Press "Enter" to skip to content

New life for library

Mills College Weekly

The building that is now home to The Oakland African American Museum and Library celebrated its centennial last week with an evening of music, speeches, and reflections at the culmination of mighty efforts that made the moment possible.

Though the building reopened to the public nine months ago, its 100 year anniversary party and the Oakland City landmark plaque dedication coincided Friday night, in a fundraiser with guests such as Oakland mayor Jerry Brown in attendance.

Characterized by a long history of neglect, the hard-won battle of restoration is over for now.

Mary MacDonald, president of Oakland Heritage Alliance, the non-profit group that fought for the museum’s restoration, called the night, “a victory for historic preservation,” and said that “citizens of Oakland are enriched by its presence.”

Located on the corner of 14th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, the building was originally called the Charles S. Greene Library, and was endowed by Andrew Carnegie.

The interior is beautifully restored, with oak staircase and paneling, murals, and classical columns.

Damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the building, like many others in Oakland, was abandoned, vandalized, and sat in a state of disrepair with an uncertain future until the Oakland Heritage Alliance began a campaign for its restoration.

Once out of commission, the building took many bad turns. Homeless people moved in and, according to museum and library director Carmen Martinez, used the original oak banister that lined the staircase as firewood.

Wood paneling on the walls was painted white in the 60s. According to Martinez, “the stories would turn your stomach.”

“We had to convince the City of Oakland to restore, not demolish the building,” said city councilwoman Nancy Nadel. She said it would have cost the same amount of money to destroy the building as it would to renovate.

“But there is no way a new building could substitute the warmth and connectedness we feel from this building,” said MacDonald.

The business of renovation started in 1997, and according to Claudette Ford, director of the Oakland’s Public Works, it was a $12 million project. “The last million was the hard part,” she said. That money went to restoring the vaulted ceiling of plaster now decorated by gold stencil patterns.

Michael Willis, the architect for the renovation project, also spoke about the monumental efforts that made the evening possible. “We tore [the building] apart and put it back together again,” he said. “I know people that extended their retirement to finish the job.”

In addition to the stenciled designs, the names of such writers as Longfellow, Irving and Poe line the ceiling. Ironically, these are writers from the western canon. But Willis insists that keeping these literary figures is consistent with restoring the building’s original historic content.

“We don’t have to pretend Shakespeare and Thackeray didn’t exist,” he said. “We just ask the cannon to make a little room for the writers, authors and poets that have been the inspiration of the building. Now, the library is full of names such as Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou.

Everyone seemed to be happy. The mood of the evening was heightened by the announcement that Gray Davis called earlier to give a $1 million donation to the museum.

In celebration of the evening, performers and artists including the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and poet and author Quincy Troupe entertained an audience of over two hundred.