By Michael A. Thomas, FASID, CAPS, Interior Designer
The Welwood Murray Memorial Library in downtown Palm Springs was distinctive from the first day it opened that winter of 1941. And it must have been a proud moment on that Wednesday, February 19th for the residents of the recently incorporated City of Palm Springs. While there were many other buildings, retail stores and hotels already along Palm Canyon at the time, the Wimmel, as it was soon called by many of the town’s residents, was positioned at the very heart of the growing community.
After the library being in several locations, operated by a group of very dedicated locals, this new building would now be the city’s first permanent location. Designed by architect John Porter Clark, the costs to build were entirely paid with private donations ranging from just a few single dollars to one single gift of $10,000 from Palm Springs benefactor Thomas O’Donnell.
The library board commissioned the architect to “design the building and directed him to take best advantage of the prime corner lot…” according to the book, At Sunrise – the History of The Palm Springs Public Library.
Clark did just that and positioned the main entry to the library at a forty-five degree angle to Palm Springs’ zero-zero corner. The agave-green “proscenium” surrounding dark stained double wood doors welcomed residents and tourists alike.
The clean lines of the building, off-white painted concrete walls, steel casement windows and terra cotta roof material helped Clark introduce a “desert modern” vernacular to Palm Springs. The use of the same materials can be seen in a Spanish revival residence he was designing for the Hamrick family on West Vista Chino at nearly the same time.
Before Tahquitz was widened from a smaller two lane road, a six-foot wide band of green grass ran along the north sidewalk, perforated by four well established palm trees, each with green bushy tops and dark tree trunks. This band acted as a frame for the building.
When the Wimmel opened on that February day, the winter sun kept the daylight short. The cool morning light shown down on the copper used for the rain gutters around the perimeter, down spouts and coach-style wall sconces at the entry, bright shiny like a new penny at the time of installation, It must have given off an amber sparkle to the library in the sunlight.
By mid-afternoon, long shadows stretched out along Palm Canyon Drive as the sun dropped behind the mountains. By about 5:30, the library staff would have switched on the copper framed square and rectilinear recessed can lights above the entries, and together with the perforated metal design of the coach sconces, there must have been a distinctive warm glow that very first night.
Despite the donations collected to build the Wimmel, there evidently wasn’t much money allocated for the interior. Letters and memos seem to suggest that furnishings and fixtures may not have been on anyone’s immediate agenda if not totally left out of Clark’s assignments.
In January of 1941, at just six weeks before the library was to open, a letter to then-Mayor Philip Boyd from James Geggie, the chairman of the library board, asked that Clark be given instructions to prepare the details necessary and “with the hope that he may go forward without any further delay.”
Certain assumptions can be made about how the interior might have appeared on that opening day from records, letters, and photos. While bare concrete floors may be a popular trend today, it is unlikely that the library actually opened with such a finish. However, there appears to be a red-brown color to the exposed floor that could indicate that at least for a time, the floors were stained. What is known is that linoleum covered at least parts of the interior, perhaps in the bathroom and that wall-to-wall carpeting was installed sometime later.
A counter-height semi-circular reception desk positioned to greet visitors once inside the entry featured a clear-stained oak wood top and matching toe kick. The curved façade appears to have been covered with “faux” leather, a material that might have been "Fabrictoid" and perhaps in a reddish brown color, though it is difficult to determine from black and white images.
Shelving to hold the very small number of books the library had on hand at the time was made by a Riverside company from agave green stained pine and clear-stained oak. Construction of the box-style cabinets, bookcases and shelves were quite elementary, void of commonly used woodworking details such as mitered, rabbet or other joinery, and as such would have been modestly priced to fabricate.
Wood framed oak chairs with vertical splat backs and stepped-style bookracks were standard-issue, common and without detailing, identical to those found in libraries all over the country.
The interior must have been quite dimly illuminated. Small round ceiling-mounted shiny metal pendants are seen in photographs. Other documentation reveals that before the library was opened, at least some of the overhead lighting, along with air conditioning and heating, was eliminated “from the plans so that there would be funds to pay for a children’s wing.”
The finish on the walls in a light color continues, to this day, to show the poured-in-place construction of the concrete walls. Was this a specific choice made by Clark or one made because of limited funds? In fact, it might have been a little of both; a modernist approach to finishing wall surfaces that was also economical.
In moving forward with the rehabilitation of the interior, the character-defining assets are being respected. The concrete walls, the vault in the ceiling that extends in two directions from the angled entry, dumb waiter, steel casement windows and existing entry doors will remain.
However, it is apparent that the interior wasn’t “designed” to be particularly special. After all, one of the tenets of design is ‘Form Follows Function.” And the Wimmel was designed to function. Designed to be utilitarian, Clark created a building to be practical and laid out in a sensible and efficient manner.
But it doesn’t have a high level of aesthetics nor visual appeal like the many residences or the St Paul’s Church that Clark (and his partner Albert Frey) designed about the same time. The interior was there to do a job and it did that successfully for decades.
In some ways, the new design for the interior will be similar to the original design. In other ways it will be different. The new interiors will have the same efficient functionality as before but will now have to accommodate the needs of three stakeholder groups. The Palm Springs Historical Society and the Board Of Tourism will join the library staff in the daily operations.
A strong design statement however will allow the Wimmel to be a memorable experience and inviting to both locals and tourists. A higher level of esthetics and quality will continue the branding of Palm Springs as a place of well designed environments. Clean lines and simple forms will continue to echo Clark’s theme. The semi-circular form of the original reception desk will be incorporated but in an updated version, one that will hold computers, phones and point-of-sale equipment. The new reception desk along with other areas in the interior, must also meet the standards for accessibility as specified by the American For Disabilities Act(ADA).
Technology will be installed in tables, cabinets and near seating areas that will provide opportunities for people to plug in their laptops and charge their smart phones. And free Wi-Fi will be available to all.
Lighting will be more appropriate to the use of the space yet kept at lower levels than one would find at a retail store in keeping with the historic nature. LED lights in a warm color tone will be both energy efficient and provide the visitors with task lighting from candlestick lamps.
One “green design” goal is the consideration and choice of vendors to supply goods, such as the seating for the community room, determined by being no further than 500 miles from the Welwood location and thus limiting the carbon footprint effects of transportation.
When the rehabilitation is complete at the end of 2014, the Wimmel will be then positioned for the future. It will be a place to hang out and a source for information and education. Researchers interested in all things historic about Palm Springs will cross the threshold to examine the archives of the Palm Springs Historical Society. And tourists will be given another opportunity to discover what makes Palm Springs so special.
This is just the beginning for a new life and purpose for this very special building. It may not have the sparkle from the copper fixtures but in its own way it will be a shining bright spot in an evolving downtown.
Michael is an award winning interior designer based in Palm Desert, CA. He is a Professional Member of the American Society of Interior Designers and a member of the ASID College of Fellows.
As a Certified Aging In Place Specialist, he creates smart looking spaces that are safe and secure and create homes for a lifetime.
And with thirty plus years in the profession, he has honed his humor, elevated his passion for design and sharpened his wit to not take anything too seriously except his design work.