One for the Books: Letters on the Commemoration of the Founding Trustees of the Los Angeles Public Library, 9-10 September 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most important educational hallmarks of the development of a town or city in the mid-19th century, along with good public schools, was a proper public library. In Los Angeles, the inaugural movement to create such a facility came in 1844, when the pueblo was a remote outpost on the northwestern frontier of Mexico. The late Glenna Dunning, a long-time librarian at the Los Angeles Central Public Library, wrote that an association called Los Amigos del País launched “a social gathering place” on Calle Principal (Main Street) near the Plaza.

The space had a few tables and chairs and offered donated books, newspapers and magazines to patrons. Dunning wrote that “within a year or two, however, interest in the reading room diminished” and it was closed with the property sold at a lottery, won by Andrés Pico, the prominent general who later commanded Californio forces against the invading American military, which seized California during the Mexican-American War.

The next effort was launched by The Mechanics’ Institute, which took its name from a prominent San Francisco membership library founded in 1854 and which still exists. The association acquired a corrugated iron building at the southeast corner of Spring and Court streets, cater corner to the newly established courthouse and jail in the Rocha Adobe, sold to the city by Jonathan Temple, and across from the large open space where Temple built his Market House (for many years the County Courthouse) in 1859. Like its predecessor, however, the reading room, opened in 1856, lasted just a couple of years and folded.

Los Angeles Star, 2 April 1859.

A third effort came the next year, in 1859, when, on 4 April, a public meetings was held at the express office of Wells, Fargo and Company and the gathering was called by a raft of citizens, of whom fourteen were named. They included Francis Mellus, Myer J. Newmark, Philip Sichel, John Foy, Israel Fleishman, Henry N. Alexander (the local Wells Fargo agent), Horace S. Allanson, Felix Bachman and the Workman brothers, William H. and Elijah H., nephews of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.

At the end of May, the Los Angeles Star stated “we are very glad to know the endeavor to establish a library and reading room in this city is likely to prove successful” after noting that a meeting was held several days prior. At that gathering, held in the offices of Justice of the Peace Charles E. Hale, a constitution was written and by-laws established, as well as the decision that “the admission fee is to be $5 [presumably this was a one-time charge?], and $1 a month subscription.” There were to be four officers (president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer) and seven directors, while a librarian was to be hired and “receive such recompense as the association may agree upon.”

In July, an election was held for the Los Angeles Library Association with directors including federal land agent James H. Lander; John Frohling (later a famous San Francisco wine-maker and dealer); Henry Mellus (who was mayor of Los Angeles the following year, during which he died in office); attorney Samuel F. Reynolds; County Supervisor Ralph Emerson; lawyer, orator and Confederate sympathizer E.J.C. Kewen; and attorney Ezra Drown, after whose death a few years later his only child, Walter, became the ward of William Workman and who later lived and worked at the Homestead and for William H. Workman in Boyle Heights.

Star, 23 July 1859.

The officers in the fledgling enterprise were treasurer Francis Mellus, a merchant and brother of Henry; secretary Israel Fleishman, also a merchant; vice-president Juan Jose Warner, born Jonathan Trumbull Warner, and another long-time resident of the city going back to the late Twenties ; and, as president, Jonathan Temple, who came to California from Hawai’i in 1827 and settled in Los Angeles, as only the second American or European to live in the town, the next year. Temple was another successful merchant and owned Rancho Los Cerritos in what became the Long Beach area.

The library opened on 15 September in the Arcadia Block, the first brick business building in the city and erected by Abel Stearns, who came to Los Angeles in 1828, just after Temple. The Star soon reported that “the Library Association rooms are now open, and are supplied with all the leading periodicals and papers, not only of the State but of the Union. Such an institution has long been desired here, and now the want is supplied, we hope the citizens of all classes will rally to its support. The rooms are comfortably fitted up and nowhere can one spend a leisure hour more profitably than by availing himself of the privileges of the literary. The terms of subscription are within reach of all and we hope to see a large list of subscribers. Contributions of books will be thankfully received by the committee.”

