Los Angeles Central Library: A History of Its Art and Architecture

Last Friday, April 29, 2016 was the 30th anniversary of the fire at Central Library. The remembrance of that day, and its significance in the history of the library, was admirably covered by the Library Docents, and by Christina Rice, Senior Librarian, Photo Collection.  Last week also marked the arrival of a significant new book about the Central Library’s history.  If you use the Los Angeles Public Library, then you must read this book. If you love a story filled with intrigue, determination, persistence, mishaps, serendipity, indecision, unexpected luck, sadness, and joy about idealism at last realized, you will find all of it here in the history of Central Library.

The original library building did not appear without a long gestation, so long that herds of elephants were probably born during this time period. From the beginning in 1844, the concept and realization for a downtown library was often contentious:  the location, the design, who would be hired to design the building, how much money and where would it come from, and who would make the final decision about all of this. The city librarians came and went, some voluntarily, and others were asked to leave. When the new Central Library finally opened on July 15, 1926, it marked,“... the end of an eighty-year journey.” Forty years later, as the city and the library grew, there were new major problems and issues to be resolved. One idea was to demolish the building and start over.

This well-researched and compelling history of the Central Library was written by Stephen Gee and illustrated with Arnold Schwartzman's exquisite photographs. Implicit is the history and feel of Los Angeles, a city growing in spurts with few pauses to allow for reflection. Not all history books are interesting, but Gee's gift for accurate research and excellent writing results in an outstanding history about how the political and social leaders of the city, the library staff, and the economy influenced Central Library's creation. He faithfully documents the contributions made by architects and artists to the original building, and to the Tom Bradley addition. The personalities, knowledge and ideas of some individuals make for juicy reading, and Gee never shies away from what has been researched.

The photographs are superb:  older ones are finely reproduced, and current photographs by Arnold Schwartzman allow all of us to see up close what none of us will ever be able to see in person. Attentive lighting and camera angles show the details in many parts of the library’s building. Finalized dimensional drawings are displayed side by side with photographs of the completed architectural features or objects. 

Stephen Gee and Arnold Schwartzman have filled a missing link in Los Angeles history and Los Angeles Public Library’s history. At the Central Library and the 72 branches, all the staff will be able to answer patrons’ questions by using this book. For those of us who work at the library we appreciate the hard work and difficult decisions that went into the creation of a long overdue book which is historically correct and fascinating to read. Thank you Stephen Gee, Arnold Schwartzman and Angel City Press. To Scott McAuley and staff, please do not allow this book to go out of print.

***Winner of the 2016 Glenn Goldman Award for Art, Architecture and Photography by the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association.