Downtown L.A. Library Opening a New Chapter : Learning: Expanded, renovated building’s details blend with the past.


Seven years after fire forced its closure, Los Angeles’ Downtown Central Library will reopen its doors this weekend, unveiling an expanded, ornamented, computerized treasury that is a remarkable blending of old and new.

At a free public festival beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, Angelenos will get their first chance to wander through the rehabilitated halls of the 67-year-old landmark and into the new Tom Bradley Wing--an eight-level addition, complete with dramatic glass-roofed atrium.

The $213.9-million project more than doubles the building’s size, making it the third-largest public library in the nation. Where the old edifice was cramped, the new is expansive and imaginative, adorned by a puppet theater, a 235-seat auditorium, a 940-car underground parking garage and a gift shop.


The library’s whimsical murals have been cleaned, its stucco has been patched and its walls have been seismically strengthened. Computers control a new card catalogue and automatic book conveyance system, which delivers books from the closed stacks to the reading rooms on a contraption that winds around the building like a miniature train.

But those who have sneaked an early peek are saying the key to the expanded library’s success is in the details--smaller, subtler touches that gracefully wed the facility’s past to its future.

“The new library is a stunning experience,” said John Welborne, a lawyer and longtime soldier in the fight to save the library and its gardens. “The details can bring tears to your eyes.”

Marrying a modern addition to a historic building is always controversial. Whether it’s a 10-story tower joined to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City or a free-standing annex beside Louis I. Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, the younger partner is often reviled as a shrill, incompatible upstart.

Hoping to avoid such derision, Norman Pfeiffer, the principal architect of Los Angeles’ expanded library, and many collaborators have attempted to combine traditional and innovative elements.

From the pitch of its roof to the slant of its shadows, from its light fixtures to its carpets to the shape of each reading room chair, the addition--while obviously modern--is designed to evoke the grand 1920s library to which it is attached. The pyramid-topped old building, meanwhile, has been rehabilitated with an eye toward instilling a contemporary spirit.


“It’s a wonderful and exciting blend,” said Steade Craigo, the acting historic preservation officer for the state of California. “It’s one of the grandest urban interiors I’ve seen in quite some time.”

The Central Library, which opened in 1926, was never just a place to stack books. Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue designed it as a monument to knowledge, rich with bookish ornament and literary inscriptions.

Goodhue once wrote that in creating such a library, he hoped “to give the people something that will make them scratch their heads--not scratch their heads and give up, but find out what it is all about.” Determined to inspire curiosity and to feed it, Goodhue organized the building around a single theme: the light of learning.

Atop the library’s pyramid, Goodhue placed a sculpted hand grasping a flaming torch--a symbol of intellectual enlightenment. Throughout the building, sculptures, murals and inscriptions explored the same theme, creating such a dense referential mosaic that some said the building had to be “read” to be fully enjoyed.

“The building is like a very controlled illuminated manuscript. . . . (It) narrates a history of the knowledge it holds in the same way churches once illustrated Scripture,” architectural critic Joseph Giovannini wrote in 1981. “Rarely have a building and its use been so thematically related.”

Even as Giovannini was heaping praise on it, the library was dangerously overcrowded and was being threatened with demolition.

But the Community Redevelopment Agency and local executives hit on a way to give it a face lift the city could afford. Assembling the complex financing scheme--which involved selling the low-rise library’s air rights and its historic rehabilitation tax credits--took nearly four years.

In 1983, the architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates was hired to begin the design. In doing so, the architects paid close attention to Goodhue’s linking of form and function and to his painstaking attention to detail.

They did not want to copy their predecessor’s work. In fact, federal standards for historic preservation expressly prohibit architects from making additions appear old.

“You want people to understand that buildings evolve over time. . . . You must not attempt to fool the public,” said Michael Crowe, an architectural historian at the National Park Service who helped oversee the library project. When adding on to historic structures, he said, the goal is “not duplicating, but being complementary.”

The next several years were punctuated by disaster. The fires in April and September, 1986, scorched much of the building, although they caused no serious structural damage. More than 400,000 books were lost. Thousands more were saved--thanks to a round-the-clock campaign by 1,700 volunteers and staff members who evacuated water-damaged books from the sooty building and placed them in freezers to prevent the growth of mold.

The 1987 Whittier earthquake shook the library again, popping some of the colorful tiles off its crowning pyramid. Oil contamination was discovered on the site, as was methane gas. Asbestos had to be removed.

And as they began their work in earnest, architects discovered there was a lack of unanimity in how to proceed. Their first proposed design, submitted in 1987, had to be modified after the Cultural Affairs Commission found that it overshadowed the original building.

