Library Blaze: L.A. Loses Not Only a Piece of Itself but a Sense of Itself
Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” said that when he heard the news that fire had destroyed Los Angeles’ historic Central Library on Tuesday, an old African saying came to mind:
“Every time an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground.”
And so, for many people, it was as though Los Angeles had lost an old friend. Writers and scholars reacted with shock and sadness.
The old Central Library--quirky and inefficient, but aging with a certain grace and stateliness--was not just another building. What the city lost in the blaze, many said, was not only a piece of itself, but also a sense of itself.
Sixty years after the Central Library was erected as a repository for, and monument to, books, history and heritage, it had become a furnace for the same. It now appears that the flames may have undone the victory for preservationists who prevailed in a civic fight to save the landmark neoclassical building.
A Staggering Thought
“Oh, Jesus,” said writer-historian John Weaver when told the building was in flames. “It’s just such a staggering thought--to think of that collection being destroyed. . . .”
“That’s a catastrophe,” said Martin Ridge, head of research at the Huntington Library in San Marino. “That library--I don’t think the community really appreciates what it has. It’s a sad loss.”
The destruction of books, manuscripts, documents, microfilm and photographs is estimated to run well into the millions of dollars, said Bob Reagan, library spokesman. Many items are priceless and irreplaceable, he said.
“We couldn’t say even closely what we’ve lost,” Reagan said. “We don’t even have a semi-inventory of the whole collection.”
In fact, Reagan said, the library was planning to take stock of its holdings before the expansion that was planned to begin in 1987. The library, which had faced possible closure and destruction because it was considered obsolete, was to be preserved and expanded under an ambitious development plan.
Before Tuesday’s fire raised new questions about the library’s fate, civic planners envisioned the neoclassical structure as a fitting link to the city’s past.
The library’s collection started taking shape in the 1870s, when the Los Angeles Library Assn. was formed as a private institution and later became public. In 1909, city fathers transferred the 37-year-old public library to the third floor of a department store at 8th Street and Broadway as plans developed for a Central Library.
The opening of the Central Library, designed by renowned architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, was a proud moment for the Los Angeles of the 1920s, as John Weaver recounted in his book “Los Angeles--The Enormous Village.”
“‘Without question one of the noblest buildings in America,” tourists were told in a publicity release at the time. “It follows no accented order of architecture, but through it strains of the Spanish, of the East, of the modern European, come and go like folk songs in a great symphony, rising to new and undreamed-of heights in an order truly American in spirit.”
Weaver used the Central Library as a resource and was a former director of the Los Angeles Library Assn., a support group. The “sweep” of the library’s collection was impressive, he said.
In addition to genealogy and California history, scholars said the library housed an excellent music collection, religious section and patent research department. Collections of biographies, novels and magazines were first-rate, as was the business and economics section
“It’s that old cliche about it being the people’s university,” Weaver said. “I remember going down to board meetings and wondering why I was taking the time. One time I went down there early, and looked at all the people waiting to get in. You could see all age ranges--the very young to the very old. And all the ethnic diversity of the city would be waiting outside. It was most unusual, how many different languages it had, because the city itself is most unusual.
Nothing Like It
“It had such a marvelous collection of material for every need,” Weaver said. “I realized it was the only place they could come. There is nothing else like it.”
“I always had a feeling of confidence when I went there,” Haley said. “I always thought, if I were looking for a place to live, the first thing I would do is visit the library . . . it’s the best barometer there is in seeing how a community regards itself. If a city has high self-esteem, it will have a good library.”
John Schutz, a USC history professor, visited the library twice weekly, most recently for a project on the 18th-Century Massachusetts Legislature.
“They have something of everything. . . . It’s the great public library of Southern California,” he said.
The library structure--once described as “a playful mix of Byzantine, Egyptian and Roman Revival architecture"--lost some of its charm over the years. Ornate entryways were closed for extra storage space. Handsome landscaping gave way to ugly parking lots.
Those factors, along with the boom of the downtown financial district, triggered debate over what should be done with the building.
Listed as a national historic landmark in 1967, the edifice languished during nearly two decades of proposals to restore, tear down, rebuild or expand it. Finally, a complicated, high-density development deal was approved by the City Council last year. The library would get $110.4 million for preservation and expansion, while developers, in turn, would be transferred the rights to build skyscrapers.
Now, at least as far as the library is concerned, plans will change. Publisher Ward Ritchie, former president of the Library Assn., suggested that the city should start looking for the Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue of the 1980s.
“It will have to be done,” he said. “There are a great many current architects who can give us a new building of the same caliber, and it would be more efficient.”
But those who used the library kept coming back to the fact that much cannot be replaced.
The fire “hurts so much of what many of us are trying to develop--some appreciation of Los Angeles culture,” Schutz said. The library, he said, was part and parcel of that culture--"a classical antiquity in a city that doesn’t have much of that.”
City desk assistant Alma Cook contributed to this article