STYLE: ARCHITECTURE : GRANDEUR CENTRAL
Save my library,” pleaded a woman as she tugged at the sleeve of the late Councilman Gilbert Lindsay in 1974.
“What?” he responded. “Save that piece of junk?”
For two decades, debates about whether to save or scrap the outdated but historic Central Library produced the city’s longest-running civic soap, involving everyone from major politicians to citizens in sneakers. Whether this august monument, designed by New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and completed in 1926, would be rescued or razed for either a bigger, better library or high-rise offices amounted to a battle for the physical and spiritual heart of the city.
Today’s opening of the restored and expanded Central Library, and the inauguration last month of the west lawn, now renamed the Robert F. Maguire III Gardens, signal the satisfactory end of an often grim and discouraging, always Byzantine saga that lasted a generation, scarred by the devastating fire that engulfed the building in 1986. But even now the library is not safe from being destabilized: Mayor Richard Riordan seems determined, in spite of two rebuffs by the City Council, to sell the facility to a private business. And it is unhappily ironic that as the Central Library returns to glory, some of its branches are being closed or constricted.
The once state-of-the-art Central Library first started its long, slow slide into near-oblivion when the terraced reflecting pools and monumental steps of the west lawn were torn out for a parking lot in 1969. In the following decade, city and library officials, eyes trained on optimal operation in efficient square footage at minimal price, devised what amounted to land and building swaps that virtually guaranteed the library’s compromise, if not outright destruction. The city produced a report recommending a dream library stacked like three 200,000-square-foot pancakes. By the 1980s, the five-acre site on the new Gold Coast of downtown’s west side became so valuable that the library administration proposed selling the land out from under the building.
Early in the controversy, champions of the Goodhue building were few. Historic preservation had not yet rooted in Los Angeles, but a few individuals with strong points of view came to the defense of the building, including historian John Weaver, who wrote numerous magazine articles, and John Pastier, then architecture critic of The Times. The L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, with the support of architects C. Gregory Walsh, Robert Alexander and Barton Phelps, rallied to the building, and the issue catalyzed the formation of the Los Angeles Conservancy, under the Joan-of-Arc leadership of Margaret Bach.
The esteem these few individuals held for the building caught on with major downtown players who could wield hard numbers, including developer Maguire, John H. Welborne of the Central Business Assn., Lodwrick M. Cook and Robert O. Anderson of Arco and the then-administrator of the Community Redevelopment Agency, Edward Helfeld, whose wife worked in the children’s room of the library. These people saw the building not only as a civic symbol but also as an urban breather affording the new skyscrapers valuable open space. Maguire and Helfeld had the vision, expertise and wherewithal to translate the notion of a monument in an open space in the middle of downtown into viable real estate terms: They adopted a strategy to produce funds for the existing library primarily by selling and transferring development rights for nearby properties. The rehabilitation and expansion ultimately cost $213.9 million.
Now librarians once cool to the Goodhue building proudly escort guests through its magnificent interior. Many people initially resistant to the old library, including Councilman Lindsay and key librarians, emerged as strong supporters. The restoration of the 230,000-square-foot Goodhue library and the 310,000-square-foot addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of Los Angeles and the restoration of the west lawn by San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin form a glorious centerpiece in an urban valley created by the best and brightest of Los Angeles’ skyscrapers. The library is the keystone of what has emerged as one of the most successful public spaces in the United States--and one of the rare urban spaces with any civic grandeur in Los Angeles.
Topped by a graceful tiled pyramid, the heavy, impressive physicality of Goodhue’s library is lightened by texts sculpted on the facades, much like the walls of a Gothic cathedral. Goodhue collaborated on the library design with a sculptor, philosopher and painters, conceiving the library not simply as a building and object but also as a book and text. Quotations and portraits of great figures of intellectual history adorn its walls.
Now, for the first time in nearly 25 years, visitors can approach the library as it was originally designed, walking past flights of stairs and terraced fountains to a triumphant, vaguely Assyrian portal decorated with two horsemen representing Eastern and Western civilizations passing the torch of knowledge. The Latin inscription translates, “Like runners passing on the lamp of light.”
The west door and other entries lead to a rotunda with a shallow, brilliantly stenciled dome that redirects visitors to a double marble staircase rising past two carved sphinxes and the statue of Civilization. Beyond a low-ceilinged corridor, visitors arrive in a vast explosion of space--the Lodwrick M. Cook rotunda, its dome stenciled in a radiant sunburst. A magnificent zodiac chandelier hovers above the marble floors.
The rotunda’s heroic murals, sooted during the fire, have been restored, lighter perhaps but luminous. The great reading room beyond, with murals about the history of California, has been converted into the children’s library. From the rotunda, escalators lead east to the new addition--the Tom Bradley Wing--where the floors fall away in a vast spatial surprise. What appears on the outside to be a four-story addition east of the Goodhue library in fact includes four basement stories, and the view from the balcony of the original library overlooks an eight-story terraced interior courtyard telescopically deep. A procession of oversize terra-cotta columns runs along one side, their massiveness echoing the notions of antiquity that saturate the main library.
This wing, designed by Norman Pfeiffer, posed the most difficult and complex problem: how to add a massive amount of new space without letting the tail wag the dog. By excavating and burying four floors, the architects lowered the addition’s profile so that it plays a supporting role to the main architectural event. The support is also aesthetic. The sobriety of the strong, plain Goodhue building (and critical pressure from the vigilant preservation community) inspired and imposed a sobriety on the addition, which behaves like a model citizen, echoing the block-like massing of the main library, paying homage to its decoration, fronting Grand Street with a strong but varied urban wall.
With Italian cypress and 150-year-old olive trees, the elemental simplicity of the Maguire Gardens masks the fact that the gardens rest on a 940-car underground garage. The 180 parts of L.A. artist Jud Fine’s environmental piece “Spine” extend the textual content of the Goodhue Building into the garden with inscriptions and sculptural allusions, including a bronze relief map of the world that locates the sites of history’s great library fires and book burnings and an eerie stainless-steel head of a woman turned to the sky, water flowing from her mouth and nose.
The Central Library is, ultimately, a monument where it counts. Downtown is still the only ranking public space, besides the beaches and a few parks, that all Angelenos can actively share. This historically significant building restores pride of place to a downtown that for years has struggled, amid fierce economic and social problems, to live up to its name and role.
Twenty-five years ago, New York tore down Pennsylvania Station, and the wound still festers. Thanks to the help of a few individuals and the concerted follow-through of many more, Los Angeles has kept its public library--and its cultural integrity.