September 2000 Volume 21 Number 3

Letter to the Editor

Emily J. Sano, Director Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
June 11, 1999

I write in response to the letter entitled "San Francisco landmark murals being removed." I hope the following information clarifies the facts regarding the Asian Art Museum's plans to renovate San Francisco's former Main library into the museum's new home.

First, it is important to point out a blatant piece of misinformation in the letter. Namely, unlike City Hall, the old Main Library is not a national historical landmark building. It is a contributory building to the Civic Center Landmark District, a designation based upon its Beaux Arts exterior. Furthermore, paintings are not a category of item that can be landmarked, and there is no such designation in the U.S. Federal system. To claim otherwise is not only misleading but wrong.

Secondly, as confirmed by the San Francisco Planning Commission's January 1999 approval of our plans with a 6 - 1 vote, the Asian Art Museum's project is a sensitive adaptive reuse of the old Main Library. Also, on May 27 San Francisco Superior Court Judge David Garcia ruled that the plan does comply with local historic preservation laws and state environmental statutes.

The new museum renovation will seismically strengthen and base isolate the building to protect it and our collection in the future. Moreover, the architectural plan, developed by Gae Aulenti (whom Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times recently referred to as "the most important female architect since the beginning of time") respects the historic fabric. Large and important areas of the original building are being preserved completely intact, including the lobby, the grand stair, the columns and inscriptions and shape of the loggia (except for the Piazzoni paintings); the great hall; and the historic ceilings of the reading rooms. Not only does it preserve the significant historic features, Aulenti's brilliant design also creates a grand public space for the Civic Center, and a wonderful new facility for the specialized museum use.

Third, and let me state this unequivocally, the Piazzoni paintings were safely removed. This process was executed following strict professional standards by a team of three experienced conservators, all of whom are AIC fellows. The team was advised throughout the process by a second team of senior conservators including Perry Huston, independent conservator (past AIC Pres.) from Ft. Worth TX; Albert Albano,  Executive Director for the Intermuseum Conservation Association, Oberlin Ohio; and Andrea Rothe, Senior Conservator for Special Projects at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

"Dangerous precedent"? Hardly. It was absolutely essential that the paintings be removed for their own safety before construction begins. This opinion is consistent among the conservators, structural engineers, architects and contractors who performed in-depth analysis. For example, the final report from a thorough 1990 - 1992 study for seismically upgrading the Main Library conducted by Rutherford & Chekene, Consulting Engineers, emphasized that the in fill brick walls of the light courts -- to which the Piazzoni paintings were attached -- had to be removed. Not only did the unreinforced wall present a falling hazard in the event of another earthquake, they must be demolished and replaced with shear walls. The paintings would not survive the demolition, thus the report recommended that "the murals be dismounted and safely stored for the duration of the construction work."

The Asian Art Museum has been through a long process to get approval for its plans, and we believe we have a plan that achieves our goals for an adaptive re-use of the old Main while preserving the historic character of the building. We are grateful to the members of the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the citizens of San Francisco who have supported us throughout our endeavor to create a new museum that will showcase the splendid art and cultural heritage of Asians in San Francisco and around the world.


Emily J. Sano, Director Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

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