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Themes and Inscriptions: Goodhue Building

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

While the Goodhue Building’s concrete shapes look forward to the streamlined architecture of the 1930s and 40s, an aspect of its design harks back to the 19th century. The original Central Library was a “literate building”, meaning that it was decorated with an extensive program of symbolic sculpture and uplifting inscriptions. Goodhue’s library had in common with any number of buildings inspired by the City Beautiful ethos the aim of using art to inculcate the public, particularly new immigrants, with appropriate ideals and values. As one moves around the building’s exterior, the art and inscriptions celebrate the library’s function as both storehouse of knowledge and guardian of high culture.

Hartley Burr Alexander

The system of meaning that organizes the exterior and to some extent interior art of the library was conceived by University of Nebraska philosophy professor Hartley Burr Alexander who first collaborated with Goodhue on the Nebraska state capitol building. Although Goodhue generally devised iconographic themes for his buildings, his initial plans for the capitol had been widely criticized for a lack of focus on Nebraska’s state history. At that point, the architect realized he needed help and was persuaded to take on Nebraska native Alexander as an associate.

To judge from Alexander’s correspondence with Goodhue (preserved in the Hartley Burr Alexander archives at Scripps College) the two men formed an immediate bond. Goodhue considered the program of subjects and inscriptions devised by Alexander for the capitol to be an unqualified success. So in February of 1924 with plans and drawings for the new central library now close to final approval, Goodhue wrote Alexander asking him to create an iconographic scheme for the library building.

Alexander agreed to take on the project, and Goodhue then sent a long letter mapping out the location and scale of all the sculptures and inscriptions. It was up to Alexander to devise themes, sets of symbols, quotations, etc. that would fit within a design so completely predetermined that the spaces for specific numbers of words were already allocated. Alexander rose to the challenge. By March 13th he responded with a four-page outline of ideas, enabling Goodhue to gain approval from both the Library Board and Municipal Art Commission before leaving on what would turn out to be his final return from Los Angeles to New York before his death on April 23, 1924.

Alexander’s typescript (the original preserved with his papers at Scripps College) laid out the germ of what would become a complex, tightly organized iconographic program built around a theme entitled Light of Learning. Here is his introductory description from an essay written for the 1927 library guidebook:

Light and learning are associated together by an impulse so natural that it pervades the great literature of the world. Knowledge is imagined as a lamp, wisdom as a guiding star, and the conscious tradition of mankind as a torch passed from generation to generation.

Alexander carried out his scheme in symbols drawn from classical culture and depictions of great thinkers and writers. Accompanying the art were inscriptions that embody the importance to human society of philosophical and literary ideas. Some are direct quotations, but most are loosely paraphrased from various sources or scripted by Alexander himself.


Lee Lawrie: Allegorical figure of Shakespeare. Photograph courtesy of Mary Valentine

At central points on each area of the building Alexander placed symbols that emphasize the twinned themes of light and knowledge. Atop the pyramid, a hand holding a torch functions as a beacon; at its base is incised the ancient Greek for “lamp” surmounting a coiled snake that represents wisdom. (This ceramic finial is a replica. The original is now displayed on the library’s main floor) Surrounding the tower, Alexander used allegorical representations of eight great thinkers and writers to expand and particularize his Light of Learning theme. Each holding an attribute and presented in pairs, he called these men the Seers of Light: David the Psalmist and Saint John of the Apocalyptic Vision; Homer and Milton; Shakespeare and Goethe; and Plato and Dante.

West Facade

The Flower Street facade exemplifies the sophistication of Professor Alexander’s layered program of linked symbols. At the facade’s upper edge appears the last line of a passage in Latin from Lucretius Book 11:79: ET QUASI CURSORES VITAI LAMPADA TRADUNT which freely translated says, “Like runners they bear on the lamp of life.” Directly below a relief of horsemen passing a torch embodies the quote. The remainder of the facade carries out the theme of illumination. Two monumental sculptural figures, Phosphor and Hesper, personify the morning and evening stars. Beneath each figure’s feet, emblematic representations of sunrise (associated with Phosphor) and sunset (Hesper) suggest the cardinal points East and West. This abbreviated set of symbols in turn expands to suggest a whole history of knowledge engraved on scrolls listing great writers and thinkers divided between East (Asia and the Middle East) and West (classical cultures and Europe).

Here in Alexander’s own words, first the left and then right hand scroll listed “founders of the five great Oriental religions--Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed—and second, of the sages of the Eastern nations, Lao Tse for China, Hillel for the Jews, Avicenna for the Persian and Algazali for the Arabian Mohammedans, and Badarayana for the Indian metaphysicians.”

Lee Lawrie: Flower Street facade of Goodhue Building

On the scroll of the Wisdom of the West are first, three Greeks, Herodotus, the ‘Father of History,’ and Socrates and Aristotle, the philosophers; next, Vergil for the Latins, St. Augustine for the Christian Fathers and St Thomas Aquinas for the Mediaeval Schoolmen; Petrarch, 'Father of Humanism' representing Italy; and afterward, for England, France and Germany, the founders and shapers of the modern age, Francis Bacon, Descartes and Kant.

