by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is one of the true treasures of the Angel City, not just a vital center of learning, but also an aesthetic jewel, one that survived a devastating fire in the 1980s and rose from the ashes with the wing named for Mayor Tom Bradley completed in 1993. For nearly a century, the Los Angeles Central Library has been a respite for readers, researchers, and residents, as well as visitors, enjoying its books and other resources, along with exhibits, talks, the gardens and other features that make the institution a downtown landmark on many fronts.
The highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is a News Enterprise Association press photograph, dated 28 June 1926, and featuring librarians Elizabeth Fritzie and Lucy Pinney holding what were purported to be the smallest and largest books in the library during the last-minute preparations for the opening, which consisted of a soft one just after Independence Day and a formal dedication on 15 July.
In preparation for these auspicious events, however, the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times on 27 June had a large illustrated spread by Faith Holmes Hyers on the building in its “Metropolitan Features” section with a brief statement that the “New Library Combines Finest in Beauty and Service.” Hyers observed that the move from the former quarters in the Metropolitan Building, just a short distance east on the northwest corner of Broadway and 5th Street. with the library being the main tenant upper floors tenant in that structure since it opened in 1913—the edifice is still with us with those former library spaces comprised, of course, of lofts. She added:
The colossal task of moving 300,000 books, library records, files, and all the various requirements of an institution that serves the public is being carried on by the entire staff and many movers.
The new building on Library Terrace will hold an honorable place in the civic plan which unites art, beauty and dignity with utility, service and progress in conception and execution.
A half-century before the site was part of Prudent Beaudry’s Bellevue Terrace, an audacious development for the mid-1870s given the lack of water, steep grades and other constraints. In the early 1880s, the State Normal School for teacher education (one of its graduates was Mary Julia Workman, daughter of Angel City mayor and city treasurer, William H. Workman) was built on the parcel and provided its valuable educational service for about thirty years before moving in 1914 to what became Los Angeles City College and then morphing into the University of California, Los Angeles.
There were plenty of debates and ideas about what to do with the parcel, but the decision to build a much-expanded and opulent library made a great deal of sense given the site’s history. New York architect Bertram Goodhue and Angeleno Carlton Winslow were hired to design the edifice and, having worked on buildings for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, held in 1915, they were major innovators in the Spanish Colonial Revival style (of which the Homestead’s La Casa Nueva, the residence of the Temple family and completed in 1927, is a masterful example.)
As Los Angeles experienced explosive growth in the first couple of decades of the 20th century and another massive boom in the early Twenties, city librarian Everett Perry worked hard to lobby for voter-approved bonds of $2.5 million for the central building and branch libraries in the city that was sprawling through aggressive annexation. Hyers noted that the $2.3 million central library had “amply provision for growth, with present book capacity at 1,125,000 volumes, floor space of more than 190,000 square feet, and reading room seats for 1,200” so that “this library compares favorably with public libraries of other large cities.” She added that the cost was minimal for so large a structure.
Construction began in October 1924, six months after Goodhue’s death just shy of his 55th birthday and with Winslow completing the project. Hyers noted the uniqueness of the library’s design and that it “signalizes a departure from [a] stereotyped style of public buildings.” She asserted that the library would be studied in its architecture “like the classics in art and music” and would, some day, be an object of “appreciation of its harmony, dignity, [and] intelligent artistry.” While it is considered Art Deco, the Los Angeles Conservancy, formed in 1978 specifically to save the library, notes that “it alluded to ancient Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine, and various Islamic civilizations, as well as to Spanish Colonial and other revival styles” in an exuberant eclecticism that definitely stood alone then and now.
She went on to record that Perry and the library’s board wanted two principal elements: “a building which should express warmth, comfort, hospitality and the means of efficient service, rather than the cold formality of classic styles.” A main inspiration was the Cleveland Public Library (a new facility was completed there in July 1925) in that it was “built around a hollow square with reading rooms occupying all outside areas, as the most practical and comfortable.” With Winslow in charge after Goodhue’s passing (the former referred to the library building as his “favorite step-child”), there were some notable aspects of the project Hyers discussed.
First was to make the library stand out in the midst of such nearby structures as the Biltmore Hotel and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) and that would also “have an easy, gradual approach” given the hilly locale. Significant grading, terracing and cutting of what was previously called “Fifth Street Hill” allowed for improved access from six entrances from Fifth, Flower, Grand and Hope streets. Moreover, “by crowning the spreading structure with the beautiful square tower, the tiled dome and the finial hand and torch, the building is able to dominate its surroundings.”
