The Library will be closed on Monday, May 27, 2024, in observance of Memorial Day.

Art & Architecture of the Central Library

Overview | Early History, Design and Construction of the Goodhue Building | Explanation of Themes and Inscriptions | Sculpture for the Goodhue Building | Painted Decoration in the Goodhue Building | Tom Bradley Wing: History and Design | Public Art Projects

The Richard J. Riordan Central Library in downtown Los Angeles is both a leading public research library and a major architectural landmark. Comprised of the original 1926 library now called the Goodhue Building and a 1993 addition named for former mayor Tom Bradley, it ranks with the Bradbury Building and Union Station as a treasure of the city’s historic downtown. The library has been designated a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument (#46) and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Free docent tours of the building and its art are given every day the library is open, and on Saturday there is a tour of the Maguire Gardens which surround the library.

What follows is a brief guide to the art and architecture of the Central Library created by library docents Kenon Breazeale, Katy Go, and Sally Michaels. At the top of each page there are links to six chapters that provide more detailed information about aspects of the library’s art and architecture. Unless otherwise noted, all historic photographs are courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Goodhue Building

Richard J. Riordan Central Library

Designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue, the original Central Library was built during the mid-1920s. It was the last project of Goodhue’s career. He died suddenly in 1924, and his associate Carleton Winslow took over supervision of construction, bringing the building to completion in 1926.

Goodhue was widely known in California for his influential master plan and building designs for the Panama California Exposition held in San Diego’s Balboa Park in 1915. For the Exposition Goodhue developed an ornate version of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, and the Library Board hired him in hopes he would design something in that idiom. But by the early 1920s Goodhue was creating simpler, more modern designs. His two final projects, the Nebraska State Capitol and our Los Angeles Central Library are regarded by architectural historians as the most innovative work of his career.


Lee Lawrie: Sculpture on Flower Street (west) facade of library, 1926

Bertram Goodhue: Hope Street (south) facade of library, 1926

The Central Library is an early example of Art Deco, the transitional modernist style popular from the mid 1920s through the 1930s. Its monumental simplicity serves as a backdrop for an ambitious program of decorative sculpture. Bertram Goodhue agreed with the traditional assumption that referencing history and culture through art adds a valuable intellectual dimension to public buildings. Thoroughly integrated into the base of the tower and three facades, groupings of high and low relief sculpture impart a unique character to the Goodhue Building’s exterior.

The sculptor was Lee Lawrie who had collaborated with Goodhue on a number of major commissions. Lawrie’s sculptures for the library revolve around a theme, Light of Learning, devised by University of Nebraska philosophy professor Hartley Burr Alexander. Goodhue and Lawrie first worked with Alexander on the Nebraska state capitol, and for both buildings, Alexander developed subject matter for the sculpture and chose or authored the inscriptions used on both exterior and interior. The result is a distinctive combination of a building strikingly modern in style, yet traditional in the way it uses art to symbolize and celebrate its cultural function.


The library’s floor plan was largely created by City Librarian Everett Perry who had led the fight to fund a central library building. His plan centered on a core space housing circulation and card catalogs surrounded by multi-tiered book stacks, those in turn surrounded by reading rooms for major departments.

When the library was renovated during the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of the collection was moved to the new Tom Bradley Wing. Other than the Children’s and Teen departments, the original library building is now given over to exhibition space, various readers’ services, and administrative offices. But despite changes in function, the Goodhue Building’s main floor has been preserved and those elements which were modernized over the years have undergone a careful restoration. Three contiguous areas of the main level contain most of the important art and decorative design.

Lee Lawrie: Sculpture on top landing of North Staircase, 1926

Julian Gernsey: ceiling of Rotunda, 1926. Photograph courtesy of

From the ground floor a formal divided staircase set against the north wall was designed to be the primary route up to the main level. At the top of the stairs is a vestibule housing the only Lawrie sculptures created for the Goodhue Building’s interior, two black marble sphinxes and an allegorical statue entitled Civilization.

From the north staircase a short corridor leads into the Rotunda. Now empty of its original working function (the catalog has been computerized and circulation relocated to the ground floor), this room can be appreciated as the dramatically beautiful heart of Goodhue’s design.

