Through the Viewfinder with One for the Books: A Snapshot of the Vermont Square Branch Library, Los Angeles, 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Just a short distance southwest of Exposition Park and the University of Southern California, Vermont Square is a community of roughly two-and-a-half square miles comprising somewhere in the vicinity of 54,000 people, of whom a solid majority are Latino, while the African-American population is also substantial. The earliest residential tracts were developed there in the first years of the 20th century, with the Southwest Land Company acquiring almost a quarter-section, or 160 acres, southwest of Vermont and Vernon avenues with the first project called Vermont Avenue Square, denoted as “The Largest and Choicest Subdivision in the Southwest” of the Angel City.

In addition to such amenities as graded and oiled streets, cement curbs, 5-foot wide sidewalks and 10-foot parkways between the curbs and walks, electric streetlights, and water mains at each lot, the tract highlighted “suitable building restrictions,” which was a way of thinly disguising the racially restrictive covenants that were in place virtually everywhere in the area, generally with language such as (this is from a 1906 deed to property in Boyle Heights from a new Temple family donation) “the title hereby granted shall be forfeited . . . provided said second party [buyer], his heirs or assigns, shall sell, lease, rent or convey said premises of any portion thereof, to any person not of the White or Caucasian race . . .”

Los Angeles Express, 17 March 1906.

Also mentioned in advertisements, from fall 1905, was that a park would be established on the tract, such that it “will occupy the entire square” and “will be placed in the center of the subdivision.” Moreover, the park “will be laid out in beds by a landscape gardener and will be planted with choice shrubs and flowers.” Over the next several years, other tracts, including the Vermont Avenue Villa Tract, which adjoined Vermont Avenue Square on the south and included a connection to a new Los Angeles Railway (yellow car) line on 54th Street, and Vermont Square, another Southwest Land Company effort, also abutting the earlier development, hailed as “The Tract That Made the New Southwest Famous” but moving further west to Western Avenue.

As the Vermont Square community grew, another important amenity for the neighborhood was the construction of a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Everett R. Perry was hired to helm the vital educational institution in 1911 and an early project for him was the establishment of the Vermont Square branch—his tenure was long enough that he also was a core figure in the building of the incredible central library, which opened in 1926. A key component to the addition of branch facilities in an ever-growing, in terms of area and people, City of the Angels, included securing money from the Andrew Carnegie Library Fund.

Los Angeles Herald, 14 April 1909.

Carnegie, born in 1835 in a town in Scotland across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, migrated with his impoverished family to Pittsburgh when he was a young teen. He worked a variety of jobs in the gritty and dirty industrial metropolis and drew the attention of railroad magnate Thomas A. Scott, becoming a superintendent of a local division of the Pennsylvania Railroad (familiar to those of you who play Monopoly.)

As the iron industry grew by the Civil War years, Carnegie seized the opportunity to branch off into this realm by founding a bridge company and quickly added to his emerging wealth, which really took off after he became aware of the Bessemer process of making steel and constructing a steel plant in the mid-Seventies. With his associate Henry Clay Frick, the budding magnate quickly built up his business and Carnegie Steel became a juggernaut, producing more steel by the end of the 19th century than all of Great Britain, previously the plant’s preeminent producer of the product.

Los Angeles Times, 22 November 1911.

There was a price, however, to the staggering success. America’s burgeoning industries made millionaires out of a handful of immensely powerful tycoons (J.P. Morgan and John Rockefeller to name just a couple), but workers were all-too-often working grueling hours in dangerous conditions, leading to growing unrest and spawning a labor movement in which unionization ran violently into conflict with the capitalists who insistently resisted collective action by their workforce.

In 1892, this came to a brutal clash with the Homestead strike of July 1892, in which Frick, manager of the plant and with the full support of Carnegie, who was in Scotland at the time, employed heavy-handed tactics to break the union that represented a large proportion of the workforce at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead plant near Pittsburgh. Private detectives from the well-known Pinkerton agency battled employees and others before a huge National Guard force was brought in to quell the unrest and restore order. A dozen people perished in the conflict and Carnegie, who publicly professed a pro-union stance and claimed to be conflicted about wealth and privilege, was branded as an industrial tyrant.

Los Angeles Record, 3 January 1912.

Within a decade, Carnegie sold his empire, after a hostile takeover was launched, to Morgan, and reaped a quarter million dollars in proceeds, equivalent to some $4.5 billion in modern money. He immediately moved to dispense most of his fortune through philanthropy, though some mused that he did this to ease a guilty conscience and to repair his battered reputation. Among his efforts was the establishment of the library fund, which invested some $40 million for almost 1,700 facilities throughout the United States, including the Vermont Square branch, the first of a half-dozen in the Los Angeles city system to be constructed with Carnegie funds.

The 19 September 1911 edition of the Los Angeles Times, a virulent anti-union paper and proponent of the so-called “open shop,” reported that Perry appeared the prior day at the meeting of the city park commission to request “the south half of Vermont Square [Park] as the location of one of the Carnegie libraries.” The librarian told the board that half of the site would suffice for the purpose while “the balance should be left for a small park.” The commissioners agreed to recommend to the City Council that Perry’s proposal be accepted and that the park department “will care for the entire ground and will charge up to the library department the cost for attending to its share of the square.”

Express, 4 May 1912.

