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A Day to Beam at Central Library

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sky grew darker by the minute as rain clouds gathered. But nothing would dampen the spirits of the 200 employees and friends of the Central Library who gathered at a busy downtown intersection Friday for the ritual “topping out” of the historic cultural institution’s new wing.

Nearly five years after an arson fire ravaged the 64-year-old main library and forced it to close, a construction crew hoisted into place, four stories above Grand Avenue, the final 1,800-pound steel girder of the East Wing.

“This is a day of celebration,” Mayor Tom Bradley declared.

Secured to the top of the steel beam, painted white and covered with signatures of library staff members and other well-wishers, was an evergreen and an American flag tied with yellow ribbons. The tree, City Librarian Elizabeth Martinez Smith explained, was a centuries-old tradition meant to guard new buildings from evil spirits.

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But, this being the library, the girder also sported a book--"Above Los Angeles"--a compilation of aerial photographs of the city. It was opened to a panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles.

Smith told the crowd that the topping-out ritual could be traced back to the Druids as well as to an ancient Chinese practice of smearing chicken blood on a gable to appease the gods.

“And here we are . . . appeasing everyone! We’re not taking any chances on this building!” Smith said.

The 1986 fire destroyed 375,000 books. The arsonist was never found. But the loss firmed the resolve of city officials and other supporters to rehabilitate and expand the library--a $211-million undertaking.

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The East Wing, expected to be completed in mid-1993, will house the library’s history, social science, philosophy, religion, science, technology, business, foreign language, art, literature and fiction collections. The library is currently operating out of temporary, leased quarters on Spring Street.

Among the celebrants Friday was Roger Petty, a 25-year employee who works in the library’s shipping department. Before the beam was raised, he knelt on the ground, carefully inscribing it with the names of more than two dozen former and current library staffers.

“It’s too bad the library has been shut down so long,” he said. “I’m glad we’ll be moving back in soon.”

Glen Creason, who works in the history department, scribbled his name, a hasty self-portrait and the words “since 1979"--the year he was hired--beneath it.

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“The first year after the fire was one of the worst of my life--and of everybody in the library.” This, he said, looking up at the skeleton of the new wing, “is great. I can’t wait to get back in here.”


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