The Rotunda ceiling centers on the magnificent bronze Zodiac Chandelier created by Lawrie, who designed most of the Goodhue Building’s important metalwork. Decorative stencils in a variety of motifs were painted directly on the ceiling’s concrete surfaces by Los Angeles artist Julian Garnsey. All of the reading rooms on the main level together with the north staircase also have ceilings executed by Garnsey and his assistants. Like the sculpture on the exterior, these painted ceilings were central to Goodhue’s aesthetic concept, adding color and life to his design’s monumental shapes and severe concrete surfaces.

Around the Rotunda’s upper walls is attached a mural cycle painted in oils on linen canvas by Dean Cornwell.

Dean Cornwell: Building of the Missions, 1935

Four major panels, each forty feet wide depict scenes from California history: the Era of Discovery, the Building of the Missions, Founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles and the Americanization of California. Mounted on the intervening double faced piers are vertical paintings of related allegorical subjects.

Children’s Department (formerly Reference Room). Photograph courtesy of Mary Valentine

Julian Garnsey and A.W. Parsons: Scenes from Ivanhoe. International Languages Department, (formerly Children’s Reading Room), 1927

From the Rotunda, one can walk directly into what is today the Children’s Department but was originally the Reference Room. It is the only reading room that still looks much as it did during the 1920s. Although rows of bookcases surmounted by fluorescent lights have replaced the original long reading tables, the rest of the room has been carefully restored. It contains an elaborate ceiling by Julian Garnsey, towering table lamps that are reproductions of the originals by Lawrie and a set of murals representing subjects from California history by Santa Barbara artist Albert Herter.

One more set of murals original to the Goodhue Building can be found adjacent to the International Languages Department in the Bradley Wing. They are located in what was formerly the Children’s Reading Room, the only portion of the east wing that escaped demolition during the 1986-93 renovation. Painted by Julian Garnsey and A.W. Parsons, the murals depict scenes from Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe and cover the entire upper wall surface of this relatively small room. The ceiling painted by Garnsey simulates old wooden beams and completes a castle-like environment meant to spark children’s imaginations.

Tom Bradley Wing

By the 1960s, the original Central Library building suffered from serious overcrowding and physical deterioration. Both librarians and members of City Council began looking for solutions and many felt a new building was the answer. What followed was a debate lasting more than a decade over how or even whether to save Goodhue’s building. In the process, historic preservation became a national issue and organizations like the Los Angeles Conservancy were born. Finally the conflict was resolved in 1983 with a plan to preserve the original building and create an addition, the whole to be largely financed by a transfer of air rights to neighboring high rise development.

The city chose Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates to carry out the project. After proposing several concepts, the firm gained approval for a compromise that would locate a partially underground addition on the site occupied by the East Wing and its surrounding gardens. Plans were complicated by two arson fires in 1986 that forced the building’s closure, and in 1987 an earthquake produced more damage. Finally in 1993 the library reopened with the Goodhue Building restored, a new 330,000 sq ft wing named for Mayor Tom Bradley in place, and the West Garden reborn.

Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer: Tom Bradley Wing of Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 1993

Atrium of Tom Bradley Wing

The new Tom Bradley Wing is an elongated rectangle that fills the entire eastern portion of the library site. Its exterior in particular has been calculated to harmonize with the Goodhue Building. Blocky, massed shapes echo the original and windows are framed and proportioned to resemble Goodhue’s design. The materials--smooth buff-colored wall surfaces, green terra cotta tile and decorative copper detailing--balance against the older wing’s sheer surfaces of concrete and limestone.

The Tom Bradley Wing’s interior consists of eight levels designed around a glass-roofed atrium. Windows line both exterior and interior walls and banks of escalators cascade down through the multi-level expanse. Landings on each level lead into subject departments, closed stacks and a large computer center.  Visible from the atrium at street level is a corridor and exterior patio that are part of the Mark Taper auditorium complex.

Public Art Projects

Therman Statom: Chandeliers, 1993

The Tom Bradley Wing contains a number of art projects commissioned as part of the city’s percent for art program administered by the Department of Cultural Affairs.

In the atrium two major artworks deal with light in ways both functional and metaphorical. Three massive chandeliers created by Therman Statom are suspended from the ceiling’s apex and dominate its upper space. Eighteen ft. in diameter and incorporating bright color applied in an expressive style, they symbolize the natural, technological and metaphysical spheres of existence.