In 1860, Temple was again elected president, with a new vice-president being Joseph Lancaster Brent, who was the dominant figure in local politics, but soon left to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War and never returned. Fleishman and Francis Mellus also retained their offices, as did directors Henry Mellus, until his death later in the year, Reynolds and Emerson. Joining the board were vintner Jean-Louis Sainsevain, Thomas G. Barker (a county supervisor in 1861), and Methodist minister, the Reverend William E. Boardman.

Star, 24 September 1859.

While there were donations of funds and materials for the library, including Henry Mellus giving his collection of books, the institution too suffered the fate of its predecessors and did not last long. The economy was poor and worsened with floods and droughts during the first half of the Sixties and fees may have been too high. Dunning added that there were delays in receiving newspapers from the east and that new books were hard to come by. The library association folded and it was about another decade before a new effort was undertaken as greater Los Angeles was in the midst of its first major growth period and just prior to the opening of its first high school.

In early December 1872, after the Star lamented that the lack of library caused “injury” to the reputation of a growing Los Angeles, in the midst of its first significant and sustained period of growth that began several years earlier, a meeting of some 200 citizens was held at the Merced Theater (the building of which still stands on Main Street next to the Pico House hotel building and the Plaza. An executive committee was formed to get the process of establishing a new library going.

On the 16th, the Star reported on the proceedings of another conference held two days prior at the rooms of the District Court in the former Market House built by Jonathan Temple. Attorney George H. Smith presented the committee’s report, stating they had 150 confirmed memberships, including nine life memberships at $50 each, and annual fees of $5, $400 in cash donations, and a gift of books. John G. Downey, who as governor in 1861 was feted at the former library rooms when visiting his hometown on official business, “offers the use of suitable rooms (those lately occupied by the United States Land Office) free of rent for three months” in his block at the northwest corner of where Temple, Main and Spring streets then met.

Star, 16 December 1872.

Stating that furnishing and preparing for opening would cost $1,000 beyond membership fees for buying reading material and noting that there was an offer by a local musician to put on a benefit concert for the nascent enterprise, Smith told the assemblage that thirteen trustees were to be elected on behalf of the library association. The proceedings then moved to the election of the trustees by a live vote and it included: Downey; Smith; merchant Samuel B. Caswell; engineer and postmaster Henry K.W. Bent; District Court Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda; William H. Mace; Andrew W. Potts; R.H. Dalton; General George Stoneman, a prominent Union Army leader from the Civil War and future California governor; E.M. Stanford; W.B. Lawlor; attorney John R. McConnell; and Thomas W. Temple.

Temple was the 26-year old son of F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman and, after several years as a partner in the iron-working firm of Childs and Hicks, he joined the Temple and Workman bank as cashier. He was a popular member of Los Angeles society and was called “Lord Chesterfield” because of his manners. There was no doubt that he was being groomed to replace his father in the bank and he entertained a run for county treasurer in 1873, though he ended his candidacy soon after announcing in favor of his father, who narrowly lost the race. Being trustee of the library was likely a way to burnish his credentials among the city’s elite, though this isn’t to say that he didn’t value the institution for its own sake.

Of those cash donors, Temple and his father each contributed $50 as did Dr. John S. Griffin and Dr. Frederick A, MacDougall (later mayor of the city). Lumberman John M. Griffith gave $25 and merchant Harris Newmark (who quickly replaced Stanford on the board), viniculturist Mathew Keller, and educator Henry D. Barrows each donated $20. Kewen, involved in the 1859 library project and the law partner of McConnell, offered $150 in books. The meeting closed with Downey’s motion to petition the state legislature to allow for an election “that a small tax might be levied for one year upon the taxpayers of this city for library purposes,” though it appears this vote never took place.

“Homes in Los Angeles City and County,” William McPherson (Los Angeles: Mirror Book & Job Printing Establishment,) 1873.

