The Welwood Murray Memorial Library (1940), built shortly after Palm Springs’ incorporation, is the oldest intact civic building in the city. You probably know this building well, located in the middle of downtown, at the southeast corner of Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon. Designed by John Porter Clark (our first resident architect), the library’s green concrete trim and clean lines have made the building a favorite for decades. During its early years, the library served as a focal point of the city’s cultural life; in its courtyard the Palm Springs Historical Society was born. Along with the Clark, Frey and Chambers-designed city hall and fire station, and the later Cody-designed Library Center, it is part of a collection of civic buildings that attest to our local love affair with modern architecture.
So when funding for updating the library was secured, many in the community were excited. That excitement has recently turned to disappointment. For what is being proposed is not a sensitive restoration but rather an insensitive remodeling that includes demolition of the library's historic fabric. A reasonable person might ask the obvious, “How can this happen to such an important and historic building?”
Many years ago, as I drove with architect Eason Cross in our east coast neighborhood of Hollin Hills, I asked Cross why someone had chosen to put a gaudy colonial carriage lamp on their simple modernist rancher. He replied without a moment’s hesitation, “They don’t know…they think it looks good!” Certainly those involved with the library project are well-meaning and have no malicious intent, but there seems to be a fundamental lack of appreciation about the importance of the library and the value of its authenticity.
Many folks think that historic preservation is some arcane science. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The U.S. Secretary of Interior has established simple, straightforward standards that local governments are encouraged to follow for the treatment of historic properties. Compliance with these standards safeguards the features that make these buildings significant…and helps the city avoid unfolding debacles such as the Welwood Murray Memorial Library project.