Fire Ravages Historic Central Library; 7 Hurt : Books Worth Millions Destroyed as Flames Sweep Through L.A. Architectural Landmark

Times Staff Writers

A major fire ravaged Los Angeles’ historic Central Library on Tuesday, destroying millions of dollars worth of books and archives and severely damaging the downtown architectural landmark that has been source of civic debate for years.

At least seven firefighters were injured in the blaze, which burned out of control more than four hours after starting about 11 a.m. in the periodicals stacks on the second floor of the three-story structure. Investigators said they did not know how the fire started.

About 400 occupants--roughly 200 employees and a like number of patrons--responded to automatic alarms and were evacuated without incident during the initial moments of the blaze.

However, virtually every book in the library suffered some damage, with about 25% apparently destroyed, said library Director Betty Gay. Four years ago, she said, the value of the entire collection was estimated at $69 million.


Tens of thousands of downtown workers--many of them on lunch-hour breaks--watched the fire from windows, sidewalks and rooftops. Rubbernecking motorists hampered fire engines responding to the initial alarms. As the first of more than 35 fire engines rolled up to 5th and Hope streets, only a few wisps of smoke wafted skyward, and it appeared that the fire would soon be contained. Firemen began by trying to battle their way in to the heart of the blaze on foot--postponing the deluge of water that they knew could cause as much damage as the flames.

But as the minutes passed, the flames bored deeper into the core of the building, generating heat, smoke and steam that drove firefighters to cover and permitted the flames to spread virtually unchecked.

“We tried to get in there, but it was just too hot,” Assistant Fire Chief Don Anthony said during a brief break for a gasp of air. “That’s where some of the fellows got hurt.”

The fire, which had started in the southeast corner of the building, moved horizontally and vertically, eventually bursting through the windows at the west end of the building.


‘Getting Away From Us’

“It’s starting to get away from us,” Inspector Ed Reed, a Los Angeles Fire Department public information officer, said at 1:15 p.m. “There’s an enormous supply of magazines, of books, a heavy fire load--a lot of things to burn.”

At 1:45 p.m., the Fire Department switched tactics, smashing out upper-floor windows and pouring in thousands of gallons of water from fire derricks outside the building. The water knocked down the flames, and by 3:30 p.m. the blaze was largely confined to the interior of the building. But at the same time, the flood drenched whatever remained of the books and documents on much of the floor space below.

Fire officials said they had few options in their choice of tactics.

They explained that the concrete-and-steel structure was built in four, boxlike vertical “quadrants,” joined together to form a square. Once the fire got started in the southeast quadrant, they said, it was free to spread vertically through the eight tiers of books in that quadrant--and largely free to spread horizontally across the passageways on each floor that connect the quadrants.

Cited for Fire Violations

Library spokesman Bob Reagan said the quadrants, which can draw flames up like a chimney during a blaze, had long troubled fire safety experts.

He said the 61-year-old structure--a topic of lengthy debate between preservationists who admire its neoclassic architecture and developers who covet the downtown site--had been cited repeatedly for fire violations due to its lack of horizontal and vertical fire barriers.


The City Council gave final approval last July to a $1-billion downtown redevelopment project whose centerpiece included renovating and expanding the aging building.

Some 15 years in the planning, the renovation of the library would have expanded it to twice its size, and was expected to have cost more than $110 million.

Surrounding the library, according to plans, would have been two office towers--one 73 stories and the other 65 stories--as well as parks, fountains and commercial development.

Construction was to have been completed by 1991.

Tangled Wreckage

Firefighters battling Tuesday’s stubborn blaze encountered the tangled wreckage of shelving that collapsed and blocked the narrow stairs and passageways within the stacks.

The firefighters carried only enough oxygen to last 15 to 20 minutes in the smoldering interior of the building, so officials had to rotate firefighters in and out in 15-minute shifts, ultimately using a crew of more than 250.

Several had to be helped out of the building, scalded by the blasts of steam generated when the water from their hoses was vaporized and hurled back at them by the intense walls of flame.


“It’s like pulling the lid off an immense, boiling pot,” Reed said.

Six of the seven men injured were hospitalized--two at the County-USC Medical Center and two at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan.

By 5 p.m., the blaze was declared under control, but firefighters said there were still dozens of minor flare-ups to snuff out, a process that could take hours. Library officials said it would be days before they would be able to fully assess the damage to the structure and its vast collections of books, magazines, newspapers, documents and recordings.

Major Assets

Gay said the library housed the third-largest municipal book collection in the nation, about 2 million volumes. She said that among the major assets believed lost was a collection of U.S. patents and inventions--the only one of its kind in the West. The most valuable items were in a rare book vault in the basement, which had yet to be checked for possible damage, she said.

Experts in book restoration have already been contacted in an effort to see which of the damaged books can be salvaged.

At nightfall Tuesday, arson investigators said the embers were still too hot to make any determination as to how the fire began.

The structure looked relatively intact from the outside, but firefighters said the interior was a jumble of scorched furniture, shelving, fixtures and woodwork, and it was still to early to judge the structural integrity of the remains.

The cleanup work that began at dusk was hampered by a massive, downtown traffic jam--another legacy of the fire.

Streets in the area of the library--situated in a landscaped block bordered by 5th, Hope, 6th and Flower streets--remained blocked well into the evening by fire equipment, and homeward- bound commuters were forced to make detours onto routes already crowded with the rush-hour traffic.

Freeway Ramps Closed

Most downtown ramps on and off the Harbor Freeway were closed, adding to the frustration of motorists on surface streets seeking a quick route out of downtown. The library, designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and dedicated July 15, 1926, was declared a 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. 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,” library curator Betty Marsh said.

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

Times staff writers Jerry Belcher and Scott Harris contributed to this story.