Anyone who's taken our free daily docent tour of the L.A. Central Library has seen the many contributions that architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie made to the library's 1926 Goodhue Building.
Lawrie designed the sculptures that circle the exterior of the library, the Sphinx pair and Statue of Civilization in the North Staircase, the Zodiac chandelier in the Rotunda, the storybook scenes in the Children's Courtyard, and the relief surrounding the doors to the Taper Auditorium.
All in all, Lawrie created more than 35 separate pieces for the library—along with many of the original light fixtures and other decorative metal works.
Lawrie’s exterior sculptures of Justinian and Socrates on the Hope Street side, and Hesper and Phosphor on the Flower Street façade
A woman poses with Civilization and one of the sphinxes, 1930.
Lawrie’s iconic rotunda chandelier
Lawrie’s original gateway to the Children’s Garden reads “The World is my Book”
Lawrie’s storybook sculptures decorated the original 1926 Children’s Garden
Lawrie’s Ironwork and “Acorn” Lamps
It's a remarkable accomplishment, and our library is hardly Lawrie's only project. He and the Central Library's architect, Bertram Goodhue, worked on 100 buildings together, including the majestic Nebraska State Capital building, constructed just a few years before the Los Angeles library, and the City of Pasadena's World War I memorial, still to be found at Colorado and Orange Grove Boulevards.
The Nebraska State Capitol
Lawrie’s “Sower” tops the Nebraska Capitol Dome
Lawrie continued working for nearly four decades after Goodhue's untimely death in 1924, producing what might be his most visible work, the 45 Art Deco style Atlas, commissioned for the New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Lawrie’s bronze Atlas at Rockefeller Center in New York installed 1937.
One of Lawrie's assistants said that Lawrie had the most energy he'd ever seen in a man, could draw as easily as he could speak, and worked seven days a week, nourished by coffee and cigarettes. He never stopped—in fact, he worked until eight days before his death in January of 1963.
Lee Lawrie had a remarkable life. He was born in Germany in 1877, but within a few years, he and his widowed mother emigrated to the United States. His early life was spent in Chicago and in Baltimore, either with his mother or, at times, in orphanages. He was born Hugo Belling but changed his name to Lee Oskar Lawrie after his mother married (but later divorced) a pharmacist named Charles Lawrie. (No one seems to know where "Lee" and "Oskar" came from.)
Work was part of Lawrie's life from an early age. He swept sidewalks, delivered telegrams, and sold newspapers. Then, when he was fourteen years old, he answered a "Boy Wanted" ad and was hired by a sculptor, Richard Henry Park. This was such a milestone that when he set out to write his autobiography, he called it "Boy Wanted." Sadly, Lawrie never finished the book, but the draft is with his papers in the Library of Congress.
Much of Lawrie's training was on the job. When he started working for Park, he ran errands, kept the clay models moist, and answered the door—but he used his free time to create sculptures and learn from the sculptors in the studio. Soon, he was given sculpting projects of his own. Later, Lawrie moved to New York and studied under Augustus St-Gaudens and other prominent sculptors. Lawrie did go to college—he got a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Yale in 1910, but by then, he'd been teaching sculpture at Yale for two years.
Yet, he was a modest man. At a 1922 dinner, Goodhue introduced him as "one of the quietest, to my mind the ablest, and assuredly the shyest sculptor in the word...Please drag Mr. Lawrie forward."
Lawrie's thirty-year collaboration with Goodhue began in about 1895. Lawrie saw a Goodhue-designed church he liked so much that he went to Goodhue's offices and got a job.
It was a great collaboration. As Lawrie wrote in a tribute to Goodhue, they "arrived at a new kind of architectural sculpture that is essentially a part of the building rather than something ornate or applied." Lawrie believed that “It is the mural sculptor’s business to see to it that his expression is consistently in accord with the idea of the building, its time and place, as well as its design.” The sculptures on the exterior of the Central Library perfectly reflect this approach.
Goodhue valued Lawrie so much that when he was awarded a medal of merit by the American Institute of Architecture, he insisted on having it re-engraved to share credit with Lawrie. Touchingly, Lawrie sculpted Goodhue's memorial tomb, found in the Goodhue-designed Church of the Intercession in New York City. The tomb contains Goodhue's ashes and includes images of many Goodhue buildings, including our own Central Library.
Bertram Goodhue’s tomb, designed by Lee Lawrie
In 1935, a critic wrote, "Lee Lawrie is the foremost architectural sculptor in America.” He was also one of the last. Modernism became the prevailing style. Lawrie embraced the challenges of creating sculpture for a tall, modern building, saying, “I think there is more opportunity for artistic thought in meeting the resistance that a modern building puts up than in purely aesthetic sculpture.” However, modernism rejected the whole idea of exterior sculpture, and our Central Library is perhaps the last public building in the country to feature architectural sculpture.
Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.
—Written by docent Kate Kaplan