Two months later, in its 22 November edition, the Times noted that the well-known architects, Myron Hunt and Silas R. Burns, Jr., whose work included such landmarks as the Automobile Club of Southern California headquarters, the Wilshire Ebell Club, the Wilshire Country Club and Pasadena’s Hotel Maryland. Notably, no plan was submitted and, while the exterior was to conform in some way with the community around it, the interior was to be amenable to standards of the national association of librarians. This meant that the center entrance was to lead to the open circular librarian’s desk, so that a clear view could be had of the flanking pair of wings and the “open rack department to the rear of the building.”

The Los Angeles Record of 3 January 1912 observed that with Carnegie’s personal approval of the plans drawn up by Hunt and Burns with a cost estimate of $35,000, reflecting a sixth of the total library fund contribution of $210,000 for the six branch projects, work would soon begin to secure contracts for construction. It was added that “the plans show a building of concrete, brick and terra cotta, generally modeled after the architecture of the Renaissance period,” while the capacity of volumes was slated for 10,000.

Times, 16 June 1912.

The Los Angeles Express of 2 April 1912 reported that the City Council’s finance committee adopted a resolution calling for $3,500 in annual maintenance of the library (with $21,000 to be earmarked for those half-dozen branches), but the Council elected to return the proposal back to the committee for further review. One councilmember protested using general fund revenues because there was a special tax fund for the library system, but it was pointed out that a condition of accepting Carnegie’s offer was that the $21,000 for the libraries be in addition to the tax.

A month later, the paper noted that, while there were differing views on where to place the other five Carnegie facilities, the Vermont Square location was set, because of the united feeling of residents and (perhaps more importantly) the city’s ownership of the site. Beyond this, it was stated that locals “can see that a library will greatly enhance the value of their property” in addition to its function as a community service along with the excellent schools in the neighborhood. It was added that the City Council finally approved the appropriation as outlined in the Carnegie contract.

Los Angeles Municipal News, 26 February 1913.

In mid-June, the library board approved the low bid of $30,000 by John F. Atkinson as contractor, while a heating contract was ratified at just under $600, with work expected to begin later in the month. Given these totals, there was confidence the $35,000 received from Carnegie would be sufficient to cover construction expenses, though if the cost was to go beyond that amount, there was a belief that more money could be obtained from the mogul’s fund.

Nearly nine months later, the library approached its completion and the Times of 18 February 1913, noted that

The artistic Vermont Square branch library, the first to be completed and the only one that is an outright gift to the city, in so far as the ground is concerned, in the series to be constructed through the gift of Andrew Carnegie, will be dedicated on March 1.

As for the structural details, it was reported that “the handsome building is of fire-proof construction, the exterior being cased in cream-colored glazed brick and white tile.” The roof was described as “the genuine Spanish type” with hollow red tile with “a heavy frieze of open woodwork under the eaves” in conjunction with “the coping around the top of the open-air reading room on the northeast corner,” painted in a soft green “in pleasant contrast with the other exterior finish.”

Times, 18 February 1913.

For the 49th Street main entry, it was added that the “high arched doorway, with its setting of two large flat pottery flower vases, gives a handsome and artistic effect,” while the east entrance led to a basement lecture hall, while the west elevation provided two private entries to the basement and main floor. From the main entry to the lobby, the vestibule was done in white marble and large glass partitions came up against octagonal cement pillars with bases of white marble. The paint was an ocher in the interior spaces “and there is an abundance of light, throwing a pleasant glow over the whole” of the structure.

The basement, in addition to the lecture space, had other large rooms, presumably for gatherings, the restrooms, and furnace room and a stairway led to the main floor, where the furniture was of polished oak and was just being installed so that books could soon be brought to their new home. With the park setting of flowers and shrubs, the new facility “is an ornament to the well-built neighborhood” while branches to follow had a high standard to achieve and would have to “‘go some’ to equal the attractiveness of the initial member of the group.”

Express, 1 March 1913.

On 1 March 1913, the library opened to the public, with the Express noting that the facility was not to be officially known as a Carnegie one. The reception was to be held from 8 to 9 p.m. with guests welcomed by the library system’s board of directors, as well as a committee of residents, whose Vermont Square Improvement Association donated the site to the city. Entertainment was provided by a neighborhood male vocal quartet and the orchestra of the nearby Manual Arts High School, founded just a few years earlier.

At 9 p.m., the assemblage repaired to the basement auditorium for remarks by Perry, President L.E. Shepherd of the improvement association, library board member the Rev. Joseph Glass (the rector at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church and later Bishop of the Diocese at Salt Lake City), and Herman W. Frank, from the prominent clothing firm of Harris and Frank (a.k.a., the London Clothing Company) and a major figure in Los Angeles’ Jewish community. After describing the community events focus of the basement space as well as the book stacks and reading rooms (indoor and out), it was noted that the librarian was Caroline Britton, who transferred from the University branch.

The photo shows the front (south) entrance with the name of the facility inscribed on the frieze and the planters on the thick rails of the steps, while the west elevation includes an open basement window and part of the rear portion of the structure. Some of the landscaping in the park setting is also of note. Notably, Vermont Square was the first library of the city system with a building built for that purpose, as the main library was, for nearly a half-century, from 1872 (when Thomas W. Temple was a founding trustee) to 1926, located in structures built for other purposes.

At 110 years of age, the venerable building remains open today and it was designated in 1983 as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #264 and placed, four years later, on the National Register of Historic Places. It retains much of its original architectural character, though the northeast outside reading room, covered by a pergola, has long been enclosed and the indoors changed to meet evolving needs. It serves an entirely different customer base, of course, with the housing restrictions limiting residency to whites for many decades, but with most of its patrons being Latinos and Blacks today. For a brief history of the facility, check out the Los Angeles Public Library page on the Vermont Square branch.

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