Providing more construction data, Hyers wrote that the three-story main building was 200 by 239 feet, with a two-story wing of 89 x 129 feet and the tower rising 188 feet. The structural material was reinforced concrete with a stucco surface “to melt into the limestone at the entrances.” On the first two floors were a baker’s dozen of reading rooms, with a lecture and exhibit space and “a magnificent rotunda, the hub of library activities.” The mezzanine level included rooms for quiet study, club meetings and committee gatherings, while the top floor was for administration, including Perry’s office, quarters for the board, staff offices and more.
Specialized spaces included the genealogy room; map room; a photostat area; a draftsperson’s table; a piano room for those wanting to play pieces from the sheet music in the collection; a patents collection; a reading room for the visually impaired; a foreign books section with works in nearly 30 languages; a civics and lecture room with space for art exhibits; and the information desk. Sculpture by Lee Lawrie provided respite from “a sense of strangeness from the great plain wall surfaces” but understanding Goodhue’s conception, a visitor would “be completely converted to admiration of the simplicity, dignity and beauty” of the edifice.
Goodhue was quoted as saying “I should like to be merely one of the three people to produce a building, i.e., architect, painter, sculptor. I should like to do the plan and the massing of the building” and leave the rest to the others. Despite the identification of the library as Art Deco, Goodhue wrote Perry:
I promise to do something of which the city will be proud—to give you a library Spanish in style—at least in spirit. The design as it now stands, is a carefully co-ordinated whole . . . I would make of it a charming oasis hemmed in by its lines of busy—too busy streets.
Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander, who chose sculptural themes and inscriptions for Goodhue’s celebrated Nebraska State Capitol and moved to this area to develop Scripps College for women in Claremont, commented that the architect “believed that he had made certain distinct advances and it is likely that he found in the Spanish suggestion [environment?] of Southern California, a natural kinship with what he had conceived for Nebraska. Lawrie was lionized for his integration of sculpture with the architectural concept, while Alexander’s choice of inscriptions was also given prominence in Hyers’ article.
The last of the triumvirate was Julian E. Garnsey, identified as the painter and interior decorator whose submitted sketches during the selection process were deemed “most in keeping with the Goodhue spirit of design.” Garnsey, whose work included murals for Walter P. Temple’s Temple Theatre in Alhambra (razed in the 1990s), included “patterns laid on in wonderfully harmonized colors of geometrical patterns recalling the Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance styles [that] serve to accentuate rather than conceal the beauty of the concrete structural elements.”
Garnsey stated that “the rotunda, affords a particularly handsome form for decoration” as he explained how the color scheme and use of tile, borders and bands worked with the shape of the space. The children’s reading room (Arthur W. Parsons assisted Garnsey there) and the school and teachers’ space was to be decorated in accordance with Garnsey’s ideas, while other spaces would be addressed later. For example, Dean Cornwell completed a dozen dazzling murals in 1933 that depicted California history.
Hyers concluded by praising the aesthetic “power trio” of Goodhue (well, with Winslow and his contribution to the “step-child”), Lawrie and Garnsey, but also the guiding hand of the practical librarian, Perry, to note that “we begin to realize what it has been to conceive, adjust, adapt, hope and wait, ‘enduring to the end’ for the completion of this long-anticipated library building. She added that the board, including Reverend Francis J. Conaty (the new vice-president), the wife of politician Otto J. Zahn, Mrs. J. Wells-Smith, President Orra Monette, mourned the recent death of vice-president Frank H. Pettingell, who died suddenly on 8 May.
With the soft opening on 6 July, the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News editorialized that “Los Angeles today will realize a hope that has been entertained by patriotic citizens during the past score  of years” but added that the delay was worth it because “now Los Angeles can boast of the possession of probably the handsomest and one of the largest structures ever erected for the exclusive purpose of housing a municipally owned library.” Goodhue was praised for his design and it was noted that the aforementioned “Spanish spirit” was “most appropriate” because “it harmonizes to a great extent with the early history and architecture of Los Angeles, and it will endure in this respect throughout many years to come.”
The piece noted that the library formed more than a half-century ago in two rooms of the “then-pretentious” block built by John G. Downey on land formerly owned by Jonathan Temple, the president of the first library started in 1859, but which soon failed. In 1872, when the library was reconstituted, among its trustees was Thomas W. Temple, Jonathan’s nephew and eldest son of F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of William and Nicolasa Workman, and a “city maker” in Los Angeles of that period.
The Los Angeles Express of the 6th reported that “hundreds of borrowers took advantage of the opportunity to make a tour of the structure . . . [and] activities were brisk today.” It was noted that finishing touches still had to be made to the library and, when it came to the architecture, the paper stated that “it has a typically Spanish atmosphere, although it does not follow this type of architecture in detail.” Rather, there were other styles incorporated but it was “the Spanish treatment that adds considerably to their effectiveness.” In the brief discussion, Parsons was highlighted for his work on murals based on Ivanhoe, the Walter Scott novel.
