Devastating Blaze Adds Chapter to Central Library’s Fight for Survival

From Associated Press

For more than 20 years, the Los Angeles Central Library has been a political football, attacked as a firetrap by some local officials but hailed by others as a small gem among towering downtown office buildings.

The 60-year-old, neo-classical building--devastated by flames, smoke and water Tuesday--had once been planned for destruction because it was obsolete as a major library. However, it was rescued in recent years by a citizens coalition that devised a scheme to refurbish the edifice with financing from the sale of its airspace rights to developers eager to exploit the city’s fastest-growing high-rise area.

It was too soon to say Tuesday what the building’s fate might be.

Rebuilding Favored


City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay said the downtown landmark, with its central tower topped by a mosaic-covered pyramid, probably would have to be rebuilt.

Ironically, planning for renovation had begun before the fire. The library was to have been emptied by July of its collection of 2 million books, periodicals, photographs, recordings, maps, patents, manuscripts and exhibits.

The nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy estimated that 225,000 photos and negatives dating to 1850 were stored there. It also had one of the largest collections of patents in the nation.

The library, designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and dedicated July 15, 1926, was declared an historic cultural monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board in 1967. It is listed on the national register of historic places, and the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects declared it a distinctive Los Angeles landmark. It was named in 1954 after longtime Library Commissioner Rufus B. von KleinSmid.


“It’s just part of downtown,” said library curator Betty Marsh. “It’s a very unusual building, and it sort of is a welcome site among all the glass towers that have been going up around it. It’s just a real treasure of Los Angeles.”

The design of the building was patterned after Goodhue’s earlier creation of Nebraska’s state Capitol.

Pressure of Storage Needs

For many years the library building featured numerous entrances, tile pools and rolling expanses of grass. One by one these attractions were reduced or eliminated by pressures for parking places and storage needs.

A few years ago, the library administration proposed razing the 400,000-square-foot building, which had been criticized as a firetrap that sweltered in summer with no air conditioning. The Fire Department had repeatedly argued that it should be condemned as uninhabitable.

It was proposed that the expensive property be sold to developers with a new library to be built elsewhere with the proceeds. Civic leaders and conservationists fought the plan with the airspace sale proposal, which was adopted by the City Council.

The library, decorated with paintings and sculpture of classical allegories both inside and out, is a three-story structure with a full basement and is topped by a pyramid of tile mosaic featuring a sunburst. Atop the pyramid is a golden hand holding a lighted torch symbolizing light and learning. The main rotunda features a huge mural by Dean Cornwall depicting the four eras of California history.

The middle floors are organized into tiers or stacks, where the public is not admitted. Library workers would fetch the books that the patrons wanted.


Called a Fire Hazard

Firefighters contended that those stacks were a fire hazard, and indeed that is where authorities believe Tuesday’s fire broke out.

The redevelopment plan called for workers virtually to gut the building and renovate it inside, then build a mostly subterranean research library beneath what is now a lawn area on the east side of the property. The western side, which was once a park with fountains and is now a parking lot for employees, would be restored as a park with a subterranean parking lot.

Three years ago, the Hollywood Branch Library, repository of some motion picture lore, was destroyed by a fire set by vandals. A civic campaign was launched to rebuild it and producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. donated $3 million in memory of his mother. The rebuilt library is scheduled to open in June.