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Central Library - 20 Years Later

Christina Rice, Senior Librarian, Photo Collection,
Los Angeles Central Library entrance at Flower Street

On October 3, 1993, Central Library opened its doors to the people of Los Angeles for the first time in over seven years. Originally designed by Bertram G. Goodhue, the building had been a Los Angeles icon since its dedication in 1926, with striking architecture and artwork both inside and out. More importantly, it had always served as a vital cultural institution with a renowned research collection navigated by expert staff. 

Despite these virtues, Central Library was threatened with demolition during Downtown's massive redevelopment in the 1960s/70s, accompanied by a movement led by author John D. Weaver to decentralize the collections and disburse them to branches throughout the city. These events spurred the formation of the Los Angeles Conservancy who fought to save the building. By the mid-1980s Central Library was, as Map Librarian Glen Creason recalls, "a filthy fire trap where staff had to wear fingerless gloves in the winter because it was so cold, and where some areas would reach 107 degrees in the summer."  He adds, "But it was still an amazing research library."  In 1986, the inevitable, yet seemingly impossible occurred when Central Library suffered not one, but two devastating arson fires.

This attack on the city's "light of learning" galvanized Los Angeles residents who showed up in droves to offer support to Central staff, who amazingly went back into the building to begin the recovery effort shortly after the first fire. Remodel plans that had been in various stages of development for over twenty years moved to the forefront and Central Library was finally a priority.  

As devastating as these events were, to both the physical location and staff psyche, from the ashes emerged a renovated and expanded Central Library, comprised of the original building (now known as the Richard J. Riordan Building), and the additional Tom Bradley Wing. When the "new" Central Library was ready to open seven and a half years after the first fire, Los Angeles was a different city, still recovering from the massive civil unrest the previous year and need of something to celebrate. Central Library filled the bill, and the festivities surrounding the reopening were impressive.

Fifth and Flower Streets were completely shut down and two stages were set-up with live performances ranging from a gospel choir to Barney the Dinosaur. Opening Day kicked off a month long celebration where events were held daily and included puppet shows courtesy of Bob Baker's Marionettes, and appearances by such notables as Levar Burton, Julia Child, Judy Blum, and Mrs. Fields who shared recipes and signed her favorite book, "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" by Laura Joffe Numeroff. 

Twenty years later, Central Library is still an important fixture of Downtown with it's collections serving the entire city. The Los Angeles Public Library will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the re-opening of Central Library with a discussion panel in the building’s Taper Auditorium on October 5, 2013 at 2:00pm.

Moderator Kenneth Breisch of the USC School of Architecture will lead the discussion with Margaret Bach (founding member and first president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, Kenon Breazeale (Cenral Library docent), Sheila Nash (Senior Librarian - Art, Music, & Recreation), Frank Rinaldi (Principal Construction Inspector, City of Los Angeles), and Betty Gay Teoman (former Director of Central Library Services). 

Panelist Sheila Nash, who was working the day of the first fire, stated, “Many of us who have continued to work at the Central Library were fortunate to have experienced the worn, weary and charming Goodhue building before the two fires in 1986. After much turmoil we are the lucky ones to be here still. There were so many challenging paths that we all traveled on the way to that fabulous day, October 3, 1993.”


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