While the formation of the Los Angeles Library Association, version 2.0, was at the end of 1872, an advertisement in the publication Homes in Los Angeles City and County, published by the Mirror Book and Job Printing Establishment in soft-cover format in 1873 stated that the organization was established on the first day of the year and it was then that the facility opened to the public. It added “the Association has now upon its shelves upwards of twelve hundred volumes of valuable books; receives daily through the mails twenty-two daily and a large number of weekly and semi-weekly newspapers; eighteen of the principal magazines and many illustrated papers, both American and foreign.”

It was added that “tourists and sojourners” could use the rooms “on the Librarian Card, for four weeks, free of charge” while membership was $2,50 with monthly dues of fifty cents. Those who paid in advance were charged $5 a year. McConnell held the office of president; Judge Sepulveda, who was just thirty-one, was the vice-president; and Temple was treasurer, while John C. Littlefield served as librarian. Among the directors, all remained as elected in December, except that Downey, Stoneman and Newmark departed and were replaced by Dr. William F. Edgar, bookseller William J. Brodrick and merchant Isaiah M. Hellman, sometimes confused with his cousin, the banker Isaias W. Hellman.

In late summer 1875, the boom went bust as the state’s economy cratered and the news hit Los Angeles and sent panicked depositors to Isaias W. Hellman’s Farmers and Merchants and that of Temple and Workman, where Thomas was a cashier. The former, particularly well-led by the brilliant Hellman, survived, but the latter, spectacularly mismanaged, did not. The library also suffered and, while Thomas Temple was one of three directors to resign in November 1877, it was decided the following year to have the institution managed by the City.

Los Angeles Times, 11 December 1925.

Over subsequent decades, the library improved its holdings, its financial picture and its outreach to residents. Head librarians like Mary Foy, the first woman to head the institution, and Charles F. Lummis, were important to its development, along with others not so well known. By the 1920s, it was clear that as the population exploded and the demand was increasing for patronage, even as branch libraries were established throughout the growing metropolis, a much better central facility downtown was needed.

The site of the former Normal School, the teacher’s college opened in the early 1880s on the hill just west of Central Park (renamed Pershing Square in the late 1910s) and which morphed into U.C.L.A., was acquired and a remarkable eclectic design by Bertram Goodhue (who died before the structure was finished in 1926) and his associate Carlton Winslow. As part of the project, it was decided to have a memorial for the founders of the institution over a half century prior.

A leading figure in the effort was Arthur S. Bent, son of Henry K.W. Bent, one of those first trustees. The younger Bent was a contractor who, with his brother, owned a highly successful firm that built irrigation flumes, oil reservoirs, and dams, among other concrete infrastructure elements. He also was involved prominently in civic associations, especially chambers of commerce, being head of the United States chamber, the state chamber the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Times, 7 July 1926.

Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s holdings are copies sent to Walter P. Temple of letters to Bent from J. Perry Worden, hired by Temple a few years prior to write a history of the Workman and Temple families, a project that went unrealized, but also tasked to do much more. In this case, Worden wrote to Bent on 9 and 10 September 1925 to offer, in his inimitable way, suggestions for how the tablet, inset in a wall of a rotunda at the north end of the new library building should look.

The 9 September letter explained “Mr. Walter P. Temple, knowing my interest in California history, has kindly sent me a copy of the text for the proposed Tablet to the Pioneer Founders of the Los Angeles Public Library, commemorating the first Board of Trustees . . .” He added “I could not be otherwise than interested in a commemoration so eminently fitting, and any criticism I might have to offer would naturally be made only in the interest of the most perfect form and the strictest accuracy for this proper memorial, perpetuating, as it will, names worthy of honor and names for the most part long since pleasingly familiar to the local patriot.”