“One critic called it ‘flashy, if not garish,’ with ‘vulgar gestures’ and ‘camp aesthetics,’ ” Pfeiffer said of the episode he now calls simply “the brouhaha.”

As the design of the new wing developed, the architects and designers struggled to echo the old without directly imitating it. And Goodhue became their most trusted guide. In his original building, they discovered important clues that served as guideposts in the creation of the wing.

Goodhue’s ceilings, for example, provided much inspiration. Although blanched by steam from the 1986 fires, their colorful stenciled patterns drew the eye upward and were the most lively part of the original library’s interior decoration.

Pfeiffer and his colleagues spent hours studying those ceilings, taking dozens of photos of the intricate designs. The new wing’s ceilings were too low to adorn with similar ornamentation--it would look too busy. Still, over time, the design team came to see a way to incorporate Goodhue’s ideas, sifted through a modern filter.

“We tried to use the past to inform the present,” Pfeiffer said.

First, they flipped the new wing’s decorative emphasis from the ceiling to the floor. Wall-to-wall carpeting was custom-designed in patterns abstracted from Goodhue’s ceiling stencils and murals. Even the colors were borrowed--designers worked with the same palette that Goodhue used to adorn his magnificent rotunda.

“Part of the notion is that these little pieces really tie the facility together,” said Stephen Johnson, an associate partner at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates who was project manager for the library. Like “Hansel and Gretel dropping crumbs through the woods,” Johnson said, designers hoped such subtle details would help visitors make sense of the expanded library as a unified structure, not two halves, old and new.

If they have succeeded, Johnson said, a person who enters the new wing from the old building “will feel like they’re in a familiar zone, though they may not necessarily know why at first.”

Having decided to decorate what was underfoot, the designers began to think about furniture. Again, the goal was to come up with something that gracefully called forth the past without merely mimicking it while also meeting modern needs.

Early on, they decided not to copy the long narrow tables that Goodhue placed in his reading rooms. Library staff had observed that today’s patrons tend to prefer smaller, more personal work spaces. So architects created a square, four-person table--unadorned but for its legs. Cast in a twist, like a unicorn’s horn, the iron legs resemble the handrails that line the stairs in the original library.

Next came the chairs--and here the designers were determined to have fun. Goodhue’s chairs were made of oak, stained to resemble mahogany, with the shape of an acorn cut into their backrests. The new oak chairs are taller and come in a rainbow of colors--in purple, green, red and yellow--an unmistakably modern touch.

And just as Goodhue incorporated art into his original design, the expanded building relies on new artwork to gain contemporary verve. On the perimeter of the new children’s courtyard, a series of decorative metal barriers designed by artist Ries Niemi quote modern-day educators and writers, such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Dr. Seuss.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go,” says one Seuss-inspired panel.

Catalogue cards that were made obsolete by the library’s new computerized system find new purpose in two elevator cabs designed by artist David Bunn. The cabs are papered with the cards of books whose titles begin “The Complete” or “The Comprehensive.” Cards also line the elevator shaft and can be seen through a window as you ride from floor to floor. (Watch closely and you’ll see they are arranged to correspond to subject departments on each floor.)

But by far the most literal artwork--and the one that most thoroughly intertwines past and present--is Jud Fine’s “Spine,” an outdoor installation that entices visitors off Flower Street, through the 1.5-acre Robert F. Maguire III Gardens and into the library’s main entrance.

Fine’s installation, made up of fountains, sculpture and four sets of inscribed steps, is a history of the development of language, and it is designed to be read. The riser of the first step is blank, in recognition that we cannot know everything about the past. The next several steps depict early symbols of writing--including cuneiform and Chinese ideograms.

Then come handwritten alphabets--Arabic characters from Madagascar, Hebrew letters from the Dead Sea Scrolls. A third group of steps traces the growth of graphic reproduction. There’s a fragment from the Gutenberg Bible, and one from a letter Mark Twain wrote to his brother on his Remington Model 1 typewriter.

Finally, drawing nearer to the library entrance, the steps display “post-literate” symbols--computer icons, mathematical formulas. The ultimate inscription is an excerpt from the novel “Brave New World,” written in the scribbled hand of Aldous Huxley, once a frequent visitor to the Central Library. The last step, like the first, is blank.

The steps are only one element in a larger design that Fine and his collaborator, Harry Reese, hope will prompt discussion about how communication influences culture. To be sure, the piece’s dozens of references will not be immediately understood by all. But that, they say, is as it should be.

“You shouldn’t be able to ‘get it’ in one reading,” Fine said. “A regular visitor could go for years not noticing--and then, something would jump out at them. . . . It should slowly unfold.”

So too should the library as a whole, Los Angeles city architect William A. Holland said. “If you figure it all out right away, then it’s stagnant,” he said. “This (library) won’t be stagnant.”