Los Angeles Times

Library's roots in the city run deep

This post has been corrected, as noted below.

Huntington Beach's Main Street Library has undergone repairs and updates over its 62 years of existence, but aside from the subtle alterations, the 9,000-square-foot structure has remained substantially the same.

The library was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

It still has its original bookcases, a grandfather clock built by Huntington Beach High School students in 1915 and even sets of tables and chairs from when it opened in 1951.

"They're old, but they're really comfortable and they've held up beautifully," library branch manager Robin Ott said, examining the furniture. "They're not pretty. Some of them have been reupholstered, but some of them have not; they've got the original padding."

Ott, 57, has worked at the Main Street Library since 2002 but has been going to the facility since 1963, when she was in the second grade.

"I can see my little ghost running around here," she said. "When I walk back into that room sometimes, I can just see myself just sitting in there reading."

She was referring to the children's wing of the library, which is currently under renovation after being the home of the nonprofit Beach Cities Interfaith Services' community center for several years. It's almost a miniature version of the main structure — with its three-hinged arches, bay window and clerestory windows.

"I have a lot of distinct memories sitting on that bench under the window," Ott said. "I used to sit there and read 'Wizard of Oz' and Nancy Drew."

Now the branch manager oversees the day-to-day operations of the library and the more than 25,000 items — books, movies and archived material — in its collection.

Though a recent Friday morning at the library was quiet, with a few residents reading books or newspapers in the main room, talks about the library weren't always serene.


'A long time coming'

The Main Street Library dodged a bullet with help from city residents.

In 2009, the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau had considered plans to develop the 1.1-acre Triangle Park, which is home to the library, with an eye toward turning it and everything on it into a cultural center, but many downtown residents wouldn't have that.

"The Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn. had major rallies and gathered about 200-plus people that came to the park to discuss how we wanted to preserve our open land and our historic library," said Gloria Alvarez, chairwoman of the city's Historic Resources Board.

Members of the group gathered more than 7,000 signatures from Huntington Beach residents in support of preserving the site. The organization also attended Planning Commission and City Council meetings to voice disapproval of the plans.

After months of debate, the 2010 City Council approved a reconfiguring of the northern portion of downtown where the library and park are located to prevent commercial development, Alvarez said.

Since then another resident group, Huntington Beach Neighbors, has worked to preserve the library and get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On April 16, that goal came to fruition. Officially registered as the Main Street Library on Triangle Park, the site joins three other Surf City icons: the Newland House at Beach Boulevard and Adams Avenue, the Helme-Worthy home and store at Sixth Street and Walnut Avenue, and the Huntington Beach City Gym at Palm Avenue and 16th Street.

To commemorate the accomplishment, Alvarez and the Historic Resources Board worked to get bronze plaques placed near the entrance of the library and at the corner of Main and Sixth streets.

The committee is hosting a dedication ceremony at Triangle Park at 10 a.m. Nov. 23. City officials are slated to speak at the event, and tours of the nearly finished children's wing will be given.

The newly established historic recognition won't protect the site from being developed in the future, but it will assist with grant applications, Alvarez said.

"It's been a long time coming since 2009," she said.


Supporting the library

When Ott heard that the library had made it into the national register, she decided to celebrate by pulling out some old ledgers from the 1950s and placing them in a display case near the entrance to the building.

Before the advent of library cards, locals would write down their names and addresses to check out books. Ott said visitors who stop by the case are fascinated by the handwriting and like searching for their addresses to see who lived there at that time.

From time to time, Ott said, she goes through the ledgers and spots notable names, such as the Talberts and the Eaders. Even the name Ray Furuta, whose family has long been associated with the historic Wintersburg site, appears in the book with "Wintersburg" written as his address.

"Some of the addresses are things like 'Standard Oil Camp' and that's all it'll say," she said. "It was just a different time. Now we have to bring in two things verifying your current residence. But then, it was just your name and where you lived."

After spending 50 years with the Main Street Library, Ott said she has a deep emotional attachment to the building and that it has pained her to see the conflict that once surrounded it.

"It was very distressing for me. I kept picturing that they're just going to tear it down and turn it into something," she said. "But boy, when it got saved, it was 'Oh, happy day.' I was so relieved and I just hope it stays with us."

People would approach Ott and ask her how they could help preserve the library, and her tip for them was always the same.

"Get a library card and check out some books," she said. "It's the easiest thing you can do. Keep our circulation stats up and show to other local residents that you want to use the building.

"That's the best way to show the city that you value the library." 

[For the record, 9:30 a.m. Nov. 21: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said being on the National Register of Historic Places gave the library added protection from change. It does not. Also, it said the library was 4,500 as stated on the city's website. According to the application for the registry, the library is 9,000 square feet.]


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