Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A Date with Lucky: a musical documentary and performance

Join us for the short award-winning documentary Getting Lucky and a set of live music. Private Eye by day, singer and artist by night -- that’s how Mr. Lucky rolls!

Directed by Oscar Bucher, Getting Lucky is an offbeat musical documentary about Pierre Merkl III, a.k.a. “Mr. Lucky”, a man of many faces and San Francisco’s most eccentric private detective.

Driving around The City in his 1961 New Yorker, Pierre recalls his days as investigator and conceptual figurative painter, alongside his nights under the stage lights as Mr. Lucky, performing punk to eclectic to jazz— at venues from Burning Man to Lincoln Center to Bimbo’s 365 Club to Windows on the World and beyond.

A love song to San Francisco, Getting Lucky is also a bittersweet warning that the great city is slowly losing its eccentric characters, and with it, its bohemian soul. Getting Lucky isn’t about luck-- it’s about the hard work, unrelenting confidence, and idiosyncratic creativity that it takes for an offbeat character like Lucky to exist at all.

Following the screening of the film (along with bonus shorts) Mr. Lucky & the Cocktail Party will perform live on the Koret stage.

Co-presented by the Art, Music and Recreation Center and the San Francisco History Center’s S.F. Punk Archive.

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019
6:00pm - 7:30pm

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Main Library Columns, pt. 1

A previous blog entry on the influence of Labrouste's libraries on the James Ingo Freed designed Main Library discussed the prevalence of circular columns, especially around the building's atrium.

This entry will focus on the five circular columns on the atrium's west side (toward Larkin Street), numbered 1 to 5.

Paired columns 1, 3 and 2, 5 lie on an imagery vector from the building's center at the Larkin Street side to the atrium itself.  Column 4 falls within the line between columns 3 and 5, and at an angle that parallels Market Street outside (a design feature that also positions the Periodical Reading Room on the 5th floor).

These columns extend from the Library's Lower Level to its roof.  Incorporated into walls, they are not visible on the Lower Level, but they emerge into the open in the Fiction / Browsing Collection of the First Floor.

Columns 2 abuts a book shelf and Column 5 is positioned near the Mary Louise Stong Conference Room.

Columns 4 and 5 on the first floor mark the end of the marble floor surface.

The second floor presents these columns in a more open manner.  Viewed  from the Talking Books and Braille Center, Columns 3 and 1 (left to right) are at the foreground straddling the bridge across to the Center. In the background columns 4 and 2 frame the entrance to The Mix.

From the Larkin Street entrance Column 1 follows the line that extends from the building's center and is a tangent to the circular atrium (Column 3 is just behind it along the same line).  A little bit of the First Floor is visible below.

Column 4 backs the stand announcing Library events visible to patrons entering from Larkin Street.  Column 5 is paired with it inside The Mix.

Another view shows column 2 is positioned just outside the Mix / Teen Center, while column 5 is captured within.

Column 5, isolated at the entrance to The Mix helps form a small nook.

Columns 4, 5 and 2 on the third floor break up sections of desks and shelving.

On the fourth floor, Columns 5 and 2 wedge a table of internet computers.  Column 5 directly support the Periodical Reading Room above, while column 2 abuts it.

Columns 2 on the fifth floor is directly outside the glassed in Periodical Reading Room, while Columns 4 and 5 fall along a diagonal line bisecting the room.

Column 2 rising continuously from the fourth floor to the roof supports Alice Aycock's Cyclone Fragment sculpture (column 4 is visible in the distance inside the Periodical Reading Room).

Aycock's other sculpture, Functional and Fantasy Stair envelopes Column 3 at the other end of the room.  Column 1 (normally paired with Column 3 does not extend into the Fifth Floor).

On the Sixth, Columns 3, 4 and 5 resolve into a line that guides the railing that extends above the Periodical Reading Room.

The columns on the opposite side of the atrium (on the building's Hyde Street side) will have a different story to tell in a later entry.