The Times, in its coverage, also referred again to the “Spanish in spirit” architecture, as well as the softening of the severity of the exterior by Lawrie’s work, which was actually carried out by Edward Ardolino, a native of Italy who came from a family of renowned stone carvers. Additional information of note was that the central library employed almost 275 persons, while some history was included, such as the fact that there was an enabling act in place for small appropriations through taxes for the institution until the city charter was adopted in 1889 (the article erred in saying it was a decade later) and a mayor-appointed board established. Moreover, the library moved that year from the Downey Block to the new city hall on Broadway.
Two years later, the institution was free to the public (the fee was nominal before then) and, in 1906, it was moved to the Laughlin Building Annex at Third and Hill, next to today’s Grand Central Market, but it quickly outgrew that limited space and librarian Charles F. Lummis, an eccentric character, arranged a lease in the Hamburger Building, a new structure for the department store that became May Company at Broadway, Hill Street and 8th Street. The layout there proved to be cumbersome, so the move to the Metropolitan ensued after four years.
After noting that Perry became librarian in 1911, the Times noted that the contract for the new building was let in October 1924 and the cornerstone laid the following May. The final construction cost (the caption in the highlighted photograph called it a “million dollar building”) was pegged at $2.3 million with all work completed and all furnishings installed. Finally, it was recorded that the move from the Metropolitan to the new structure took exactly as scheduled, from 15-30 June, even as the caption asserted that “moving a library is almost worse than building one.”
In its edition of the 7th, the Express took a different tack in discussing the library’s architecture by averring that it was “giving the impression of a magnificent structure in a near-Eastern city, such as Cairo, from the outside,” even as it “is declared to be the last word in convenience and modern library design on the inside.” Also noted was “that classifications for books and information now are so intricate that a far-reaching yet flexible system of cataloguing and filing is necessary. Americanization (a buzz word for the period when it came to working with immigrants) and sociological sections were also mentioned.
With respect to the formal opening on the 15th, 300 invited guests among the Angeleno elite were present for a program in the rotunda as the library was mostly closed from 1 to 4 (the exception being the newspaper and periodical reading room) for this purpose. Speakers included Monette, Winslow, Perry, UCLA’s provost Dr. Ernest C. Moore, and the president of the City Council Boyle Workman, brother of the aforementioned Mary Julia and who was on the council from 1919 to 1927.
In his “Straight Shootin'” column in the Express of that day, managing editor A.Y. Tully proclaimed “for the first time in the history of Los Angeles, Angelenos can be proud of the housing of the public library” whereas previously it was “all the way from over a drug store to messing up with furniture in a department store.” Now, however, it was “dignified” and, once the landscaping matured, it “will be good to look upon.” Tully commended the “spacious and commodious” interior and noted that an art gallery was in the offing for the fall.
The Times added that Winslow would formally present the build to the library board and City and a public reception from 4 to 6 p.m. included a receiving line with Mayor George E. Cryer and his wife, Monnette and his spouse, Rev. Conaty, Mrs. Smith and her husband, Mrs. Zahn and her husband, Perry and assistant librarians Althea Warren (director from 1933 to 1947 and president of the national library association in 1943-1944) and Helen Kennedy (who oversaw the branch system, a formidable responsibility.) Guided tours were offered to show the structure and its many new elements.
It was noted that the current volume of books was shy of 300,000, but capacity was about a million, while future improvements could push that number to 1.7 million. The heating and ventilation system was said to be “the most complete on the Pacific Coast” with 140,000 cubic feet of air drawn in and washed to take out dirt and dust, while cool air was spread by supply fans in the summer and warm air heated in winter and delivered via ducts with additional heating based on changes in various spaces.
There was additional reinforcing of the reinforced concrete building for earthquake purposes, perhaps because of the 1925 Santa Barbara temblor and the mix of cement, sand and gravel was regularly tested for strength after being mixed three times longer, at a minute-and-a-half, than normal, providing 20% extra strength. Finally, it was reported that a natural arroyo at the southwest corner of the property was found during construction and that water still flowed down it. This meant that the foundations had to be placed thirty feet further down below Hope Street where “thick layers of dense blue clay were encountered.” The stratification examined included ancient sea shells and fish bones showing that the site was once covered by the Pacific.
As the Central Library approaches its centennial, the public library generally is undergoing dramatic changes in terms of reading and research habits, the use of technology, and the place of such institutions as community centers with all kinds of social and civic services. Long may this facility remain at its historic location as a key component of the public life of Los Angeles.