Ann Preston: Illuminations, 1993

The other project, entitled Illuminations by Ann Preston, consists of four columnar light fixtures installed on the escalator landings at each level along the atrium’s inner wall. Standing thirteen feet high and constructed of radiating vanes of brushed aluminum, they contain small lights embedded in the base and top of each sculpted form.

Two new public elevators that connect all levels of the old and new wings are the site of an ingenious project by artist David Bunn entitled A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place. The artist papered the inside of the elevator cabs and part of each shaft visible through portholes with a selection of the library’s old catalog cards.

Renee Petropoulos: Seven Centers, 1993

One new public art project was commissioned for the Goodhue Building, a ceiling painting by Renee Petropoulos entitled Seven Centers that is located in the ground floor lobby. (That floor of the building had been so altered over the years that it was not feasible to attempt restoring it to its original state.) Taking her cues from motifs in the Rotunda, the artist used the concept of decoration as subject matter. Vividly colored rings, star bursts, checkerboards and names of Los Angeles writers intertwine on the 36-foot by 36-foot ceiling.

Mark Taper Auditorium and Adjoining Courtyards

The 235 seat Mark Taper Auditorium occupies the northeast corner of the library’s site. It is a compact, elegant space designed to accommodate lectures and various types of performances.

Re-creation of original Children’s Courtyard in Bradley Wing

Two adjacent courtyards are located between the auditorium and the Goodhue Building. A ninety foot ornamental fence designed by metal artist Ries Niemi runs along the exterior of both courtyards providing a security barrier and also contributing variety and visual appeal to the Tom Bradley Wing’s lengthy north facade.

As part of a preservation agreement, the courtyard that had been next to the children’s department in the demolished East Wing was reproduced during the library renovation. This meant that elaborate tiled planters and important sculpture by Lee Lawrie could be saved and placed again in something approximating their original context. The rest of Lawrie’s sculptures preserved from the East Wing have been mounted in the Taper Auditorium lobby.

Maguire Gardens

The Maguire Gardens is one of downtown Los Angeles’ favorite outdoor spaces. It consists of parklike grounds incorporating major public art works on the library’s Flower Street (west) side, and encompasses lush planting on the building’s 5th Street (north) side and landscaped terraces on the Hope Street (south) side.

The landscaping on the Hope St side is all that remains of Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow’s original library gardens. Both the old East Lawn and the West Garden were demolished, one to provide space for the Bradley Wing and the other paved over for staff parking in the late 1960's.

The main portion of the Maguire Gardens is located between the library building and Flower Street. It is named for Robert Maguire, the real estate developer who played a large role in preserving the Goodhue Building and helping to restore the building and its grounds after the devastating arson fires of 1986. Maguire brought in landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and Douglas and Regula Campbell to design a new interpretation of the old West Garden that could incorporate major public art projects.

Lawrence Halprin and Douglas and Regula Campbell: Robert Maguire Garden, 1993

Part of their plan recreates Goodhue’s original Islamic-influenced design with cypress lined tiers of steps flanking long shallow pools that extend between Flower Street and the library entrance. Added to that original east/west axis is a north/south arrangement of two patios containing fountains connected by a walkway. All integrate new public art projects designed specifically for the recreated garden space.

Spine, created by sculptor Jud Fine, layers a new work of art on the basic format of steps and pools recreated from Goodhue’s original design. It draws two meanings from its title. There is spine as mediator between brain and body, here alluded to by an evolutionary sequence from fish to amphibian to bird. But the dominant reference is to the spine of a book. As intended by the artist, the artwork lies in front of us like an open volume, the stairs functioning as pages. Moving from the bottom to the top, each step riser contain quotations in languages that collectively span the globe, written from earliest history to modern times.

Jud Fine: Spine, 1993

Cutting across the main east/west axis formed by Spine is a north/south alignment of two fountain areas. On the south side the Grotto, designed by Lawrence Halprin, is framed by two interconnected fountains with water bubbling and coursing through and over-elaborate architectonic surfaces.

Directly across the garden sits another fountain created by Mineo Mizuno and Laddie John Dill. Composed of cement, glass and ceramic tiles, its multi-dimensional shape and earthy quality contrast with the more cerebral works by Fine and Halprin.

Lawrence Halprin: Fountain in Maguire Garden, 1993

Laddie John Dill and Mineo Mizuno: Fountain in Maguire Garden, 1993