By Jan Siegel
After being closed to the public for 15 months, the San Juan Capistrano Library reopened on March 7, 2023. This is the 40th anniversary of the renowned Michael Graves Library.
The community was looking forward to celebratory events for this anniversary. However, in my opinion and the opinion of many in the community, there is little to celebrate after seeing the “new” renovations.
All of the Michael Graves furniture and furnishings are gone! Yes, they are really gone. The Orange County head librarian has reiterated that statement to many people. And to make matters worse, no one in the City of San Juan Capistrano or San Juan Capistrano Historical Society had the option to acquire the items before they disappeared from San Juan Capistrano.
According to one library volunteer, he saw the furniture being moved out of the library last spring, but he was told not to worry, because “they were just taken out for the renovation work.”
Of the 33 branches of OC Public Libraries, the only library designed by a well-known architect is the one in San Juan Capistrano. In 1983, after much deliberation, the County of Orange and the city came together and mutually agreed on a new library for the city.
The city donated the land upon which the library would be built and the county would staff and maintain the inside of the library. The city would have control over the outside of the building. And now, that is all that is left of the Michael Graves design.
The inside now looks like every other public building with plastic chairs and tables. Michael Graves had designed not only the outside but all of the furniture, shelving, and lighting on the inside. Architects used to come from all over the world to see this library.
It was the first public building that Michael Graves ever built, and when he came to speak at the 25th anniversary of the library, he was still very proud of his building. By the way, at that time, Graves was in a wheelchair and had no trouble moving around the inside of the library.
When Graves built the library, having been selected from scores of applicants by the City Council, he was a struggling East Coast architect. Total cost for the building was $800,000. The renovations cost $2 million.
It cost as much for the renovation as the entire cost of the building and furnishings in today’s dollars. When Teri Garza was head librarian in San Juan Capistrano and she needed more shelving, she knew we could no longer afford Michael Graves’ items, but he was making items for home furnishings for Target stores.
Garza went to Target and bought Michael Graves’ shelving. They were not original, like the old furniture in the library, but they were his design. In those days, San Juan Capistrano librarians embraced how unique our library was.
Several years ago, when the Friends of the Library wanted to see what an expansion of the library would cost, Friends hired a local architect to draw up plans. They were sent to Michael Graves for his approval, and he tore them up, but he sent the library new plans at no cost. The library could not afford those plans, either, but it did result in the bookstore.
There had been cooperation between Michael Graves, the county, and the city for 40 years. Unfortunately, that cooperation does not exist anymore.
New Orange County Fifth District Supervisor Katrina Foley and her staff have been very helpful in tracking down how the furniture was removed without the knowledge of so many people in San Juan Capistrano. What the Foley staff found was that the county says the Michael Graves Group examined the furniture and determined it was not of historic or monetary value.
As a result, the furniture went through the county surplus process, where OCPL posted the furniture to govdeals.com in August 2020. However, due to the poor condition of the furniture, there were no bidders, and so the furniture was recycled. Staff also found out that the cost for all the new furniture was $170,660.80 and was purchased from the county master contract with G/M Business Interiors.
According to City Manager Ben Siegel, “Under the lease agreement with the County, the City is not in a position to prevent the interior items from being replaced or removed from the building.”
The press release put out by the city in December 2021 stated that “the library will temporarily be closed for the construction of interior improvements.” Improvements are better lighting and more computer stations.
They are not the removal of original, iconic furniture and furnishings, especially when no one was told or advised of such a move. What happened to cooperation? Although you can still spend a “Moment in Time” enjoying the design of the library building, you can no longer appreciate the inside of the library, which was a Michael Graves creation.
As we approach Preservation Month, save the dates April 22 for a look back in time at the Historical Society and May 6 for an appreciation of our old adobes by the San Juan Capistrano Docent Society. The importance of preservation has been magnified for San Juan Capistrano because of what has happened to the Michael Graves Library.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. 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.