These samples, along with others in prior posts here from Worden’s missives to the Temples, give a good idea of his particular form of prose. He then asked Bent “what was the source of your information, that you feel assured you are correct in the lists given above?” This meant the names of the thirteen trustees, as Worden had a correction, questioned the name of Dalton (which was correct, after all) and wondered if Brodrick, who attended the first meeting, should be listed as he become a trustee in 1873 Finally, he was curious to know if “VERY strictly speaking, were these Trustees from 1872 to 1876, or from the beginning of 1873?


The historian then told Bent that “I believe that the present form of this list is INARTISTIC, and as such it ought to be reconsidered.” This was because “as an historian, I am always in favor of perpetuating in more or less entirety the FULL NAMES of historic personages, that in later years there may not be any confusion as to their identity, and that posterity may also learn to know names that in their day were perhaps picturesque.’ His suggestion was to “give the form generally used by them, o that which was generally printed in their time by both newspapers and biographical-historical volumes.”

The problem with this is that, in many cases, spelling out all parts of the name was not actually used by those people or printed as such. Bent’s father, for example, was listed in public as H.K.W. Bent, even though Worden advocated for the expansive Henry Kirke White Bent. The same was true with A.W. Potts. In Temple’s case, it could be both T.W. Temple or Thomas W. Temple.

Additionally, Worden advocated for using punctuation on the tablet as “a matter very much desired” because the text sent to him “is NOT well, or accurately punctuated, but it CAN be,—in a jiffy.” He explained he saw a memorial, perhaps at the Los Angeles Times building, that “jarred on my optics” because of a perceived error, so he told Bent that, “particularly in a tablet for a library building, such a text should be faultless.” He concluded by asking that “you will keep me informed as to the progress of the memorial.”


The letter of the following day opened with the statement that “in rushing your letter yesterday,” Worden “forgot to suggest that, in my opinion,” Temple’s name should be spelled out completely, as with Bent’s father, and rendered as “Thomas Workman Temple.” This was because “it does honor, and perpetuates, at the same time, the name of one of the most famous of all Southern California pioneers, William Workman.”

He asked Bent to include that in his list from the day prior and felt the need to add that “from my wide travel and examination of innumerable tablets, that the full form of historic names [these five words were underlined] is the most appealing to historians, biographers, genealogists, etc., all of whom are up a tree in their quandary as to the identification of two or more persons having the same initials to their names.”

He finished by telling Bent that “may I express the hope that somewhere, somehow, in the new Library there will also be a commemoration of the effort for a public library, made in 1859 when John Temple was president of the organization, with other distinguished pioneers as associates.” Naturally, reference could be found on page 256 of Harris Newmark’s memoir Sixty Years in Southern California, which Worden edited and, to a significant degree, wrote by putting it into a narrative form.


It turned out that Worden’s suggestions went unheeded and that, when the library opened in summer 1926, the tablet read: “In honor of the pioneer founders of the Los Angeles Public Library. The first board of trustees 1872-1878. John G. Downey-president; H. K. W. Bent; S. B. Caswell; R. H. Dalton; W. B. Lawlor; W. H. Mace; J. R. McConnell; Harris Newmark; A. W. Potts; Ygnacio Sepulveda; George Hugh Smith; George Stoneman; T. W. Temple. 1925. Being Dead They Yet Speak.” Of course, some of these men left the board and there were others who served through 1878.

The Lowdrick M. Cook Rotunda has several other memorials, including to the Board of Library directors, the chief librarian and the architects; one to the librarian Everett Perry, who served for over two decades; and pone to Rufus von KleinSmid, a library commissioner for almost thirty years and longtime president, for about a quarter century, of the University of Southern California, whose support of eugenics has led to his name being stripped very recently from its Center of International and Public Affairs building.

Worden’s letters are an interesting footnote to the story of the founding trustees tablet, even if his pointed recommendations were not implemented. As the library approaches its centennial in that building, it will be interesting to see if there will be any public discussion of the thirteen men who launched the Los Angeles Public Library, but also of those who came before, as noted in Glenna Dunning’s article.

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