A month after the first of two fires burned through the Central Library in 1986, a collective effort by the City of Los Angeles raised $3.2 million. This was yet another plus in a major reconstructive campaign lasting 7 and a half years. The 1993 reopening remains a testament to the resilient men and women who worked both inside and outside the Central Library.
Wearing hardhats, 1500 staff and volunteers reentered the building in early May to start the salvage process. Conditions were rough inside; morale was low. Seeking humor in tragedy, a group of workers nicknamed one of their remaining staffrooms the Luxurious Embers Lounge. A talent show and other events were held there to keep spirits high. Their determination paid off: in four days, they had rescued 700,000 books from the scorched shelves.
The rest of Los Angeles joined their efforts. Led by CEO Ludwrick Cook, ARCO took the first pivotal step toward seeking much-needed funds. Library estimates placed the losses at $15 million, or roughly 20% of the entire collection. “Save the Books” was born with a goal of $10 million. This was a massive, strategic campaign that would enlist both public and corporate individuals to refill the shelves. Telethons, walkathons, even a radiothon were held. Posters and holiday cards were designed and distributed throughout Los Angeles. Radio stations reached even further with broadcasts, billboards, and essay contests. Soon, organizations took notice. Donations from the J. Paul Getty Trust, Times Mirror Foundation, Nordstroms, and even the Lakers filed in. By November of 1986, they had raised $5 million.
Although it wasn’t until two years later that the “Save the Books” campaign was a complete success, attention now turned to renovation and expansion. The Central Library received $150 million in city funds to focus on the damaged east wing and the garden west of the building. This east wing, today named after Mayor Tom Bradley (who joined Ludwrick Cook as one of the leaders of “Save the Books”), expanded underground. Designed to mimic the original building’s balance between colors and materials, this wing later housed the Central Library’s eight departments. Public art, primarily located in the atrium, was also designed and installed; more expressive, colorful art hung from the ceiling. The Maguire Gardens, named after developer Robert Maguire, who contributed to restoration after the fires, were also redesigned. Most striking of the new developments are the three-level steps leading to the street-level; each step bears a line of text or art from different civilizations.
On Sunday, October 3, 1993, the Central Library reopened its doors after nearly a decade. Thousands of families filled the Maguire Gardens for over five hours of fun and entertainment. While Barney the Dinosaur was the headliner of the event, other activities included international dance and music performances, an award-winning opera choir, and storytellers. Some library facilities hadn’t been reinstalled yet, but the point was clear enough: after seven and a half long years, because of the thousands of men and women who lent a hand or a dollar or both, the Central Library was back for good.