About 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1, a 36-year-old San Jose man shocked patrons and employees of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. library by climbing over a seventh-floor railing and plunging to his death in the building’s atrium.
As the second suicide in 13 months in the downtown library atrium, the grisly death cast a pall over the joint city-university building, which was closed down until the next morning.
Now the coda: At the direction of San Jose State President Mary Papazian, and with the assent of city leaders, administrators are taking steps to make the soaring atrium suicide-safe.
Essentially, the university and city are glassing in the big inner space from the second floor up to the seventh. The work is expected to raise the modest glass railings on each floor to more than seven feet. With existing glass dividers that come down from the ceiling, it will leave only a small gap for air.
The cost? Slightly more than $2.6 million, with the cost to be divided between the City of San Jose and San Jose State. A university spokesperson said the precise split is being finalized.
SJSU administrators say this will preserve the sunlit interior of the 2003 building — while insuring safety. The work by Blach Construction is expected to be completed in September.
“Bottom line, we’re trying to keep our students safe,’’ said Charlie Faas, the university’s vice-president of administration and finance. “We’re trying to keep our patrons safe. And we’re trying to keep our staff safe, making sure there’s a good work environment for them.’’
There, in the standard eight paragraphs, is the who-what-where-when of the story. But a story that deals with suicide and a change to the building’s heart is never quite so simple. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle.
For starters, this is a big job: If you walk into the King Library, you’re immediately confronted by a huge construction site that suddenly makes the big library feel much smaller.
Faas says the university’s aim is to preserve the look and feel of the atrium, which was part of the design by the firm of Gunnar Birkerts, the Latvian-born design architect for the $178 million building.
“It’s a good-looking building,’’ Faas told me. “We went through a lot of time and effort so that we’d have these safety railings fit in with the design and architecture. We don’t want this to look like it’s an afterthought, a bolt-on.’’
Fair enough. Yet glass around the atrium removes something of the breathtaking feel of the building. It’s a prophylactic — arguably an essential one — but a costly acknowledgment that city and university officials did not foresee the jumpers.
In some ways, the changes in the atrium reflect what is happening with the Golden Gate Bridge, where authorities are installing a lightweight stainless steel net that will extend 20 feet out from the sides of the bridge.
The second piece is the personal side, particularly for librarians and university officials. When I first met Papazian before she took over at SJSU, she struck me as a vigorous, forceful administrator unafraid to take a bold step.
On the day after the Feb. 1 suicide, the library staff gathered for a debriefing that was attended by Papazian and four vice-presidents — and it was quickly clear that the suicide had delivered a profound shock to the employees.
“It had a huge impact on Mary and me,’’ said SJSU administrator Faas. “It became personal for me because I saw how instances like this impact the staff on their day to day jobs. They were afraid to walk through the atrium.’’
The final piece is the story of the victim himself. We don’t ordinarily name suicide victims. But in my reporting, I learned a bit about him: Neither an SJSU student nor an employee, he had graduated from UC Davis with a computer science degree. At the time of his death, he was living on federal disability payments.
The 36-year-old was a talented photographer of still scenes: On the web, I’ve come across a lovely photo he took of the interior of St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown San Jose. He specialized in renderings of “fractals,’’ abstract objects.
Last Wednesday afternoon, I called the victim’s father, a Santa Cruz man in his sixties who said he was “quite surprised’’ at his son’s suicide.
When I told the father that the city and university were going to put in more than $2.6 million to retrofit the atrium, his reaction surprised me. “I think they’re wasting their money,’’ he said. “If someone wants to commit suicide, they’re going to find a way to do it.’’
It is an argument that Papazian and her administrators have heard before. But their view is that something has to be done now, on their watch, in their building. It’s no lip service: On every floor, security officials are guarding the atrium to prevent one last fall.
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