When the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission ruled earlier this year that the old Eagle Rock library should not be given historical landmark status, citizens grumbled that city officials were casting aside one of the area's most beloved monuments.
The Spanish mission-style library, residents said, is one of the few remnants remaining from the brief period when Eagle Rock was a city. It should be preserved, they said, as a Los Angeles landmark--the same recognition that has been granted to the old City Hall and the rock after which the city was named.
"The old building means so much to us," said Ralph Sherman, curator of the tiny Eagle Rock museum in the old City Hall. "It was the heart of the community, a place where we all used to meet, and we're proud of it."
Residents appealed the commission's ruling, and on Wednesday the City Council sided with the community, overruling the commission and declaring the library a Los Angeles cultural-historic monument.
The city-owned building, which will be 70 years old this month, has been vacant since a new library was opened nearby in 1981. It is intact except for some minor damage caused by vandals.
"It's quite an institution, and I'm glad to see it's getting a little recognition," said Walter Dickey, who has lived in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood since 1911 and who is president of the Eagle Rock Historical Society. "Here in Eagle Rock we have very fond memories of the old library. Many generations have grown up with it."
With its landmark status, the building is eligible for state and federal funding for the preservation of historic sites, although such money is difficult to obtain and is heavily dependent on budget forecasts, said Ileana Welch, coordinator of the Cultural Heritage Commission.
The status also means that the building cannot be razed and any person or business wanting to buy it would be prevented from doing extensive remodeling unless there was an "extraordinary" circumstance, Welch said.
Marilyn Johnson, director of branches for the Los Angeles Library Department, said the city has no plans for the building, although City Councilman Arthur Snyder said he may seek funding to turn it into a community arts center.
Since it was built in 1915 with money provided to Eagle Rock by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the old library in the 2200 block of Colorado Boulevard has served many functions for the community. Although its architectural value is considered significant by some residents and officials, its history of service to the community was the primary reason the City Council granted it landmark status.
When residents needed a place to discuss issues facing the area, the building was invariably the location, Dickey said. The library's basement was frequently used for music and dance recitals.
Before the Northeast YMCA office was built in 1970, many YMCA activities were operated from the building, said Dorothy Beichel, president of the Friends of Eagle Rock Library.
During the two world wars, men registered for the armed forces at the draft board in the library, and, when the wars ended, the men proudly displayed their combat medals in glass cases near the entrance to the building.
"You could really call the old library the hub of Eagle Rock, a place that sort of linked the whole area together," said Snyder, whose district includes the community.
The building was so popular that soon after Eagle Rock was annexed to Los Angeles in 1923, after 12 years of incorporation, the library had to be enlarged. A Glendale construction firm completed the renovation in 1927 along the designs of a Spanish mission with white stucco cement and a red tile roof.
The building has a garden and reading area on the roof and a long wooden colonnade leading up from the Rockland Avenue entrance.
But the building eventually began to fall behind the times. Among the problems: it was not accessible to handicapped people, it had no parking lot, it didn't have enough shelf space for books and the inside reading area was too small.
"Our circulation was dropping off because of all those things," head librarian Teri Manix said. "Many of our patrons were going to the Glendale library, and there was really nothing we could do to keep them from leaving."
The old library suffered structural damage during the 1971 earthquake, and bringing it up to health and safety codes would have been too expensive, Snyder said.
Instead of remodeling the old building, a new library was built a few blocks away that is twice as big and has air conditioning and a computerized book-circulation system.
The old library was closed in October, 1981. Since then it has been used mainly for storage and by an occasional transient seeking shelter.