South Facade

Lee Lawrie: Hope Street facade of Goodhue Building

The Hope Street facade centers on a ray-encircled book above the doorway inscribed with a quote in Latin from Psalms 119:105: LUCERNA PEDIBUS MEIS; LUMEN SEMITIS MEIS; “a lamp to my feet...a light to my paths.” Directly below is a panel with the inscription paraphrasing a line from 18th-century essayist de Senancour: “In the world of affairs we live in our own age; in books, we live in all ages." Allegorical figures flank the doorway. In a manner typical of how Alexander constructed meaning, linked identities are “layered” on each figure: the Thinker and the Writer, Greek and Egyptian, Reflection and Expression. Above, each buttress is topped by a historic personality representing a category of thought. Herodotus (History), Vergil (Letters) and Socrates (Philosophy) occupy the realm of contemplation; Justinian (Statecraft), Leonardo da Vinci (Art) and Copernicus (Science) represent thought in action. Again there is meaning on top of meaning. Alexander sought to extend the significance of his chosen great thinkers by arranging them so that they fell into linked pairs traveling out from the center: Philosophy and Statecraft, Letters and the Arts, History and Science.

Lee Lawrie: busts of Socrates, Emperor Justinian, Leonardo da Vinci and Copernicus
on the Hope Street facade of the Goodhue Building

Below the main terrace is a large tiled fountain with an inscription adapted from Longinus De Sublimitate IX: Wisdom is the ripest fruit of much reflection.

Tunnel Level Entrance

Below the terraces at street level is a tunnel (now closed), formerly used as a public entrance. On the lintel, a band of low reliefs depict the library’s colophon, a printing press, flanked by printers through Western history: Gutenberg, Aldus, Elzevir, Caxton, Morris and furthest to the right, Bertram Goodhue himself who was an influential designer of typefaces. The inscription by Alexander: Books invite all; they constrain none.

Lee Lawrie: relief on the tunnel level entrance to the Goodhue Building

North Facade

The 5th Street entrance (where Goodhue had originally hoped to place a pedestrian bridge) presents figures of the Philosopher symbolizing reason and the Poet, expression. They flank the city’s coat of arms. On the entablature above is a quote from the Philobiblion by 14th-century poet, Richard de Bury translated freely from Latin to English: “Books alone are liberal and free/ they give to all who ask/ they emancipate all who serve them faithfully.”

Lee Lawrie: 5th Street entrance to the Goodhue Building

Lee Lawrie: Owl Balcony on east side of Goodhue Building

Directly around the east and west corners from the 5th St. side are two small balconies projecting from the mezzanine level. Each is held up by brackets in the shape of small owls. One bears the inscription In Libris Libertas (In books is liberty) and the other In Opera Gaudium (In Work is Joy).

East Wing

Lee Lawrie: relief representing Art

Lee Lawrie: relief representing Music

The east side of the library originally consisted of a two-story wing built around a patio and nestled into the informally landscaped East Lawn. The second floor contained the Art and Music Department and was entered from a terrace on the building’s north side. At ground level on the east side was the elaborately decorated entrance to the Children’s Department. The East Wing and its surrounding landscape were demolished during the late 1980s to make way for the Tom Bradley Wing. All of the sculpture was removed and preserved and is now incorporated into the lobby and patio areas of the Mark Taper Auditorium.

The two relief panels that originally framed the doorway to the Music and Art departments represent figures from ancient Greece (for music) and Egypt (for art). The panel for music bears a quotation from Job 28:1 "The morning stars sang together and all the sons of god shouted for joy.” The panel representing art carries a quotation from Psalms 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of god and the firmament sheweth his handiwork." Above the doorway was an inscription paraphrased by Alexander from Plato’s Phaedrus: “Love of the beautiful illuminates the world.”

Lee Lawrie: door surround from the Children’s Department in the former East Wing. Now located in the Mark Taper Auditorium lobby

An elaborate sculptural grouping that originally framed the entrance to the Children’s department in the East Wing now surrounds the Taper auditorium doorway. Its basic format—caryatids on the sides with a richly detailed globe and set of allegorical figures over the lintel—was originally suggested by Goodhue and reworked in several variations by Alexander in collaboration with Lee Lawrie. Here as described in an article by librarian Everett Perry is the final version: “....two caryatides, the Spirit of the East and the Spirit of the West, support the lintel of the door, over which is carved, The World is My Book. Above the door is the globe of the world with the sea beneath, the God and Goddess of the Sea, Proteus and Galatea, riding the waves on beautiful chargers. Directly above the world is the great bear and the North Star, the mariner’s guide, with a whale at one side and an octopus at the other. Concluding the semi-circle are two ships representing the two great oceans, the Chinese frigate and the Atlantic clipper. The sun winks over the horizon and the crescent moon peeps from the waves. Crowning this symbolism of earth, sea and sky is the apt phrase, ‘Books are doors into fairyland, guides unto adventure, comrades in learning’.”

