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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Storied History of Central Library Speaks Volumes

March 24, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The saga of the Los Angeles Central Library is as dramatic as any that can be found in the books on its shelves. Designed by a man who died before it could be finished, the unique and beloved building was nearly torn down by city fathers and nearly undone by two arson fires, only to rise from its own ashes.

The library originated in 1844 in a town of fewer than 1,500 people, with a collection of donated books and some cherished newspapers that were only 6 months old. For decades, the city's collection remained a movable feast, shifting from donated quarters above a saloon, to a floor of old City Hall, to a department store. The collection would overflow one location and simply move to another.

From 1880 to 1905, a series of remarkable, assertive and independent-minded women served as city librarians and boosted its reputation. At a time when government careers were largely off limits to women, librarianship was a unique haven to display executive abilities.

The path was cleared for the library's first true innovator, Mary Emily Foy, when her two predecessors became a distraction: One was dismissed for smoking foul-smelling jimson weed to ward off asthma attacks; the next took more of an interest in whiskey than in books.

Foy was a feisty, outspoken feminist. She set up a Dewey Decimal card-catalog system, hosted the Ladies Reading Room, served as referee for ongoing chess games, and settled bets made by downstairs saloon patrons on such questions as "Who wrote Webster's dictionary: Noah or Daniel?" (It was Noah.)

Another of the library's early leaders was the redoubtable Tessa Kelso, who in the 1890s smoked cigarettes in public, wore her hair short, and beat back a clergyman's efforts to get a racy French novel removed from the shelves.

In her six years as librarian, from 1889 to 1895, Kelso increased the collection sevenfold. Readership rose too; there were 132 library cards issued when she took over and 20,000 when she left. But her most significant contribution was abolishing the fees, making book-borrowing free.

Another librarian who figured in the Central Library's history was Mary Jones, who was ousted from her position in 1905--to make way for a man. She sued. The city attorney upheld the appointment of Charles Fletcher Lummis, calling him the "best-known bookman in California." He was also Theodore Roosevelt's former classmate at Harvard.

Lummis was an irrepressible character, a booster of Southwest culture, a writer, a magazine publisher, an author and one of the founders of the Southwest Museum.

He was so incensed by what he considered overwrought historical romances that he inserted a "poison" label in such books to advise readers that this was thin and dubious stuff.

Annoyed by the steady outflow of books stolen and missing, Lummis made up a branding iron that read "LA PUB LIBRARY," with which he marked the top leaves of the city's volumes. To this day, his brands remain in the library's historical works.

He was fired in 1910 for spending too much money; he had locked the library into an expensive lease and gave himself a raise and a pension. But whatever his quirks--including a diary in which he boasted of how many times and how well he performed in the bedroom, with his wife and others--Lummis was a crucial builder of the Los Angeles Public Library. His acquisitions brought acclaim to the library's special collections on the history of California and the West.

It was not until 1921, with the passage of a special bond issue, that the path was cleared for the library's permanent home. Campaign slogans included "Grow up, Los Angeles! Own your own public library and take your place with progressive cities!" Voters also were reminded that the annual average cost of the bond issue to property owners was 50 cents--"less than the price of one movie."

For the irresistible price of $1, the city acquired land downtown on Normal Hill for the new library--the former site of the State Normal School, the forerunner of UCLA.

The architect was Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, designer of the Nebraska State Capitol. His first California building went up in 1902, and he so adored the state that he once wrote that his heart "yearns so for California and everything this magic name connotes." His enormous influence here extended from his designs for the 1915 Panama-California International Exhibition in San Diego to his work at the Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena, now Caltech.

But the design for the Central Library was less California Spanish or Mission than a unique blend of styles--Spanish, Roman, Egyptian--that made it truly exceptional. The architect died in 1924, two years before the library opened.

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