Designs on Chico
Before his death in 1984, Lawrence Thomson had a major role in Chico’s architectural development.
“My father’s design philosophy was: do not decorate; anything should be a part of the building. He strived for a kind of truthfulness.”
Lawrence G. Thomson was having a long day. It was April 15, 1981: Tax day. Deadlines loomed everywhere. Down at Chico’s post office, long lines of taxpayers cued up, standing until midnight to get their postmarks. Down on West 3rd Street, drafters were pacing behind their tall four-legged oak drafting tables well past midnight. They were madly pushing their mechanical pencils around, putting the final touches on the construction plans for the Chico branch of the Butte County Library.
Thomson stayed late too, but he wasn’t going to miss dinner with his friends at the Butte Creek Country Club. Before leaving his office, he went to see Paul Hendricks, who was a recent hire right out of college and the project architect for the library. Hendricks was busy printing the date “04/15/1981” on the bottom corner of all of the drawings. Hendricks assured Thomson that the plans would be ready to go out for construction bids the next day.
The library would be the last of Thomson’s many major civic buildings for Chico.
Lawrence Thomson graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in architecture in 1929. He started out in the Bay Area and was good friends with Bernard Maybeck, who was one of San Francisco’s most visionary and enduring architects.
In 1949, Thomson landed his first public-school project in Chico, before moving his office here three years later. But he was not one of those dreaded Bay Area transplants; he was born and raised in Chester, Calif. The mountains around Lake Almanor fostered his great appreciation of nature, which can be seen in his works.
Thomson worked his way up over the years to have the largest architectural firm in Chico, employing 14 drafters. You need a lot of work to keep that many employees busy. By 1981, he was doing work for 19 school districts and had completed more than 460 public-school projects in Northern California. His hand can be seen in every public school in Chico except the original Pleasant Valley High School.
Besides schools, Thomson’s project list includes: the Elks Lodge in 1954, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, also in 1954, and later the Catholic school and convent. Chico Fire Station No. 2 was built in 1960, the Central Fire Station No. 1 in 1961, and the Mangrove branch of Tri-Counties bank in 1980. He also designed a number of wonderful residences that still grace East 8th Street along Bidwell Park east of the freeway and some northeast of the Chico State campus.
Hendricks was right; the plans for the library were finished on time. A Sacramento contractor was selected to build the library for a construction cost of $1,428,000 without furnishings or landscaping. The library contained 23,270 square feet, which translated into a $61-per-square-foot cost. A library today could easily cost four times as much.
A 1983 CN&R article described the library design as “an almost classic example of a post-World War II public building in California; solid, squat and rather plain, it is designed to be unobtrusive and utilitarian.”
This reporter doesn’t think that early opinion does justice to the contemporary California style. While the structure is unobtrusive, that is the key attribute of a proper civic style. The library is humble, almost self-effacing. It speaks for the people without drawing attention to itself.
More important, the library reflects an authentic indigenous California architectural style.
What does that mean? Well, the color selection of the masonry walls and the tinted concrete frame evoke the hues found in the Chinese rock walls surrounding Chico. The low-pitched, hipped, red-tile roof indicates Spanish Colonial Revival influence. The long extended roof overhangs respond to the local climate, tempering Chico’s hot summers. The large expanses of glass and the overhangs are reminiscent of the California ranch style house that originated in the Bay Area in the 1940s.
The library’s real strength, however, is the interior, which is exceptionally warm and inviting.
The defining visual feature is the ceiling, which is composed of a series of squares. Some are flat. Some are vaulted coffers with illuminated light wells. All are trimmed with natural-finished Idaho oak. The floor plan flows from the southern entrance to the northern glass wall. This central core is flanked on both sides by a series of tall, matching oak bookshelves. The perimeter holds a surprising five full-height glass-enclosed alcoves that provide ideal spots to sit and read.
Thomson’s final civic design was years in the making. The seeds for the library’s design were sown during 1964 in the One-Mile Recreation Area dressing rooms. The facility wanted to front Sycamore Pool while not turning its back on the rest of the park. The solution was a hexagon; the six sides of the building front the park in all directions.
Next came the Five-Mile Recreation Area dressing rooms in 1968. The plan consisted of three buildings laid out parallel to the creek in a plaza-like style. The two flat roofed dressing rooms bookend the center structure which sports a steep hipped roof and spire. The natural-toned masonry walls share colors with the towering barkless trees. Wooden trellis canopies provide horizontal unification and add playful shadows to the creekside setting.
The year 1974 brought the Chico City Council Chambers to life. The roofline here was a conscious integration of modern and hip roof designs. The articulated roof edge projects out from the building, while the hipped roof sits back farther, atop a band of day lighting windows. The visual effect diminishes the size and the height of the building—another example of humble civic design. The 6,500-square-foot structure can hold more than 120 citizens when the council is in session. The whole building was raised above the street on a 10,000-square-foot plaza, which adds prominence to downtown.
Thomson was on a roll.
Tax day’s last deadline was near; Thomson headed to dinner at the club. “Hey Prof, why don’t you come sit with us tonight,” called out one of Thomson’s well-heeled buddies. “Prof” was Thomson’s nickname because he always acted like one—very professional, very gentlemanly and cordial. Thomson felt at home at the Butte Creek Country Club, and he should have, for he was the architect.
Thomson died in 1984 after a 35-year career. His name lives on at Thomson & Hendricks Architects out in Philadelphia Square. Hendricks, who managed the library project, still continues the tradition of public-school design. Lawrence’s son Thomas went on to be an architect and is currently an urban-design professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Thomson’s design consistency helped to make Chico a special place, unique and different—unlike big-box retail, or restaurant chains, or clone homes, for that matter. His legacy is that he unified Chico’s civic design over a 17-year period. He achieved this with simple forms, a small palette of materials, subtle details and warm natural colors—sameness but not blandness, and an understated elegance. Hats off to the professor!