The final inscription, carved in limestone, was located about three feet above the door surround. It does not seem to have been preserved.

Lee Lawrie: Lotus Fountain in the Children’s Courtyard

The Children’s department opened into a central patio decorated with a fountain in the center and square relief plaques mounted on the walls, all created by Lee Lawrie. (That patio has been recreated on the north side of the present Bradley Wing.) The so-called Lotus Fountain is incised with very delicate low relief scenes of two medieval queens instructing their sons: Blanche of Castile and Louis IX of France, and Saxon queen Osburh with King Alfred of England. The relief panels depict scenes from children’s classics: Alice with the Red Queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sword in the Stone, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Two Mother Goose rhymes: The Cow Jumped over the Moon and Tom, Tom the Pipers Son.

Lee Lawrie: reliefs of The Sword in the Stone and The Cow Jumped Over the Moon from the Children’s Courtyard


Only one sculpted piece was created for the gardens that originally surrounded the library. It was a semi-circular basin about two feet high and nine feet in diameter, cast in bronze, which terminated a series of low fountain pools stretching from the library’s west entrance down to Flower Street.

Alexander and Lawrie collaborated on the decorative design⁠ a processional group of single figures⁠ and the subject⁠ the Well of the Scribes.

Lee Lawrie: The Well of the Scribes formerly in the West Garden, photographed in the 1920s

The design centered on a winged horse symbolizing Inspiration flanked by six figures on each side depicting scribes from various early cultures: Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Medieval Europe, Aztec, Native American to the right and Egyptian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Chinese, Arabian, Cro-Magnon to the left.

Library Interior

There are three sculptures by Lee Lawrie inside the Goodhue Building, all grouped in the vestibule at the top of the north staircase. Sphinxes of black marble and bronze frame the top of the stairs, and a monumental sculpture of Civilization stands in a niche opposite the landing. The subjects were suggested by Bertram Goodhue, although Alexander did choose the inscriptions.

Lee Lawrie: sculptures in the North Vestibule Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Berry

In Alexander’s 1927 guidebook essay, he interpreted Goodhue’s choice of Sphinxes as representing the limits of human knowledge, the “darkness to which the light has not penetrated and to which it may never be expected to reach.”

His was an attitude typical of the period; Greece represented reasoned thought, whereas Egypt exemplified “the hidden and perplexed wisdom of the priests”. The choice of quotations in ancient Greek from Plutarch reflect this viewpoint. Books that front the two sculptures read (left) “I am all that was, and is, and is to be, and no man hath lifted my veil”; on the right: “Therefore the desire of Truth, especially of that which concerns the gods,is itself a yearning after Divinity.”

Lee Lawrie: plaster model for Civilization

Lee Lawrie: Detail of Civilization

For what finally became the sculpture of Civilization, Goodhue originally had suggested, “...a sort of localized Pallas (Athena)...she would be dripping with oranges and grapes and things and as unlike her Athenian prototype as could be imagined.” The final version, executed in bronze, copper and marble, was probably conceived in a collaboration between Alexander and Lawrie. More than any other work of art produced for the original library, it features a concentrated use of cultural references and symbols.

The goddess wears a helmet contrived from a model of the library, crowned with angels that reference the city’s name and the California bear and star. She holds a staff that rests on a turtle, symbolizing Civilization’s dominion over land and sea. Her right-hand holds a book containing quotations in five languages: “In the beginning was the word” (ancient Greek, St. John, gospel i.1); “Knowledge extends horizons” (Latin Seneca, Epistola); “Nobility carries obligations” (French proverb); “Wisdom is in the truth” (German, Goethe); “Beauty is truth--truth beauty” (English, Keats).

A copper panel superimposed on the sculpture represents the history of civilization in pictographic images running from bottom to top: the pyramids for Egypt, a ship of the Phoenicians, the Winged Bull of Babylonia and a tablet bearing the Ten Commandants, the Lion Gate of Mycenae and the Parthenon for the archaic and classical Greeks, Romulus and Remus for Rome, a dragon for China, the god Siva for India, Notre Dame for Medieval Europe, the Plumed Serpent Head for the Pre-Columbian Mayans, and a buffalo, covered wagon and the Liberty Bell for the United States.

Lee Lawrie: Zodiac Chandelier. Photograph courtesy of Mary Valentine

The Rotunda contains no sculpture--it is decorated with stenciled patterning and murals--but there is a large bronze chandelier modeled by Lee Lawrie that presents both symbols and decorative motifs relating to the Light of Learning theme. Nine feet in diameter, its outer edge is rimmed with 48 light bulbs signifying the (then) 48 states. Signs of the Zodiac are distributed around the inner rim, and in the center is suspended a glass globe painted with representations of the oceans and continents. The support chains are decorated with a crescent moon and stars and the whole is suspended from a painted sunburst that marks the center of the dome.