April 12, 2013

Photo Essay: Los Angeles Central Library, Twice Threatened, Twice Saved

[Last updated 3/31/21 9:52 AM PT—video added at bottom]

Los Angeles is probably more full of stories of loss - historic buildings demolished - than stories of preservation. Many structures that are threatened never get a fighting chance, fall into irreversible disrepair, are razed, forgotten.

It's amazing that a landmark like Los Angeles' Central Library, which has survived two major threats, has managed to survive.

Built in 1926 as the last work of American architect Bertram G. Goodhue, the Central Library's architcture and design is an interesting manifestation of the message carved above one of its main entrances: "In books we live in all ages."

In this house of books, 20th century architecture intermingles with classical influences and references to ancient cultures.

Outside, the main branch of Los Angeles' public library system looks a bit more like a skyscraper than an institution...

...though today it's dwarfed somewhat by the surrounding high rises that dot the skyline of Downtown.

Above the entrances you can see the intricate panel carvings... the concrete seems to reflect the sunlight shining off of the nearby glass towers.

Despite its own imposing beauty, Central Library was slated for demolition in the mid-1970s, and as a result of community efforts and the Los Angeles Conservancy, it was preserved in 1983.

But that was not its last threat.

Now, looking up at modern additions like the painted ceiling of the first floor lobby (which is also concrete made to appear as slats of wood), it's hard to imagine...

...two fires (both suspected arson) raged through the library's upstairs, near the Lodwrick M. Cook Rotunda upstairs (in the area now designated as the Teen 'Scape)...

...destroying much of the library's collection and some of its interior decorations.

The magnificent globe chandelier by Judson Studios (which represents the solar system) survived, as well as the Dean Cornwell murals which rise to the ceiling (and have since been restored and cleaned). The windows shattered and were replaced.

Other lighting fixtures had to be replaced with reproductions...

...including the Art Deco lamps in the Children's Literature Department, which also houses a number of California history murals (The Landing of Cabrillo at Catalina, etc.).

Intricately carved ceilings rise above figures of sphinxes, and an Italian marble Statue of Civilization, with nearby iconography representing everything from the pyramids to the pioneers and the Liberty Bell.

And - as an institution focused on printed matter, a threatened and nearly defunct format itself - it takes its preservation seriously, having saved its card catalog cards, reusing them to line the walls of its elevators.

Now, despite the devastating fires, the library also sports a new wing and a full rehabilitation.
Is Central Library's fight finally over? 

Sure, it's preserved and landmarked, but paper sometimes goes up in flames. 

Wind blows trees down; trees fall. 

Things happen. People change their minds.

You have to be strong in LA, but it's a different toughness out West than back East. In New York, it's about how hard you can hit. In LA, it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. (Thank you, Rocky Balboa.)

Added 3/31/21 9:51 AM PT:

1 comment:

  1. I admit I was only there once, but I don't recall the card catalog files lining the elevator walls. That is awesome. Wonder how many card catalogs are left? There must be warehouses full of them all over. Nice antique furniture.