A Love Affair with the White Tanks Library

Going analog for my next read, I re-discovered what has to be one of the best public buildings in the state of Arizona; the White Tanks Library.

I recently finished a book on my Kindle. Sensitive to my near-constant cycle of reading/buying/reading/buying, and maybe just looking for a different experience for a minute, I went to the library for my next read instead. It is a good library. Because of the layout, I was able to choose quickly. I always seem to choose quickly.

When you first enter the  White Tanks Library, there are a couple of display shelves featuring new editions. I always start here. I want to see what’s new, the latest best-selling fiction, new ideas in the non-fiction space. Within a minute, I had selected two books and checked out. Not in a hurry to head hone, I took a few minutes to ponder the building I was in and was amazed at how much of a gift this place is to those of us lucky enough to enjoy it.

Sitting on an isolated lot at the very edge of a county park, the White Tanks Library is a marvelous building to look at. Interestingly shaped, modern, clad in a slightly green pebbled treatment, with winding entry walks and a shaded courtyard just before the main doors, it is a compliment to desert that surrounds it.

The broad, pressed-earth and gravel walkways, the pebble-embedded concrete walls, the colored cladding and awnings, all reflect the natural surroundings. The parking spaces and walkways intertwine with protected patches of unchanged desert. As a visitor, you feel like you are walking into something that grew up out of the landscape, not something that was built on top of it. Outside the building, you'll find a Desert Tortoise enclosure as well as an outdoor amphitheater, and a trail entrance into the county-maintained park itself.

Inside, the building is shaped like a Japanese folding fan, with a broad curved rear wall that faces the White Tanks Park and a narrow entryway at the front. To protect the line of that back wall, all the busy space of the building is at front; meeting rooms, the bookstore, bathrooms, activity rooms, staff offices, as well as an amazing nature center with displays of reptiles and snakes found in the park. Even the sorting center is tucked into the front of the building.

Extending out from the library's infrastructure are working spaces; librarian’s desks, the children’s apparatus, the private workrooms for patrons, computer desks, etc.

The next concentric ring to this highly-functional building are the stacks. Fanned across the heart of main library chamber, and organized in bookstore categorization (which is hard to get used to for a Dewey-trained library nerd like me), shelving and display units filled with books, periodicals, and digital media follow the curve of the room.

The real treat to the White Tanks Library though is the back wall. A brilliant decision that honors the park adjacent to the library. The back wall is one, long, panoramic, curved window. No matter where you stand or sit in the library, you have a view into the park.

The stacks end five feet from the windows and nothing else is allowed to get in the way of the expansive view. It is like an IMAX theater experience; a surround-sound view of the thriving Sonoran Desert landscape, backed by the copper-colored White Tank Mountains. The building is so ideally situated that the terrain curves up and away from the view, like it’s really a diorama, or a carefully curated display like the famous Neanderthal man exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The placement is such that from inside the library, almost no distracting elements of the park (roads, trails, or shelters) are in the view.

The windows perfectly frame a Western view. That means sunsets, which can be spectacular in the desert even on the most mundane of days.

The White Tanks Library was designed by Arizona-based DWL Architects & Planners and is a living testament to their ability to imagine a building that honors its surroundings, is designed to have minimal environmental impact, and is practical enough to be constructed in a challenging environment.

If you ever get the chance, I encourage you to pay a visit to the White Tanks Library. If you're a lover of libraries, of nature, or of architecture, I promise you'll be impressed.


Our stay at Steinbeck’s Traveler’s Cottage

Sleeping in a famous writer's guest house

I traveled to Monterey for a conference. The conference was spouse-friendly (short working sessions, plenty of free time, and excursions for spouses), so my wife came along. When I registered, I had the option to stay at the conference center hotels, but my wife and I like to stay in interesting and quirky places. The Steinbeck Traveler’s Cottage, which we found on AirBNB, was the perfect experience for us.

The story of Traveler’s Cottage appealed to me because I’m a writer. Steinbeck had a big influence on Monterey so we chose the cottage as a way to have an experience relative to the community we were visiting. Steinbeck owned this home in the 40’s and lived here while writing a couple of his earliest works. There are actually three residences on the property; a main house, a guest house, and the cottage. The cottage sits at the back of the property, furthest from the street, in a private courtyard with a private entrance and parking space off the alley that runs behind the house.

Check-in was easy. The host sent instructions for the lockbox before we arrived. The address and instructions that lead to the alleyway parking space were clear. The parking space was a bit of a squeeze but big enough for my SUV.

Walking into the courtyard for the first time is a treat, The well-groomed space contains a four-person seating group and a picnic table and presents the front of the cottage beautifully. The cottage itself is equally well-presented in baby-blue paint with white trim and neat landscaping. Everything outside is trim and clean and perfect. A great first impression.

Inside is just as nice. Wood floors, simple furniture, lots of light, interesting artwork, just lovely attention to detail. Inside we found fluffy towels, plenty of bed linen, a heater, a fan, an ironing board and iron, coffee, sugar, and a French Press, pretty much anything we needed for our stay.

Right in the heart of Monterey

Traveler’s Cottage is in a convenient location, close-enough to the Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row to walk (downhill one way and a bit of a hike home) and only a little over a mile to Fisherman’s Wharf and the conference center. We found the cottage and its surrounding neighborhood pleasantly quiet at night.

Speaking of night-time, the cottage had both good overhead lights as well as table lamps and night lights for a variety of moods. There was a bookshelf with mostly Steinbeck work (I had never read Cannery Row and got through most of it on this visit - a real joy to read Steinbeck’s work in a place connected to him). The guest book is super thorough and included background on the place, instructions on the remotes, the heater, and other appliances, recommendations for local restaurants. It also included guest letters and notes going back five or six years.

The hosts were great. I had a challenge with the lockbox and called for help. I got an immediate answer. We received a text the next morning making sure we were happy with everything. It felt like they had us in mind and that it mattered that we had a good stay.

The place does have a couple of quirks - there is not a lot of room for two to move around in the bedroom. The kitchen entry requires navigating a couple of mean steps with a low overhang that is tricky in the middle of the night. The cottage is also very small overall - the size of a hotel suite or a tiny house. But quirks are what make a place like this a unique experience compared to the homogeneity of the modern hotel.

I had only a couple of manageable challenges. Neither of things are complaints, just observations. There is a beautiful hand painted sign on the outside of the cottage facing the alleyway. The night we arrived was windy and the signs knocked against the wall annoyingly. I wadded some paper towels and stuffed them behind it to quieten it down and I hope the host amends this permanently. And under the category of beds-are-very-subjective, I found the bed overly soft and wished I could have done something about it (or, if there was some kind of control that I could change the firmness of the bed, it was more obvious than it was). This critique definitely falls under the category of personal preference though - my wife loved the bed.

That’s it. We would happily, gladly, without reservation, recommend Traveler’s Cottage to a couple (three people at the most) who are planning a stay in Monterey.

Here's a link to the Traveler's Cottage on AirBNB.