It’s a coffee table book the size of a coffee table.
That is one way of describing the 1,000-page history of Los Angeles, an ambitious chronicle of the city’s development that will make a little history of its own today when it is turned over to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the City Council.
A panel of historians spent nine years studying handwritten documents in the records vaults downtown to write “The Development of Los Angeles City Government -- An Institutional History 1850-2000.”
The two-volume set actually traces the city’s roots to 1769, when Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola’s expedition reached the area, only to be greeted by a strong earthquake.
It concludes with an intriguing peek at what government may become in the 21st century. The book suggests that the coming period will become the region’s “Progressive Era” -- a time when “functional mergers” of city and county services take place.
The project was organized by former city record-keeper Hynda L. Rudd, who was shocked to find how casually official files were maintained when she served as the city’s first designated archivist between 1980 and 1985.
She had come to Los Angeles in 1978 from Salt Lake City, where she worked in the pristine and orderly University of Utah records and archives section.
She was doing personal research on early Los Angeles leader Herman Silver, for whom Silver Lake is named, when she visited the old municipal records room on the third floor of City Hall.
The place was anything but pristine and orderly.
“The old, old things were on shelves and fine. But newer stuff was scattered everywhere in boxes,” said Rudd, 71, who was the city’s records management officer between 1986 and 2001, when she retired.
Hidden in those boxes was proof that L.A. was built “with blood, sweat and tears -- this was not the La-La Land” that she had expected to encounter when moving here, the Glendale resident said.
Hoping to puncture a few myths about the city’s past while drawing attention to the archives as a valuable public resource, Rudd set out to write the definitive history of Los Angeles’ government structure.
In 1999 she recruited nearly three dozen historians and scholars for the project. Each used the city archives as the starting point for the research.
Old reference books and vintage newspaper articles helped flesh out various chapters on debt, taxation and revenue; the city’s justice system, police and fire departments; city planning and 20 other major topics.
“We divvied things up by subjects, not by decades,” said Tom Sitton, retired head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s history department and the book’s senior editor.
It became clear that the researchers were turning up far more material than would fit in a single book -- even a fat one. So some subjects were dropped.
“We couldn’t fit in an essay on past mayors and city councils. Each of them could have been a book in and of themselves,” said Sitton, 58, of Chino Hills.
The essays in the book are filled with rich detail that proves the city’s growing pains produced plenty of forward-thinking leadership. Of course, luck played a part too.
Jennifer L. Koslow’s chapter on public health outlines efforts to prevent smallpox outbreaks in the 1860s. It also reveals how the City Council in 1874 acted to prohibit the sale of milk injected with such additives as chalk, plaster of Paris and magnesia to give it a false “appearance of wholesome richness when it actually lacked any fat content.”
Michael Eberts’ essay on recreation and parks explains the design significance of the original pueblo plaza at what is now Olvera Street, and how MacArthur Park came to be. The city tried to sell the Wilshire Boulevard site in 1865 to raise funds. Auctioneer E.W. Noyes started by seeking $10 an acre and worked his way down to 25 cents an acre before calling off the sale.
“Its absolute worthlessness saved it to the city and to future generations for a breathing space,” Eberts wrote.
Leonard Pitt’s history of neighborhoods blames the city’s sprawl on “vaguely defined geographic boundaries” that have contributed to “weak public culture, perhaps fed by the lack of local political power” that vexed Los Angeles until the late 1990s.
He explains that rapid urbanization in the 1940s and ‘50s of agricultural land in Westchester, the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles and an accompanying lack of public services or proper zoning almost led to secessionist movements or the creation of a borough system.
Despite its sometimes vivid writing, the hefty book is not expected to become a bestseller. Only a thousand copies have been printed by the nonprofit Los Angeles Historical Society, which paid for the publication and research with grants totaling $110,000 from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation -- a public policy research organization created by the 1920s-era philanthropists.
Copies will be sold at $100 a set, plus a shipping fee of about $25, through Loyola Marymount University. Others will be distributed without charge to about 60 libraries and schools.
Villaraigosa and council members will receive copies at this morning’s council session.
Sitton said the book is the first of its kind to be published in the U.S. New York City and Chicago each have an encyclopedia-style history book, “but nothing as comprehensive as this. I expect other cities will be looking at what we’ve done here.”
Rudd said she’s now ready for her next project: turning the City Archive into a more accessible, entertaining space. It is housed atop the city’s downtown maintenance center, Piper Technical Center, in a rooftop room near the police heliport.
She envisions creation of a combination archive center and local history museum in the former Terminal Annex Post Office building next to Union Station.
“The archives have been at Piper Tech for 26 years. I don’t think many people know this place exists,” she said.
“The city’s past needs to be looked at and understood,” Rudd said. “History does not have to repeat itself.”