Horsetrading and Angry Feminists: Central’s Backstory

Central Docents, Central Library,
Central Library exterior

As you learn on our daily docent-led tours, The Richard J Riordan Central Library has almost 90 years of fascinating history. But some of most intriguing chapters in the building’s story occurred before the library even opened its doors for the first time in 1926.

The years between 1900 and the early 1920s marked a period of explosive growth that forced the city of Los Angeles to define plans for its downtown. Two proposed buildings—a new city hall and a new central library—were key to a planning process characterized by everything from high-minded idealism (let's build a new Acropolis!) to horse-trading in real estate.

Housed in city hall since 1889, the library by 1900 desperately needed more space. In newly appointed librarian Mary Jones, (the first to have professional library training,) Los Angeles had seemingly found someone who could make the dream of a library building reality. Jones developed plans for the new building and in 1904 city voters passed a referendum to build a library in Central Park (Pershing Square). But a lawsuit objecting to the loss of precious park space forced a two-year delay, and by then a political fight ignited that would have long-ranging consequences. Over the vehement objections of local feminists, City Council fired Jones and replaced her with Charles Fletcher Lummis. The colorful Lummis was a prominent California booster who had served as city editor for the Times and founded the Southwest Museum, but he had no background in library work. Aghast, women’s organizations including the influential Friday Morning Women’s Club withdrew crucial support for a new library and the whole initiative stalled. Thus began Central library’s two-decade odyssey from one rented space to another.

1917 Civic Center Plan for Bunker Hill that included a new library

The 1911 hire of Everett Perry as city librarian reenergized the campaign for a new library. Ambitious proposals appeared that would have produced impressive not to say pretentious City Beautiful-style centerpieces for Los Angeles. One (1917) imagined crowning Bunker Hill, (then some 60 ft. higher) with a vast complex anchored by a library at the south (5th St.) end and city hall at the north (Temple St.) end. Proponents claimed it could be “a new acropolis” for our young city. A 1919 proposal would have terraced library and museum buildings up the then steep hill that rose between Grand and Hope streets, culminating in a giant stadium flanked by a landing strip for airplanes! By 1920 library planning became entangled with post World War I monument fever. Suggestions now included a monumental 200 ft. wide boulevard to be cut between 5th and 6th streets that could provide a fit setting for the new library in combination with a memorial auditorium and/or war museum.

Proposal for Park Boulevard with Library, War Memorial and Auditorium

When 1921 finally saw passage of a bond issue to fund the new central library, none of these grand proposals were on the table. On the table was a tug of war over the library’s location, featuring two prominent Angelenos.

Default opinion favored the old Normal Hill campus between Grand and Flower, already owned by the city. Built to house the state teachers college that eventually transferred to Westwood to become UCLA, it now contained city offices. However the site itself was undistinguished—a crowded half block lined by rundown houses to the west and worst of all, with the sheer brick wall of the 13 story Bible Institute rising right next door.

Former Teacher’s College on Normal Hill 1919

Powerful library board president Orra Monnette vehemently opposed locating the new library in such a spot. Yet his was a lone voice until a figure from library history made a third act appearance. Former city librarian Charles Fletcher Lummis, by now something of a local elder statesman, wrote an opinion piece for the Times that upset everything, (at least for a moment).

Dodd and Richards Beaux-Arts design for the public library building

First Lummis objected to the site, darkly hinting that graft and influence peddling might be part of any deal to acquire the lots along Flower St. Then he attacked a possible library design that had been widely circulated in the press. Encouraged by Everett Perry, architects Dodd and Richards had produced the somewhat generic Beaux-Arts design for use in the bond measure campaign. Lummis condemned it as  a “Graeco Carnegie edifice…that would be a monument to the architect and a tomb to the patron and staff.” Instead, he favored a “modern business block” with elevators and plenty of room to expand upwards. (In other words, something akin to Hamburger’s department store where the library had occupied several floors during Lummis’s tenure as city librarian.)

But Lummis’s real ire was saved for the Friday Morning Women’s Club who, according to him, had torpedoed plans for a library as petty payback for the firing of Mary Jones. The city had already voted on a site; why not right wrongs and proceed with results of the 1904 referendum? Whether city officials had forgotten or just chose to ignore that precedent, suddenly Pershing Square was in serious play. Plans poured forth. A lavish Beaux Arts design would have given LA its own version of the New York Public Library. Another, trying to save park space and limit the library’s footprint, ended up resembling London’s Albert Memorial.

Design for library in Pershing Square

Vertical design for library that would limit size of footprint

Although conflict over location continued until 1922, no one really wanted to impinge on downtown’s only major park space however worthy the project. So it was left to architect Bertram Goodhue to deal with the cramped, sloping Normal Hill site. His solution: a compact asymmetrical design with differentiated facades for each side of the building and terraces that camouflaged the steep slope up from Hope St. When the library opened in 1926, it was agreed that despite conflicts, delays and compromises Los Angeles now possessed a world-class library housed in a landmark building.

Want to learn more about the historic Central Library? Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

by LAPL Docent Kenon Breazeale