Previous entries:

The Altes Museum and the Main Library (March 6, 2019)

Rotunda Resonances in the San Francisco Main Library (March 25, 2019)

 Labrouste's Libraries, Structural Columns and the Main Library (May 9, 2019)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty

The Art, Music, & Recreation Department of San Francisco Public Library is currently hosting an exhibition centering around a forgotten man of many talents and trades but whose final claim to fame would rest on him being an actor known at the height of fame as M. B. Curtis.

Born as Moritz Bertrand Strelinger, he immigrated with his family at the age of 6 from Hungary to the United States. Restless and unsatisfied, he ran away when a little older from home to try his luck at various things, including a failed attempt at joining the Union Army. He then somehow managed to get small roles in theater and as sometimes happens, one thing leading to another, he found a role of a drummer with enough opportunity present his comic side. As luck would have it, the play ran much longer than was scheduled owing to Mr. Curtis’ talent and presence in the play. He had the audience in stitches, which was not unique for those times, audiences laughing at Jewish actor responding to his Jewish or self-deprecating jokes. The main difference this time, however, resided in the fact that the audiences weren’t laughing at the Jew but with him.

By now he had adopted a stage name of M. B. Curtis and with foresight, he purchased the play and produced it with his brother’s help. This catapulted him to the national fame, thus becoming the first Jewish male to portray a Jewish character with depth. So far, the field had always in the hands of gentile actors. But Mr. Curtis showed during his extra ordinary journey in the realm of performing arts that he was much more than an actor.

As luck would have it, the Statue of Liberty had recently arrived and Congress refused to fund the lighting of the statue. The lights went off on Nov. 1, 1886. Mr. Curtis was in New York and felt horrified at the darkened spectacle, so he decided to foot the bill from his own pocket. Another feather in Mr. Curtis’ hat was when Mark Twain approached him to perform in the theatrical version of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Local historian Richard Schwartz tells us that Mr. Curtis agreed on one condition, even willing to shell out $20,000 to produce it, if and only if Mark Twain would let Curtis portray the main character as a Jewish immigrant a la Sam’l of Posen, the play which had catapulted the actor to fame.

The current exhibition The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty is a result of the tremendous patience and passion, all in all some twenty years, from the time Mr. Schwartz began looking into Mr. Curtis’ connection to the city of Berkeley; he kept on digging deeper and deeper for more information, reading countless out-of-print books and hunting newspaper databases. As people became aware of Mr. Schwartz’ larger than life project, help in collecting memorabilia poured in from varied sources, including Library of Congress, which succeeded in unearthing a rare footage of Mr. Curtis’ silent film. Mr. Schwartz plans on showing the film during his talk.

Richard Schwartz is fascinated by the history of the Bay Area and the San Francisco Public Library is pleased to have several of his titles in our collection. We recommend them here:

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis (RSB Books, 2016).

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley (RSB Books, 2007).

Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees (RSB Books, 2005).

Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century (RSB Books, 2000).

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Labrouste's Libraries, Structural Columns, and the Main Library

In a July 1996 article in the periodical Interiors reviewing James Ingo Freed's newly open San Francisco Main Library, the author notes the influence of Labrouste's 19th century Parisian libraries on the design of the newly opened San Francisco Public Library Main Library.

In fact, library administrators accompanied Freed and and collaborating architect Cathy Simon on a tour of European libraries in January 1900 where they visited Labrouste's two famous structures, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1850) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1868). Both of these buildings have had an enduring influence on library architecture.

Labrouste's influence is apparent in George Kelham's 1917 Main Library building, particularly in  the first floor Entrance Hall and Stairwell and the second floor Delivery Room and Reading Room.

Stairwell of George Kelham's 1917 Main Library (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

One of the striking innovations of Labrouste's libraries is the use of an exposed iron pillars to create open space and enhance natural lighting.

Reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale (source: Henri Labrouste: Architecte)

 Tables interrupted by columns in the Bibliothèque Nationale (source: The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts)

Ground floor of the Bibliothèque Saint Geneviève (source: Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete)

Freed's Main Library design frequently uses exposed columns instead of embedding them within structural walls with the same desire for openness and natural light.

Rectangular pillars extend the height of the library and are incorporated into the building's structure as part of the borders to light wells on the library's Fulton Street and Larkin Street sides.

They are regularly spaced at intervals of 18 and 36 feet on the Fulton Street side of the building, and at intervals of 12 and 36 feet on the Larkin Street side.

In a previous entry we have seen how round pillars are also an important part of the building's conception.  These round columns are placed with less regularity on left and right sides of the atrium.  

I have numbered these pillars 1 to 14.  These also rise from the library's Lower Level and extend to the roof.  Numbers 6-13 are arranged as two groups of four pillars, spaced 18 and 12 feet apart.  The two groups of four in turn are 36 feet apart.  Pillars 6-7 and 10-11 surround an imaginary line that divides the length of the building in half.

Pillars 1 to 5 are positioned according to different imagined angled lines that extend from the midpoint of the Larkin Street outer wall and surround the outer edge of the atrium.  Pair 1 and 3 and pair 2 and 5 are placed along these lines.

The location of pillar 4 is tied to the position of pillar 2.  One of Freed's principal design elements for the Main Library is a juxtaposition of lines between streets on an east-west grid (Larkin, Hyde, Fulton, Grove) and Market Street (plus South of Market).  The fifth floor periodical reading room is laid out according to the angle of the latter.  Pillars 2 and 4 run parallel to Market Street.  On the opposite side of the floor, pillars 11 and 14 run parallel to 8th Street.

In the next installment I will show the variety of contexts where these rounds pillars appear on the Library's seven floors.


The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts, edited by Arthur Drexler (Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

Giedion, Sigfried, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete; translation by J. Duncan Berry (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995).

Herbert, Susan, "Library Travelers Check Out Europe's Best," San Francisco Independent (January 31, 1990).

"Rotunda Resonances in the San Francisco Main Library," San Francisco Public Library Art, Music and Recreation Center [blog] (March 25, 2019).

Saddy, Pierre, Henri Labrouste, architecte, 1801-1875 (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, 1977).

Webb, Michale, "Library," Interiors vol. 155 (July 1996), 44-51.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Monthly Newsletter HOT OFF THE PRESS


The Art, Music & Recreation Center now has a monthly newsletter. Contents include collection highlights, programs, exhibits, and more! Sign up on our homepage @ sfpl.org:

Or leave your email with a librarian and we'll add you to the list.

View April's Newsletter here

Monday, March 25, 2019

Rotunda Resonances in the San Francisco Main Library

The circle is a basic form and a common design element.  As we have seen in the previous blog post, a core architectural element of the San Francisco Public Library's Main Library is its atrium.  Inspiration for the library's atrium came to architect James Ingo Freed from the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Plans for the Altes Museum rotunda and the ground floor of the Main Library side-by-side

If one looks carefully at the Main Library's building plans, then one comes begins to see that the rotunda (Latin word for round) and circles permeate the building's design in many, many ways.  Once you start looking for circles in the Main Library, you begin to find them everywhere.

On the Library's ground floor plan, the circular atrium occupies a central space, but there is also a smaller circle below the atrium, slightly to the right.  On the plans this space is called a vestibule (according to the Historical Architecture Sourcebook it's "an anteroom or small foyer leading into a large space"). 

From the interior of the vestibule, the granite wall extends to the outside gate. Seen from outside the vestibule is a windowed space with a linear passage space with automatic doors.

Below the vestibule is the cafe on the Lower Level.

An upward view shows the windowed vestibule chamber supported by round, almost like a capital at the top of a column.
The vestibule is actually set atop two pillars above the cafe.  The ceiling about the cafe has a silver circle that surrounds the lighting.

