After nearly a century, the Los Angeles Central Library still reflects architect Bertram G. Goodhue's vision that buildings should be “literate,” using symbolic expressions to make them distinctive and eternal.
To instill his vision, Goodhue asked Hartley Burr Alexander to develop an iconography of symbols of great thought, which sculptor Lee Lawrie incorporated in both the exterior and interior artworks.
Alexander, a philosophy professor at the University of Nebraska, established the library's theme, “The Light of Learning," and Lawrie used iconic thinkers of the east and the west for the main images. In a nod to Goodhue’s graphic design talent, Lawrie chose a wide variety of typefaces to identify the sculptures and for the numerous inscriptions chosen by Harley Burr Alexander. It was Alexander who best described the new library, writing, “A building should read like a book, from its title entrance to its alley colophon.”
The Hope Street South Facade: Homage to Printers and Type Designers
Lawrie used many variations of Goodhue's Cheltenham font to identify the panel of great thinkers above the Hope Street Entrance: Herodotus for History; Virgil, for Letters; Socrates, for Philosophy; the Byzantine emperor Justinian for Statecraft; Leonardo Da Vinci for the Arts; and Nicolaus Copernicus for Science.
In the tympanum above the Hope Street doorway is carved the adage, “In the World of Affairs, We Live in Our Own Age; In books We live in All Ages” in a font a bit more elaborate than Cheltenham (note the Wand linking O letters.) The sculptures are Lawrie’s interpretation of Goodhue’s idea of a “rayed book” with a Greek thinker/philosopher on the left and Egyptian scribe/writer on the right.
It is the tympanum above the Hope Street tunnel that is especially appealing. Designed by Lawrie, it is an affectionate homage to Goodhue and his dual passions for book design and typography. Goodhue is depicted at the far right, seated at a desk, with fellow bookmakers, typeface designers, and printers to the left. All the names of the printers are depicted in a thoroughly medieval font, a reference to the love of all things medieval by Goodhue and his inspiration, William Morris.
From left, the bas relief reveals Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the moveable printing press whose first book, the Bible, was published in Latin; Louis Elzevir, Dutch bookseller/publisher/printer, who was considered the highest quality printer in the Netherlands, and Italian printer/publisher Aldus Manutius whose type cutter, Francesco Griffo, created the first Italic typeface and used it first in the Virgil of 1501.
A screw-type wooden press is depicted in the center between Aldus Mautius and William Caxton, the first British printer to impact the literature of England. After learning the trade in Belgium, Caxton created the first illustrated English book, The Myrrour of the Worlde, and, most popularly, Canterbury Tales. Next is William Morris, followed by Goodhue.
Morris is best known for his illustrations and printing of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer for Kelmscott Press, the “typographical adventure” he founded in 1891. He was a contemporary of Goodhue’s and a life-long influence on him. Goodhue, with architecture firm partner Ralph Cram, patterned their short-lived magazine, The Knight Errant, on Morris’s publication, Hobby Horse. Goodhue, as impassioned as Morris about reviving medieval forms, designed decorations, borders, and elaborate type initials for many of Morris’s Kelmscott Press books. Goodhue also incorporated his Arts & Crafts aesthetic into numerous brochures about his firm's upcoming architectural projects.
Because some of their earliest buildings were churches, it wasn’t unusual for Cram and Goodhue to design promotional booklets to raise money to complete the projects. Cram wrote the brochure copy and Goodhue’s renderings of the buildings were balanced by ornate borders, type, and other graphic elements. As Richard Oliver writes in Bertram Goodhue [these, ] “hand-printed booklets were both coolly professional and passionately medieval” reflecting [Goodhue’s enthusiasm for] Morris’s revival of medieval typefaces.
Cheltenham Comes To Maguire Gardens
Jud Fine, with much input from Harry Reese, designed the Spine project, the illustrated steps and ponds that highlight Central Library’s Maguire Garden on Flower Street. Fine created the Cheltenham Alphabet Spout on the front end of the middle of the three ponds. Its bronze letters are shaped in the Cheltenham font, and the pool’s identifying word, LUCID, is also in Cheltenham. In their book, also called Spine, Reese and Fine note that the bowl-like shape allows water to emerge “from the delta in the alpha letter, cascading down through a colander of intermeshed letter forms … the spout’s alphabetic weave, [shows] how language and artifact often are interconnected.” The well below the alphabet spout has text from a variety of languages in many fonts.
The Fountain Grotto designed by Lawrence Halprin and Jud Fine features the opening lines of the 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution, eradicating slavery. The words of Frederick Douglass on the arch above that read: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did. It never will.”
Cheltenham was not used on any of the steps of Spine, but the type on the Grotto Fountain is similar if not exactly in the image of Goodhue’s signature font. The words were chosen as an homage to the evolution of civil liberties and features both words by Frederick Douglass and the opening lines of the14th and 15th Amendments.
(Note to fellow typography buffs: The Centaur serif font is used for the pool named BRIGHT, and Optima, a modern sans serif typeface, is used for the pool named CLEAR in a nod to today’s era of more streamlined typefaces.)
All four issues of "The Knight Errant” via www.JSTOR.com
This book is also for sale at the Library Foundation of Los Angeles bookstore in the Central Library lobby.
Central Library has many wonderful books on type and graphic design. Those marked FOLIO or REF are not circulated yet available to research in the departments. Please ask for them at the reference desks.
Written by Los Angeles Public Library Docent, Diana Rosen
Photographs of Central Library by Diana Rosen
Illustrations: We have not been able to identify an “original” source for some of these illustrations, which have been replicated in everything from our Los Angeles Public Library Docent training syllabus by Kenon Breazeale to books noted above by Frazier, Oliver, Whitaker, and Wyllie. Many thanks to librarians in the Art, Music, & Recreation Department for obtaining reference and folio items for research for this article.