I am standing on Flower Street, looking up at the Los Angeles Public Library. Rush Hour traffic zooms on behind me. The central tower is topped with a pyramid tiled with a mosaic of suns. On either side there is a hand holding a torch, meant to represent the “Light of Learning.” The building definitely doesn’t look like it went through one of the worst fires in Los Angeles history. I climb the stairs to the entrance, three pools raised in a series ahead of me. They are named Bright, Lucid, and Clear. To my left is posh Café Pinot. Career men and women thirsty for Happy Hour; people the white tablecloth tables, the tinkling of glasses and raucous laughter echo as I walk. The last pool has a statue in the middle and a bird perched on a rock. I pause at the entranceway, large horses carved out of the stone above, great philosophers and thinkers listed to either side. Aristotle. Isaac Newton. Plato. The rest.
Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue designed the original Los Angeles Central Library using the themes of ancient Egypt. In addition to the pyramid, he included sphinxes and snakes throughout the building as well. The building once appeared on the logo for the Miss Los Angeles fruit company and originally, the library used a branding iron to mark its important books the way cowboys mark cattle. Some of the institution’s older books still bear this fire mark. On April 29, 1986, a fire broke out in the building, and although it was safely evacuated, 400,000 volumes representing nearly 20% of the collection were destroyed. The fire was found to be an act of arson. Because of the smoke and water damage done to the remaining parts of the building, a renovation was in order. In 1998, the library was extensively refurbished and expanded in a Modernist/Beaux Arts style, at which point the 8-story atrium dedicated to former mayor Tom Bradley was added. The Los Angeles Central Library became the Richard Riordan Central Library.
I walk inside, a long cobbled hallway leading to the main lobby. Another café greets me to my right – Bookends Café. Clever. There are book drops and displays all along the corridor until finally, the main lobby. The circular ceiling is a series of geometric figures, squiggly lines roaming in and around the images. According to the library website, the creator Renee Petropoulos designed her piece based on the motifs of the rest of the library, using the concept of decoration as her subject matter.
Before entering the main space, officially titled the Tom Bradley Wing, I see the Library Store. Impressive, huge, and like a museum itself. To my left is the doorway to the Arnold Blanche Winnick Popular Library. Videos and DVD’s are brightly displayed, along with many of the New York Times recent Best Sellers. I continue on and into the central atrium of this beautiful building. It’s enormous and several stories high, several stories low. I can see the bottom half of a bus and a few cars as they drive past, the rest of the view obscured by a panel. The entire library surrounds this hollow core.
Hanging from the ceiling are gargantuan chandeliers, sculpted birds and plants, a heart and a carrot intertwined in subdued hues. They are the creations of Therman Statom and weigh 2,000 pounds. The perimeter is marked with giant green pillars. As I lean over the rail, I can see the stories that continue down, staggered flights of escalators connecting each. Tall lanterns are located at each escalator, designs of Anne Preston. They are in the shape of an upside-down human figure, repeated in the form of 24 radiating vanes on the upper portion of each lantern. They are titled “Illumination” and refer to the understanding and knowledge of books.
The doors to the various departments are to the right and left, and I step into the one nearest me, International Languages. I am at once affronted with a familiar and dusty smell. Aged books, the smell of weathered pages. I love it. I mill around a bit, casually checking out the patrons. Most everyone seems absorbed with the computers and internet. Backpages and bags of all sort are strewn around the floor, their owners hiding away or sleeping in the cubbyholes.
The library website says that their mission statement is to provide free and easy access to information, ideas, books and technology that enrich, educate and empower every individual in our city’s diverse communities. It has been doing so since 1926, when it was originally constructed. It is the third largest public library in the United States in terms of book and periodical holdings. It has an extensive collection of historic photographs from a variety of sources, including the former Los Angeles Herald-Examiner newspaper, as well as collections from noted local photographers. The Shades of L.A. Collection is an archive of over 10,000 images from family photo albums collected in recent years that shows the diverse history of the area.
Back across the hall is the Donor Walk, pretty cobblestones engraved in white with the library’s most prestigious donors. The Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Times, the Oppenheimer family, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation are some of the select few. The glass enclosed walkway leads past a pretty garden and into the Mark Taper Auditorium, the phrase The World is My Book above the door.
All through the levels of the library, through the different sections, I watch the people. A man on a mission storms past, wearing a black sweatshirt with skulls, a black bandana, and some steel-toed boots. His wrist bangles clink as he passes. A young Asian couple clicks away with their camera. A small Mexican man curls up on a couch, absorbed in a Glamour magazine. Everywhere people are writing, creating, reading.
The people are diverse, the intellectual hum echoing through the vast hall. Everything seems to be in constant motion, a stream of ideas transferring from one mind to the next. The library itself is a tribute to these ideals, providing a wealth of knowledge to anyone who may enter.
With my library card, I scan my parking ticket for validation. I pay only a dollar as I exit. The library is closed Cesar Chavez Day.