Storied History of Central Library Speaks Volumes


The saga of the Los Angeles Central Library is as dramatic as any that can be found in the books on its shelves. Designed by a man who died before it could be finished, the unique and beloved building was nearly torn down by city fathers and nearly undone by two arson fires, only to rise from its own ashes.

The library originated in 1844 in a town of fewer than 1,500 people, with a collection of donated books and some cherished newspapers that were only 6 months old. For decades, the city’s collection remained a movable feast, shifting from donated quarters above a saloon, to a floor of old City Hall, to a department store. The collection would overflow one location and simply move to another.

From 1880 to 1905, a series of remarkable, assertive and independent-minded women served as city librarians and boosted its reputation. At a time when government careers were largely off limits to women, librarianship was a unique haven to display executive abilities.


The path was cleared for the library’s first true innovator, Mary Emily Foy, when her two predecessors became a distraction: One was dismissed for smoking foul-smelling jimson weed to ward off asthma attacks; the next took more of an interest in whiskey than in books.

Foy was a feisty, outspoken feminist. She set up a Dewey Decimal card-catalog system, hosted the Ladies Reading Room, served as referee for ongoing chess games, and settled bets made by downstairs saloon patrons on such questions as “Who wrote Webster’s dictionary: Noah or Daniel?” (It was Noah.)

Another of the library’s early leaders was the redoubtable Tessa Kelso, who in the 1890s smoked cigarettes in public, wore her hair short, and beat back a clergyman’s efforts to get a racy French novel removed from the shelves.

In her six years as librarian, from 1889 to 1895, Kelso increased the collection sevenfold. Readership rose too; there were 132 library cards issued when she took over and 20,000 when she left. But her most significant contribution was abolishing the fees, making book-borrowing free.

Another librarian who figured in the Central Library’s history was Mary Jones, who was ousted from her position in 1905--to make way for a man. She sued. The city attorney upheld the appointment of Charles Fletcher Lummis, calling him the “best-known bookman in California.” He was also Theodore Roosevelt’s former classmate at Harvard.

Lummis was an irrepressible character, a booster of Southwest culture, a writer, a magazine publisher, an author and one of the founders of the Southwest Museum.


He was so incensed by what he considered overwrought historical romances that he inserted a “poison” label in such books to advise readers that this was thin and dubious stuff.

Annoyed by the steady outflow of books stolen and missing, Lummis made up a branding iron that read “LA PUB LIBRARY,” with which he marked the top leaves of the city’s volumes. To this day, his brands remain in the library’s historical works.

He was fired in 1910 for spending too much money; he had locked the library into an expensive lease and gave himself a raise and a pension. But whatever his quirks--including a diary in which he boasted of how many times and how well he performed in the bedroom, with his wife and others--Lummis was a crucial builder of the Los Angeles Public Library. His acquisitions brought acclaim to the library’s special collections on the history of California and the West.

It was not until 1921, with the passage of a special bond issue, that the path was cleared for the library’s permanent home. Campaign slogans included “Grow up, Los Angeles! Own your own public library and take your place with progressive cities!” Voters also were reminded that the annual average cost of the bond issue to property owners was 50 cents--”less than the price of one movie.”

For the irresistible price of $1, the city acquired land downtown on Normal Hill for the new library--the former site of the State Normal School, the forerunner of UCLA.

The architect was Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, designer of the Nebraska State Capitol. His first California building went up in 1902, and he so adored the state that he once wrote that his heart “yearns so for California and everything this magic name connotes.” His enormous influence here extended from his designs for the 1915 Panama-California International Exhibition in San Diego to his work at the Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena, now Caltech.

But the design for the Central Library was less California Spanish or Mission than a unique blend of styles--Spanish, Roman, Egyptian--that made it truly exceptional. The architect died in 1924, two years before the library opened.

Even today, its proportioned spaces, its textures and light, and its appointments and artwork charm patrons and visitors. The children’s reading room became known as the Ivanhoe Room for the frieze murals of knights and ladies. The children’s library is ornamented with Albert Herter’s murals of the city’s history. A dozen murals by Dean Cornwell, 9,000 square feet in all, chronicle the history of California.

The striking north staircase is guarded by two sphinxes of black Belgian marble. Representing the mysteries of knowledge, they crouch at the feet of the Statue of Civilization.

During World War II, the illuminated chandelier globe adorned by zodiac symbols was lowered to the ground to protect it from damage in case of bombing. Wartime blackouts also extinguished its light.

Goodhue had redrafted his original rounded dome into a more timeless pyramidal tower--less expensive, and with more room for books--and topped it with “the light of learning” torch. Ornamenting the south exterior are six carved historical figures, from Socrates and Justinian to Da Vinci, representing six disciplines of knowledge. Above one entrance is the inscription: “In the world of affairs we live in our own age; in books we live in all ages.”

Soon the acclaimed structure would become a victim of its own success. What Goodhue envisioned in the 1920s as a home for 1 million books was, within a decade, lending that many in a single month. By the 1950s, the facility was antiquated and impossibly overcrowded. A 1685 Shakespeare Fourth Folio was wrapped in blankets and stored in a utility closet. Plugging in a coffeepot could blow a circuit. The fabulous murals were coated with decades of grime.

For more than 20 years, studies and votes on the library came and went: to tear it down, to restore it, to sell it. Finally, a viable proposal: Sell the library’s air rights to build adjacent skyscrapers and use the money to restore and expand the library with a grand new wing.

Then came April 29, 1986. An arson fire destroyed nearly 400,000 books and documents--the equivalent of four smaller libraries. A smaller arson fire followed that September. The cases were never solved.

But the fires that horrified Los Angeles galvanized both its leaders and its residents. The battle to save the books from fire and water damage united the city. More than 1,700 volunteers labored to salvage the surviving books, and civic leaders and the public raised millions to restore the old building.

With the sale of the air rights completed, the $214-million library renovation began in 1987. It took six years.

With an exterior of green terra cotta, the dramatic new wing--an eight-story atrium built partly below ground--is as deep as the Goodhue library is broad. It is open and bright, lined with several floors of reading rooms.

Even its elevators are wallpapered whimsically in cards from the obsolete card-catalog files. Escalators move below enormous fiberglass-and-aluminum free-form chandeliers. Designers meticulously reproduced vintage light fixtures, the old acorn chair motifs, and even derived carpet patterns from the building’s original stencil and tile work.

Outside, the grounds have been redesigned as the Robert F. Maguire III Gardens, set about with trees and pools and benches. Cut into the facings of the long ascent of steps to the west entrance are inscriptions in many typefaces and languages--including computer icons and mathematical formulas. A bronze map of the world pinpoints the sites of history’s book-burnings and its great library fires.

An excerpt from the novel “Brave New World,” in Aldous Huxley’s own scribbled handwriting, is one of the inscriptions on the steps. Huxley was a Los Angeles transplant, reared on the libraries of England. He once wrote Los Angeles’ librarian to compliment her on fine service and “a sound selection of books.”

Another celebrated patron, author Ray Bradbury, often speaks of educating himself by the Central Library’s shelves.

In 2001, Mayor Richard Riordan’s Library Commission voted to rename the library in the mayor’s honor. Some folks didn’t like the break with tradition; the building had been named for Rufus von KleinSmid, a former USC chancellor and city library commissioner. But others said the mayor had done much to promote reading and library improvements.

Today, a bronze plaque trumpets the new name of the city’s flagship library: “Richard J. Riordan Central Library.”