Fullerton’s Hunt Library Gets a New Life. Will Its Biggest Champions Be a Part of It?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Hunt Branch Library in Fullerton.

Mid-century modern architecture isn’t always well respected, and Orange County has a checkered relationship with its masterpieces from that era. Significant buildings by Richard Neutra, William Periera, Rudolf Schindler and others haven’t always been treated well here.

Orange Coast College has a fraught history with Neutra’s brilliant designs for the original campus. Neutra’s Mariner’s Medical Arts Building in Newport Beach was subjected to a multi-year tug of war between developers and preservationists. Schindler’s Lovell Beach House on Newport’s Balboa Peninsula, an early modernist icon from the 1920s that attracts admirers from all over the world, could benefit from some rehabilitative love.

But there have been successes, too. Two years after Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy, its campus full of famous modernist edifices was purchased in 2012 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which promptly announced its intentions to make it the diocese’s new cathedral. The glass-clad main building was tastefully and carefully renovated to accommodate the traditions of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Thankfully, the diocese took pains to respect the original architecture of the entire campus, which contains important work by Neutra, Philip Johnson, Richard Meier and other modernist masters.

Fullerton’s Hunt Library can now be counted in Orange County’s “success” column, if all goes according to plan. In 2019, assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva secured a $2.5 million state grant to renovate and upgrade the handsome and understated building designed by William Pereira, creator of San Francisco’s familiar Transamerica Pyramid and best known in Orange County as the leading architect of the original UC Irvine campus.

In June, Fullerton City Council unanimously approved a joint proposal by two non-profit arts groups, Heritage Future and Arts Orange County, to administrate the facility. The library, which opened in 1962, has been closed to the public since 2013, when the city leased it to Grace Ministries International Church.

Photo from the collection of the Fullerton Public Library Local History Collection

Historical photo of the interior of the Hunt Branch Library in Fullerton.

“It’s a wonderful building. It exudes a quiet dignity,” said Jane Reifer, chair of Save the Hunt, a group of about 400 volunteers who have worked diligently for three years to preserve the Hunt. It barely survived a push by some council members who wanted to sell the property, Reifer said. “It’s been sitting there quietly for all these years despite all the crazy changes that have happened around it.”

When it opened, the Hunt Branch of the Fullerton Public Library was a symbol of promise. It was donated to the city by the Norton Simon Foundation and Hunt Foods, which Norton Simon had built into a vast company with deep roots in Fullerton. The library was built adjacent to the company’s headquarters, another Periera building with which it shared fundamental design features.

By the early 1960s, Simon had acquired a significant art collection that included works of the Impressionists, old masters, modern and native art. In the 1960s alone, Simon spent $6 million on famous works of art and built up an inventory of around 800 works.

Simon had hoped that the Hunt library grounds would be the principal site for his art collection. But negotiations with the city didn’t work out, and it became the Hunt Branch instead, while the art ended up at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Long-time Fullerton residents remember the eye-popping masterpieces that were displayed at the library in the early years of its existence.

“Simon had actually stocked the library with some of the most incredible art,” Reifer said. “Picasso, Rubens, Giacometti, Rodin. Many of the most well known, recognizable pieces of art in the world graced his library. You could access literature, learning and art in the same place. If you talk about the Hunt to anyone who grew up in Fullerton then, they remember it well. They took it for granted.”

Painful Memories of What Might Have Been

Reifer has met some old timers who still talk wistfully about what might have been.

“Hunt Foods Charitble Trust Foundation – they were going to give the library to the city and an art museum as well,” said Reifer. “Originally, the Norton Simon Museum was going to be in Fullerton adjacent to the library. The city didn’t move on the opportunity. After a number of years of trying, Simon became frustrated and purchased a spot in Pasadena. All the artwork in Fullerton left town and ended up in Pasadena. A lot of people who worked on Save the Hunt still feel the pain of a missed opportunity. It’s definitely an undercurrent with their generation.”

Photo courtesy of Save the Hunt

Original press photo from the 1962 opening of the Hunt Library in Fullerton.

The sting of that loss motivated many of her fellow volunteers, Reifer said. They didn’t want to see Pereira’s building permanently re-purposed, badly altered or even sold and torn down.

“We almost lost this incredible architectural gem. People knew that it was considered an important building, but (previously) they didn’t focus on it enough to have the desire to save it. It was also a gift to our community; it was given to us. That makes it special.”

Reifer and her fellow volunteers have closely analyzed the winning proposal for the Hunt, and they’re strongly supportive of what they see on paper.

“Heritage Future and Arts OC, if they do what they say they’re going to do, it will be fantastic. Their program seems to be exactly what everyone has in mind. It’s community-oriented, arts-oriented, interactive, participatory, engaging. I really couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Photo courtesy of Save the Hunt

A reading courtyard at the Hunt Library in Fullerton. Photo taken in 2018.

Photo courtesy of Save the Hunt

Interior photo of the book stacks in the Hunt Library in Fullerton. Photo taken in 2018.

The joint proposal envisions using the Hunt as an arts and literacy presentation and educational space. Kevin Staniec, founder of Heritage Future, would serve as the program team leader, while Arts OC would help create and implement programs for the library building and surrounding property. Architect Robert Young would supervise the restoration.

ArtsOC and Heritage Future described their plans in a statement:

“The Hunt Library is one of Orange County’s most important historic buildings, a masterpiece of mid-century modern design by one of the foremost architects of that era and of our region, William L. Pereira. It needs to be lovingly preserved – but it also needs to become a welcoming place in which everyone in the community takes pride of ownership and where its use celebrates not only the building’s legacy, but also the heritage and cultures of all of Fullerton’s residents. Arts Orange County, which plays a vital role in assisting local cities with their strategic arts and culture planning, and Heritage Future, an innovator in creative place-making and programming, are inspired by the limitless possibilities presented by the Hunt Library Literacy and Cultural Innovation Programmatic Partnership, and look forward to working with the City of Fullerton and the community.”

Reifer’s only wish is that her group could have more of a say in the process as it unfolds.

“We haven’t been offered a seat at the table by the city. Now that the public process is essentially complete and we’re going into the restoration phase, we’d like to contribute.

“Given our history of working on this project so closely, we think our group would offer valuable insight during this next phase. What happens at this point sets the stage for the future of the building. We want to be a part of that.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.