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Extending a Shelf Life : Mid-City Library's Patrons Would Rather See Branch Upgraded Than Replaced


A proposal by Los Angeles Public Library officials to abandon the 64-year-old Washington Irving Branch library for larger, more modern facilities is drawing fire from neighborhood activists.

The new library would be constructed on land occupied by a Washington Boulevard carwash. But unlike in the San Fernando Valley, where neighbors last year sought historic status for a carwash facing demolition, Mid-City community organizations in this case are focusing on the aging but historic public library.

On Thursday night, the city's Board of Public Library Commissioners is expected to rule on the fate of the library branch, a Lombardic Romanesque Revival-style building on Arlington Avenue a block north of Washington Boulevard. The building was named to the city's list of historic monuments in 1986.

Neighborhood organizations, including the Friends of the Washington Irving Library, will ask that the 3,918-square-foot stucco and brick building be upgraded to meet earthquake safety standards.

"We've lost so many of our cultural monuments here," said Loretta Chiljian, a leader of the Friends. "This is the only historical thing left here that tells us who we were."

But library administrators favor closing the old branch and building a new, larger building on the site of Freddy Dee's Carwash, 13 blocks to the west. The proposal is backed by the Arlington Heights Extension Neighborhood Assn., which represents the neighborhood surrounding the carwash site. The new building, at the corner of Washington and Bronson Avenue, would be more than double the size of the old branch and would include on-site parking.

If the old Washington Irving branch is closed, officials say, the building would be turned back to the city for an as-yet undetermined use. "It's not going to be destroyed, but we would look to other departments of the city to utilize it for the community," said library commission vice president Sanford D. Paris.

Some community activists aren't so sure. "Very often, these buildings become abandoned and then they sell them off or destroy them," Chiljian said.

The Washington Irving Branch Library is one of 16 library buildings in the city that do not meet earthquake safety standards and, as a consequence, are scheduled to be replaced or renovated with funds from a $53.4-million bond issue approved by city voters last year.

Built in 1926, the Irving branch is a long, airy room with exposed wood trusses and rafters. No major physical changes have been made to the building since its construction, and books remain housed on thick wood shelves. Virtually the only concession to the 1990s is a single computer terminal in the periodicals department.

Ensconced in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood of Craftsman bungalows, the library is a veritable melting pot, patronized steadily by the black, Anglo, Latino and Asian residents who populate the neighborhood.

Earlier this week, several clients seated at the library's long wooden reading tables voiced displeasure at the possible closing.

"I love it here; there's just a homey feeling," said Tawana Cantrell, 29, a baker who was poring over a book called "Cake Magic."

Truck driver Al Engleton, 24, said he'd "miss the building--it looks kind of like a barn, almost." Engleton added, however, that a new library building "would be nice" if it housed more books.

William Dimpfl, president of the Arlington Heights Extension Neighborhood Assn., said this week that he hopes the old building could be put to a new use since "that part of the city is a real desert when it comes to facilities for the public." But a new, larger local library is needed, Dimpfl added, "which can accommodate modern technology such as computers for card catalogues."

Freddy Dee, owner of the block-long carwash property, said he is more than willing to negotiate with the city for sale of his land, which library officials have estimated would cost about $1.3 million.

"Over there you have a little raggy, cheap library," he said, "where here, there's more space, more everything."

He added: "(And) there's no problem here with the carwash being historic."

According to the library commission's Paris, the question of closing down historically significant branch libraries is bound to resurface repeatedly as the commission decides the fate of older buildings that require earthquake reinforcement.

"The complications are that the historical buildings are not up to current library standards in terms of size, electrical equipment, air conditioning, drinking fountains, handicap access and parking," he said. "So when you throw all these things in, some of these branches simply cannot be used to serve the community as a library."

A new library, including the land acquisition, is estimated to cost $3.3 million, according to library officials. No study has been undertaken on the cost to rehabilitate or expand the old building.

"It's a very difficult issue," Paris said, "because the people of the immediate area want to maintain the site and the people where our future sites might be want a library there."

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