Los Angeles Central Library Builds Civic Identity

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor

On a late morning in April 1986, fire detectors sounded at the Los Angeles Central Library, alerting firefighters to a blaze that was to rage for more than seven hours, calling upon a platoon of fire department companies, rescue ambulances, helicopters, salvage companies and library personnel.

Attributed to arson, the fire found abundant fuel. The 1926 building designed by architect Bertram Goodhue was, by 1986, housing thousands of volumes squeezed into internal stacks, all tightly packed onto 6-ft.-high shelves. The building was literally stuffed to the ceiling with combustible materials.

The Hope Street view of the library, known officially as the Richard Riordan Central Library, with skyscrapers in the background. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

The Hope Street view of the library, known officially as the Richard Riordan Central Library, with skyscrapers in the background. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Twenty percent of the library’s holdings were destroyed, and the surviving works suffered significant water and smoke damage. Yet, 85 percent of the total value of the structure and contents were saved.

This building, its history and its significance in the story of Los Angeles is the subject of Ken Breisch’s new book, The Los Angeles Central Library: Building an Architectural Icon, 1872-1933.

An associate professor in the School of Architecture at USC, Breisch says his love for his small-town library in the Midwest began at age 6 or 7. Over the many intervening years, he has published numerous articles, book reviews and book chapters on American architectural history, especially in the areas of library design and vernacular building.

With degrees in art history, Breisch examines library buildings as a means of understanding issues of culture. By focusing on the evolution of the library in Los Angeles, he distinguishes our city at the western edge of the country, its Mexican roots, benign climate and aspirational spirit from the classical idea of a library in the East and Midwest that referenced Greek and Roman ideals in architecture.

L.A.’s first library was subscription-based, established in 1872 by a group of civic and business leaders (all men), who anticipated that their small pueblo of 6,000, predominantly Mexican, would grow into an Anglo-American city. They set up on the second story of the Downey Block at Spring and Temple downtown. The two-room rented spaces included shelves and a librarian’s desk, and more tellingly the Gentlemen’s Sitting Room, set off for chess and checkers.

In 1874, the city established a tax-supported public library, which eventually necessitated expanding the library’s quarters to accommodate the growing collection, and introduced a “ladies parlor.”

Nightengale Shaw, 7, uses the Los Angeles Public Library to supplement her online homeschooling in North Hollywood. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Nightengale Shaw, 7, uses the Los Angeles Public Library to supplement her online homeschooling in North Hollywood. Photo: Bart Bartholomew

The challenge to keep up with the need for ever-larger space and eventually a freestanding building of its own would describe the next 30 years in the library’s evolution.

Breisch introduces readers to one of the most progressive librarians in the country, Tessa Kelso, city librarian from 1889 to 1895, who brought a number of innovations, including developing a librarian training program, opening the first remote delivery station and starting outreach programs.

Kelso’s complaints about “the cramped and inadequate quarters, bad ventilation, delays and confusion which makes the drawing of a book a disgraceful scramble,” led to the first of many calls for a bond issue to build a new library. This initial $50,000 ballot measure was defeated.

 Los Angeles Central Library, left foreground, and surrounding area, ca. 1926. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection 00079535


Los Angeles Central Library, left foreground, and surrounding area, ca. 1926.
Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection 00079535

Charles Lummis, who famously walked from Cincinnati to the Pacific Coast and served as editor of the Los Angeles Times for a short time, managed to convince the library board to appoint him city librarian in 1905. He saw himself as just the person for the job, Breisch writes. “No other public business of $60,000 a year in California is administered by a woman, or is expected to be,” Lummis proclaimed.

The momentum towards an actual library building finally paid off, aided by the success of three successive bonds: $2.5 million for a library and some branches; $500,000 for land and in 1924, another $500,000 for expenses for the main building.

Next came the inevitable interference of politics and power in the nitty-gritty decisions over where to build the library, choosing the architect and approving the building’s design.

At the end of the process, the library board awarded the commission to an unlikely architect, Bertram Goodhue. Even though his bid was the highest, and he was an East Coast practitioner, he won them over with his proposed Spanish Colonial Revival building, which the board thought appropriate to the region.

At first, Goodhue embraced the style evident in the California State Building at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, whose ornate facade and blue-and-gold dome, together with the adjoining California Tower, are among the most recognizable landmarks in San Diego.

But after Goodhue’s design was rejected a number of times, he began to shift away from Spanish Colonial Revival to a more “modern style.” Pencil sketches dated 1923 exhibit simple geometric volumes, devoid of decorative elements of classical architecture. Rectilinear windows were separated by columns topped with sculpted figures.

Chandelier designed by Lee Lawrie hangs in the rotunda of the Los Angeles Central Library.

Chandelier designed by Lee Lawrie hangs in the rotunda of the Los Angeles Central Library.

While the building we see today is decidedly not Spanish Colonial, Goodhue did retain his idea of integrating sculpture in the design, reminiscent of the sculpted figures on the California Tower. Once again, he consulted with sculptor Lee Lawrie, whom he had collaborated with on his Nebraska State Capitol building.

Goodhue’s vision was to manifest a unified and elegant description of the power of the book, succinctly stated on the carved plaque above the Hope Street door: “In the world of affairs we live in our own age; In books we live in all ages.”

“The library aspires to house all of the knowledge of history with a pan-cultural iconography,” said Breisch in a 2013 lecture at the USC School of Architecture. “Sculpture of prominent philosophers carry the theme of the building, ‘the Light of Learning,’ from the East through the ancient world toward the new world and the West Coast, the edge of the continent.”

From their perch above the Flower Street entrance, the sculpted torchbearers Phosphor (the morning star) and Hesper (the evening star), bear scrolls inscribed with representative figures of Eastern culture (Moses, Lao Tse, Mohammed) and Western culture (Socrates, Augustine, Descartes). To stand and look at each of three facades of the building offers a potent and timely reminder of Goodhue’s ecumenical view of moral and ethical teachings.

Phosphor, Hesper and torchbearers, sculpted Flower Street entrance. by Lee Lawrie (1926), stand above the Photo: Bart Bartholomew

Phosphor, Hesper and torchbearers, sculpted Flower Street entrance.
by Lee Lawrie (1926), stand above the
Photo: Bart Bartholomew

He noted the similar moral precepts among all religions, from the Code of Hammurabi to Confucius and the Greek philosophers. “None were right and none were wrong.” Goodhue’s library remains a remarkable architectural and civic accomplishment, having survived threats of demolition in the 1970s, the devastating fire in the 1980s, and cyclical tax revenues.

Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869–1924), n.d. Photo courtesy Goodhue family archives, first published in Romy Wyllie, Bertram Goodhue: His Life and Residential Architecture

Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869–1924), n.d. Photo courtesy Goodhue
family archives, first published in Romy Wyllie,
Bertram Goodhue: His Life and Residential Architecture

“The Los Angeles Central Library made an enduring statement to the people of the city,” wrote Kevin Starr, the former California State Librarian, in the book’s introduction. “Here the people of the City of the Angels are invited to experience the ancient and ever-new gifts of libraries: information, memory, wisdom, practicality and inspiration.”

After 90 years, Goodhue’s building— anchoring an elegant block at the base of Bunker Hill—has grown to become one of the city’s most beloved icons.

(The Los Angeles Conservancy offers a number of tours that provide information on the exterior of the building, Saturdays at 10 a.m. The Library offers free tours of the interior, Monday-Friday 12:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m.)

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