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Hercules Thrilled with Its 'Dynamite' New Library

After more than a century, a historic California community finally builds a library, using rich, dark brick.

May 01, 2008 |

Talk about your books being overdue. The residents of Hercules, Calif., had to wait 126 years before they could check out reading material from a library of their own. That's because the city, on San Pablo Bay just north of San Francisco, was one of only two in the entire state without library services until, finally, the Hercules Public Library opened in March 2007.

There's really no reason Hercules went without a library for more than a century. The city, which began as a company town in 1881, housing workers of the California Powder Works, a manufacturer of Hercules-brand dynamite, slowly grew into a Bay Area bedroom community and just never developed a city center.

“There really is no heart to Hercules, there's no downtown per se,” says Fredric Sherman, AIA, principal-in-charge at the San Francisco office of architecture firm HGA. “The inspiration for Hercules was to have us create a there, there.”

The Building Team, which also included Phoenix-based Will Bruder Architects and Turner Construction (GC), was asked to create a building that would establish a strong civic presence for the city. While Hercules may have lacked a true downtown, it still had the historic California Powder Works headquarters. The four-story building had long ago been converted to residential lofts, but its rich, dark-brick façade remained a visual knockout and would influence the design team's decision to specify a masonry façade for the new 21,500-sf library.

Unlike the original California Powder Works, the library exterior is not traditional brick, but rather fired brick tile. The material has the same dimensions as brick, but is thinner—about a half-inch thick—and is applied like tile, using a tile substrate with a built-out plaster base, waterproofing, and a bonding agent.

The decision to forgo traditional gauged masonry units came down to seismic requirements and cost. “The structure necessary to support a brick facility would have been formidable, and almost impossible to work into the budget,” says Sherman.

Two-thirds of the library's $11.2 million project budget came from the state via matching funds from the $300 million State Library Bond Act (2003). The city funded the remainder.

“Since we decided we couldn't have the real thing, we decided to do brick as close as we could and make it look contemporary and unique for this building,” says Sherman. They used just one size of tile but ordered it in five colors, emphasizing reds, browns, and blonds, all reminiscent of the California Powder Works building. The masonry was installed vertically to add height to the one-story building, whose roof has various slopes and valleys to give it dimension. Random brick patterns and joint sizes—some thinner, some wider, not a single traditional 3/8-inch joint to be found—created a façade that Sherman describes as “visually animated.”

Budget considerations resulted in small portions of the library's exterior being clad in plaster, but the team fought against value engineering the interiors, successfully retaining elements they thought critical to the building's success, including a fireplace and a central courtyard.

The community was 100% behind the large elliptical courtyard, but the state's Office of Library Construction was worried about maintenance and, strangely, security, even though it was a protected, interior courtyard. A group of concerned citizens, Contra Costa County librarian Anne Cain, and the mayor of Hercules eventually took their case to Sacramento and saved the courtyard.

The state-of-the-art library is stocked with computers, several lounges and seating areas, a large children's section with a whimsical “story cone,” a teen center, two very popular conference rooms that members of the community keep booked up months in advance, and a café. “Modern libraries are much more than stacks of books and periodicals,” says Sherman. “People come here to make connections, they can stay all day long, so you need the different elements to support them.”

Located on a prominent intersection next to city hall, the library is finally giving the city of Hercules its civic center. And more than a century in the making, the Hercules Public Library is making up for lost time: expected usage has more than doubled (averaging 1,000 users per day) so hours of operation have had to be extended to keep up with demand.

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