library, while Kaplan explains the role of historic preservationists in this restoration process.

Savannah Tate: This is Hidden Wonders, a podcast that discovers hidden stories, details and effects in the architecture of our everyday spaces at UCLA. I am your host, Savannah Tate.

You are likely intimately familiar with the following building. You’ve likely spent hours within its hallowed walls, studying furiously for your next midterm. Or simply taking a nap. This building is one of the original, core structures of campus. This building is Powell Library.

But Powell has not always looked the way it does today. After the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, the ceiling of the reading room was severely damaged. Additional improvements were also needed to make the library both seismically stable and wheelchair accessible. A restoration and renovation project was in order, and Moore Ruble Yudell Architects stepped up to the task.

Neal Matsuno: So there was a lot of very careful research and design done to source the original materials of the brick… Fortunately we could find the original manufacturer for the terracotta, and with some careful matching and testing they were able to replicate not only the color but also the fine comb texture that is unique to this building.

TATE: This is Neal Matsuno, a principal at MRY Architects.

He is referring to the brick exterior of Powell, which was restored during this project. The firm’s attention to the original manufacturing of the brick reflects the general care MRY architects took to preserve the historical elements of the building. Matsuno took me on a tour of Powell to highlight which areas of the library MRY merely touched up and which areas changed more drastically. We started in the front lobby.

MATSUNO: So we’re standing in the main entry vestibule. And all of this decorative tile and terracotta work was painstakingly restored and cleaned. And so very much the original appearance was restored, including the light fixtures. Through photography of the original building, we were able to replicate the light fixtures. And then for those that weren’t existing but we knew we had to provide – like the sconces on the light wall there – were interpreted to be similar to the original style. And certainly in the kind of materials.

TATE: Matsuno gestured to the columns of the reading room on the ground floor. He said that the banding on these columns imitated the original columns of the lobby — but in an abstract, more contemporary style. Secondary spaces such as the reading room and nearby stacks were remodeled rather than restored, allowing Moore Ruble Yudell more freedom in their design choices. But Matsuno said the firm wanted to remain true to the original design intent.

MATSUNO: So that was an example of a space that was kind of a secondary historical space, but we were able to kind of play upon the original palette of color but reinterpret that with more contemporary materials and to be able to bring in more light. And the furniture you’ll notice in there, too, is not the kind of historical furniture that is present in the upper main reading room.

TATE: We entered the reading room of the west wing and walked towards the bathrooms. The bathrooms in this corridor were add-ons to the building, but MRY left the brick wall bare to highlight the original exterior of the library.

MATSUNO: And so we decided that we should just express where the old structure had been and not try to make it all pristine and make it look like it was brand new.

TATE: Matsuno said MRY wanted to remain true to the historic preservationist sensibility of drawing clear distinctions between what is historic and what is new.

MATSUNO: When you’re doing a historical renovation and addition, those are the kinds of nuanced moves, the rules that you kind of have to abide by… So if somebody was knowledgeable and looking at it — 50 to 100 years from now — they would be able to tell what was original and what was added.

TATE: The line between old and new is also apparent in the main reading room upstairs. Matsuno noted the various light fixtures. While the central fixture in the reading room is original, the fixtures in the rotunda imitate its sensibility in a simplified manner.

MATSUNO: For instance, you can kind of see… where the top of that original fixture has [this] kind of crenellated detail on the top. Whereas here [in the rotunda the fixtures are] just kind of simple and cylindrical. It was more of an interpretive way of thinking a little bit more simple. So when you looked up at the historical fixtures and compared, [the new fixture] had a very distinct relationship. But it wasn’t trying to be an exact duplication of it.

TATE: A separate architectural firm took painstaking effort to duplicate and restore the painted ceiling panels of the main reading room — which had been significantly damaged after the Northridge earthquake.

David Kaplan: Now the original structure was actually what is called black iron, and they’d taken horse hair and wrapped it in wet plaster — kind of made a ropish thing out of it. And they smashed that down on the back of these ceiling panels and then looped it over the black iron and then smashed it over the other end onto the back of the panel… So that’s what had shaken and why panels were damaged.

TATE: This is David Kaplan of Kaplan Chen Kaplan Architects, who oversaw the ceiling restoration process. To make the ceiling more seismically stable, KCK Architects designed a new backing for the ceiling and recast the beams with glass reinforced plaster — a lighter material than the original wood-dyed plaster.

In the meantime, the decorative panels were preserved, reinforced, and placed in individual drawers for safekeeping. About a half dozen panels needed to be recast entirely, which required specialists to use multiple stains and finishes in order to capture the original designs of famous muralist Julian Garnsey.

KAPLAN: So, you know, it was a participation of a lot of really interesting consultants, high quality subcontractors that were really involved in the work. It really turned out to be a successful project that added onto the seismic work that had already gone on.

TATE: Kaplan said that preserving campus architecture became a focus after the earthquake because the federal government offered funds for repairs and restoration on historic buildings. These projects required a historic preservationist consultant.

KAPLAN: Big institutions around the time of the ‘90s had started realizing that they had to do seismic upgrades. When the earthquake happened, that triggered a lot of work and really changed the whole approach. And this importance of preservation as part of the funding for these institutional buildings that were accepting government money also worked together with the realization that these buildings were nice resources for the campus.

TATE: The appeal of historic preservation has extended beyond college campuses to the historic neighborhoods and districts of Los Angeles. Kaplan explained that the California Environmental Quality Act — which evaluated the environmental impact of construction projects — also provided guidelines on protecting historical and cultural resources throughout the city.

KAPLAN: So there are designated landmarks. There are landmarks that are designated by the city. There are landmarks that are designated by the state or the federal government… But when you get into the CEQA, or California Environmental Quality Act, it asks essentially the same questions. So for example, if you’re going to do a project and you have to do an environment impact report, then you’ll have a historical preservation consultant as part of that who will write up what level of resource they think you are. And so it’s become what’s called the “eligible” — you’re eligible for the national register, you’re eligible for the California register.

TATE: But this designation does not necessarily qualify the building as historic. Kaplan said that a historic preservation consultant must perform additional research and surveys in order to demonstrate the building’s historical significance.

KAPLAN: And their criteria — [is it] associated with a famous architect, represent a certain style, [or is it] the last of its kind. There’s a very general one that is sometimes overused, which is “represents social movements of history”… So there’s a lot of voices on all sides of where exactly that meets the criteria.

TATE: Kaplan said that the issue becomes even more complicated when considering preservation as a method to promote sustainability.

KAPLAN: And some of these things that people are saying are really beyond what the original legislation was intended. There’s a word “significance” that shows up, and that’s the battle. What is significant? And what does that word really mean? You can make a profession out of it too. (Laughs)… (Preservation) does allow more things to be looked at… better consideration before you tear things down, or even better consideration for the neighbors… But at a certain point you have to pull back and see if it’s just a “no change” kind of mentality.

TATE: This “no change” mentality, as Kaplan explained, can affect the availability for new housing and transportation projects in Los Angeles. And with an ever-growing population, a scarcity of these resources may prove to be a significant issue. Kaplan suggested striking a balance between the two.

KAPLAN: I frequently say preservationists should go to Europe or to England and see very modern next to… or see larger buildings next to smaller buildings and, you know, does that really impinge from the history that you’re trying to get from that structure?

TATE: As more people move into Los Angeles, residents must learn to tolerate the changes that accompany these “growing pains.” And Powell Library, by accommodating both the modern and the historic, encapsulates this balance.

For Daily Bruin Radio, this is Savannah Tate. Thank you for listening to Hidden Wonders.

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