San Francisco/Main

San Francisco/Main, San Francisco County

San Francisco area, San Francisco Bay Area region

The Old Main Library
Civic Center
San Francisco, CA 94102

opened 1917
Public library from 1917-1995
currently the Asian Art Museum

grant amount: $375,000
architectural style: Italian Renaissance
architect: George Kelham


A substantial library history preceded San Francisco's Carnegie libraries, including the 1851 Mercantile Library for young working men of the merchant class, 1853 Athenaeum organized by and for African Americans the 1854 YMCA library and, in 1855, the Odd Fellows library and the Mechanics Institute. Several of these groups provided buildings for their libraries and the history of their support is colorful. Mechanics Institute president Andrew Hallidie was instrumental in passage of the Rogers Act of 1878 which provided means for California municipalities to build public libraries around the nucleus of the old social membership libraries. Although itself excluded from provisions of the Rogers Act, San Francisco's first public library dates from that year. The first branch, Mission, dates from 1888 and there were six branches by 1906 when the main library, then in City Hall, and branches suffered severe loss in the earthquake and fire. Earlier, then-Mayor James Phelan had requested Carnegie funding and on June 6, 1901, received the promise of $750,000.

San Francisco's Old Main Library is the only true example of Italian Renaissance Beaux Arts design among California Carnegies. Architect George Kelham was selected following an architectural competition; the building was said to be modeled on the Detroit Public Library. Italian and local marble was used, and dominant features are the widely spaced paired Ionic columns above the first floor entrance, the life sized statues in the intervals between the pairs. Interior murals are also notable. The Old Main occupies the full width of its block on Larkin Street between Fulton and McAllister streets, and is adjacent to the new main library at Larkin and Grove streets. It remains a primary contributor to the Civic Center plan, California's most clear cut example of City Beautiful influence following the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and is within the Civic Center historic district. The Old Main is now being restored and reconfigured to house the Asian Art Museum which will move from Golden Gate Park.


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