Historic Groundbreaking Takes Place in Modesto

April 1970: Earth Day is celebrated for the first time, Apollo 13 tells Houston, “We’ve had a problem” but returns safely to Earth, “Midnight Cowboy” wins the Academy Award for Best Picture…
… and the groundbreaking ceremony for the building we know as the Modesto Library takes place on April 19, 1970. The ceremony, which featured city and county dignitaries for this unusual joint project, was held on a beautiful spring day. People attending had probably seen the architectural drawings and knew the finished product would be impressive, but only those involved knew how much planning and negotiating had gone into the project.

Discussions began in the mid-1960s about replacing the McHenry Library with a larger facility. Library staff found a report by County Librarian Oscar Smaalders dated 1968 in which the often-irascible head librarian said his recommendations were based on the experience of thousands of libraries across the country rather than ideals or pipedreams.

Above all, he said, it was important to remember that the selection of the site would to a large extent determine whether the library was going to be a vital and essential part of the community. Smaalders, who favored a downtown site, cited local and national studies that said people “drive rather than walk these days.” Downtown Modesto was still the shopping core in those days. One library commissioner, who had served on the City Planning Commission, favored a central library site within the “civic center, civic complex concept.”

The selected site on I street, bounded by 15th and 16th, would include a county-operated building designed and constructed by the City of Modesto, and a city-owned parking lot behind the building. Eventually the project evolved into a 62,000 sq. ft. structure with a price tag of $2.6 million. Bids would be sought in January with groundbreaking scheduled for April. Construction would take about 18 months.

But with final working drawings close to completion in late 1968, there were still problems to be solved. According to an undated Modesto Bee article unearthed by library staff, these included what to name the new library, how to decorate the frontispiece over the entrance and where to locate a drive-up book drop.

The book drop was originally planned for the parking lot area behind the library. Smaalders said the location would involve too much staff time since it would need to be emptied daily and require too much heavy lifting. The compromise was a book drop on the front curb with a buried conveyor linking the box to the library basement.

Another issue was what to name the building. One option, suggested by the Modesto Library and Culture Commission, was the Stanislaus Public Library. McHenry Library was evidently discarded since the new facility was being built with public funds.

Yet another point of contention was the artwork. Architect Robert Field suggested commissioning an artist acquaintance of his to provide art, perhaps a sculpture of some sort, for the space above the front door of the public auditorium. Smaalders said he disagreed with a non-competitive artistic venture and would rather have an invitational contest. “Otherwise,” he said in a memo to his county bosses, “we will end up with no choice at all, just like when the City of Modesto made the architect selection.”

Despite differences of opinion, there was optimism and excitement around the groundbreaking and much anticipation about the finished project.