After 30 years, the San Juan Capistrano Library still stands as an architectural marvel

The San Juan Capistrano Library. Photo by Brian Park
The San Juan Capistrano Library. Photo by Brian Park

By Jan Siegel

As the San Juan Capistrano Library celebrates its 30th anniversary, it is also undertaking the construction of a new bookstore. The city recently approved a $60,000 five-year loan to the Friends of the Library for the additional budget costs for the expansion project. The new project was awarded to the low-bidder from a group of eight in the amount of $327,000.

When the library opened its doors, it was the first public building built in San Juan Capistrano. The city was growing and the small store-front library on Camino Capistrano was simply too small. Following the passage of Proposition 13 in 1979, the Orange County Public Library was directed by the Board of Supervisors to develop a joint funding program in conjunction with local cities to build four new libraries. The libraries were to be around 10,000 square feet, housing 50,000 volumes with basic funding at $800,000. San Juan Capistrano wanted something more, so agreed to add an additional $1 million to the cost and to give the land, upon which the library would be built. The total cost for the library was $1.6 million, $200,000 under budget. The city asked the county to have local members on the Library Selection Committee.

The first thing that the committee did was announce plans for an international competition to determine the final design for this project. The city received 140 applications and the committee reduced that number to three finalists. The majority of the members of the committee selected architect Michael Graves. On January 5, 1981, Graves’ design was moved by Councilman Ken Friess, a committee member, seconded by Councilman Phil Schwartze and unanimously approved by the City Council. City staff was authorized to prepare a contract between the city and Graves.

Graves has his own architectural firm and was a professor of architecture at Princeton University in New Jersey. At the time that he received the contract for the library, it was his first public building and the first building he designed in California. The library won Graves an award from the American Institute of Architects in 1985. Today, he is recognized as a world leading architect.

In designing the library, Graves knew that the new church was going to be built across the street. A theme was born. “If the church is a temple to God, then the library should be a temple to Learning.”

Architect Michael Graves' modern design of the San Juan Capistrano Library earned him critical praise from his peers. Photo courtesy of Michael Graves & Associates/Barry Johnson
Architect Michael Graves’ modern design of the San Juan Capistrano Library earned him critical praise from his peers. Photo courtesy of Michael Graves & Associates/Barry Johnson

Since this was a public project, it was important to keep costs down. Graves did that by use of light and color and by using geometric shapes to take the patron from room to room. He also knew that for the next century, the library would have to be more than a repository for books in order to attract patrons, so he created the La Sala Auditorium. The Mission has Serra Chapel for a meeting room. The library has La Sala, where concerts, lectures, exhibits and meetings are held. A 1984 Architectural Review Magazine stated that “the San Juan Capistrano library is a casebook demonstration of the uses of space, scale, light, floor and processional circulation devices in a public building.”

The idea of a bookstore in a library was new in Orange County, but Graves had the vision to include one in his design. The only mistake was not building it closer to the front of the library. It is not currently visible from the street and patrons are not sure where it is located on the grounds. The new expansion will make the bookstore more visible and more profitable.

Graves not only designed the building but all of the interior furnishings as well: The tables, chairs, lamps, lighting fixtures, bookcases are all his designs. In the children’s section, the tables and chairs are scaled for young people so they feel more comfortable; in the toddler room the books go right down to the floor so youngsters can crawl to their favorite Dr. Seuss books.

The library continues to be an international landmark, with groups of architects visiting from Europe and Asia. On the 10th anniversary of the library, The Swallows Tale wrote, “The decision to proceed with the vision of Michael Graves has proven to have been an excellent one; an honor to the city’s past and a tribute to its future.”

You can spend a Moment In Time by visiting our special library, taking the Architectural Walking tour on Saturday mornings sponsored by Friends of the Library and by becoming a member of Friends of the Library.

A 26-year resident of San Juan Capistrano, Jan Siegel has served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 11 years and has been a volunteer guide for the Historical Society’s Architectural Walking Tour for 15 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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