The cafe floor has a central circle and radiating spokes that are a mirroring of the atrium's floor.  These expanding spoked circles directly beneath the vestibule.

source: The San Francisco Main Library: Space Planning, Design Development

The pattern is more evident on the paving plan of the Lower Level from the building's sketches.

The first floor also has a hidden structural round space that can be seen at the bottom center of the floor plan above (below the atrium, to the right of the vestibule).

This is a circular closet for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library bookstore.

For regular visitors to the San Francisco Public Library Main Library building, the most frequently encountered round spaces are the affinity centers on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th floors.

The Steve Silver Music Center is typical of the rounded affinity centers on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors.  The rooms have rounded light fixtures and a circular carpet; each room has two floor to ceiling windows

The Children's Storytelling Room on the 2nd floor is another good example of these round rooms.  The wooden walls follow a circular pattern as does a ring of lights, a wooden ceiling and a central circular light.  The carpet below incorporates blue circles that are intersect by crimson rectangle that incorporates the effect that the 5th floor reading room has upon the atrium's ceiling.

The reference desk of the Fisher Children's Center and the suspended glass sign are also rounded.

The book display space in the Center takes the form of a circle as well.

The opposite side of the library, at the Larkin Street entrance is shaped as a semi-circle.

Inside the library's atrium there are other circles on display.

The spiral staircase connecting the Larkin Street entrance to the Grove Street entrance is formed by concentric circles.  At the base of the staircase's railing there is a granite circle with a rectangle removed from it (again, like the carpet in the Children's Storytelling Room suggesting the newspaper reading room jutting into the atrium on the 5th floor).

The boundaries of concentric circles create the space taken by self-check out machines and the 1st floor information desk.

The double circle continues to extend into the floor plan of the upper floors.

It continues to be a design element on the third floor with a railing above the outer circle and an other white circle inside.  At the top left hand corner of the photograph there is a portion of a smaller ring is a component of the nautilus at the top of the atrium.

Although the circle is a rather ordinary design element, it appears in many other contexts in the library.

The sign directing visitors up the stairs from the 1st floor to the Fisher Children's Center is a circular.  Above it to the left, a semi-circle is used to mark the elevators and which floors they travel to.

Even the elevator call button itself is a circle.

Then there is the lighting.  The pillars surrounding the atrium have round fixtures with parallel glass circles projected outward.

The hanging lamp fixtures on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th 5th floors and 6th are also circular.

Finally there are the circular structural columns that extend upward from the Lower Level to the 6th floor at the east and west sides of the atrium.

Alice Aycock's site-specific artworks commissioned for the Main Library also grow out of the circle, but they will be discussed on their own later.

The circle only plays a small role in the building's external design.

There are four metallic ornamental columns above the Library's Larkin Street entrance. 

Another difficult to spot detail are the antefixes high atop the ridge of the rooftop on the Larkin and Hyde Street sides of the building that are formed from a pair of circle bisecting each other.  Joseph Giovannini, in his otherwise appreciate review of the Main Library, faults these antefixes as "little doodads, vetigial Roman decoration too slight to read from Marshall Square."

Perhaps all of these circles are not worthy of special note.  But they occur with such frequency that they must be more than coincidental.  While they result in a degree of formal consistency and elegance, the circles create some difficulty for library users.  On the upper floors, the rotunda shaped atrium disorients the public looking for a point of reference to navigate from.  The round pillars on the east and west sides of the atrium are treated decoratively instead of being incorporated into a wall, thus blocking sight lines and proving to be an obstacle when arranging desks or shelving.


Giovannini, Joseph, "Civic Readings," Architecture (July 1996), 80-91.

Historic Architecture Sourcebook, edited by Cyril M. Harris (McGraw-Hill, 1977).

The San Francisco Main Library: Space Planning, Design Development, April 25, 1991 (Pei Cobb Freed & Partners; Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Morris, 1991). [part of the San Francisco History Center archival collection].