Central Library – Los Angeles

“Light Of Learning!”

P1070071Central Library – Los Angeles

Visited: May 2016

Who knew that a library could be this beautiful, vibrant and interesting?  Well hold on to your Dewey Decimal System, we’re going to take a little tour of one of the most gorgeous buildings in Los Angeles, and you don’t even need a library card to take the tour.

I had printed out the online pdf tour of the Richard J. Riordan Central Library in downtown Los Angeles and drove to a nearby (well, sort of) parking lot about five blocks away (hey, it saved me six bucks from the closer lot). From there, I booked it over to the library, tour papers in my hand. As it turned out, when I arrived there at 12:25 a docent (since it was the library I would have called a “Docent” a “Page,” but that’s besides the point) was about to give a free guided tour of the library.

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As fate would have it, exactly like my Coliseum tour a few weeks earlier, I was once again the only person taking the tour. I’m either lucky or the most unpopular man in Los Angeles (and yes, I shower daily).

Docent Susan recited a brief history of the building, and the name she first mentioned was very familiar to me since this gentleman had been involved with a Southern California treasure Tracy and I had visited earlier this year. New York architect Bertram Goodhue, who had designed the California Tower at Balboa Park (as well as numerous other buildings nationwide) was well-known for his neo-Gothic and Spanish colonial designs.

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At the time, the Library Board had hoped Goodhue would incorporate the Spanish Colonial Revival style he used for San Diego’s Panama California Exposition, however he went for a more simple and modern design for this project; still considered to be one of the “most innovative of his career.” Of course, being a library, it is multi-storied.

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The Central Library (located in what is called the Goodhue Building) would sadly be Goodhue’s architectural swan song as he died unexpectedly a few days before his 55th birthday in 1924. Goodhue never saw his finished work.  His associate Carleton Winslow took over supervision of construction, and the building was finished in 1926.

We are very lucky the Central Library is still standing.

6a00d8341c630a53ef01538e3434f6970b-640wiOn April 29, 1986, an arsonist set the library ablaze.

000768151The subsequent fire destroyed nearly 400,000 books, while nearly three quarters of a million more had water damage. It took more than seven years to complete the renovation, but on October 3, 1993, the library reopened.  Today, the Central Library’s Rare Books Department contains more than 16,000 volumes that date back to the 16th century. Most of these books are from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our tour (well, my tour) started in the Main Lobby, one of the “new” rooms with a rather unorthodox ceiling. Artist Rene Petropoulos painted this colorful ceiling incorporating the names of numerous Los Angeles authors. The Community Redevelopment Agency has called The Seven Centers (the ceiling’s formal name) “an abstract montage celebrating Los Angeles’s literary life and contributions.”

P1070030                 P1070033     Next we stepped outside into the Maguire Gardens, but I will leave that area to the end, since I went back and did a little digging (online, not in the garden).

P1070037We walked by a tile mural…

P1070046…and upon climbing a flight of stairs, Susan and I were greeted by the Statue of Civilization…

P1070175…flanked by two sphinxes.  The two sphinxes symbolize “the hidden mysterious of knowledge.”

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If you look closely, she is wearing a helmet with a model of the library, crowned with angels that also refer to the city’s name along with having the California Bear and star.

P1070187There is also a copper panel superimposed on the sculpture. It represents the history of civilization. The images go from the bottom to the top.. They are “the Pyramids for Egypt, a ship of the Phoenicians, the Winged Bull of Babylonia and a tablet bearing the Ten Commandants, the Lion Gate of Mycenae and the Parthenon for the archaic and classical Greeks, Romulus and Remus for Rome, a dragon for China, the god Siva for India, Notre Dame for Medieval Europe, the Plumed Serpent Head for the pre-Columbian Mayans, and a buffalo, covered wagon and the Liberty Bell for the United States.”  You need good eyes, the internet or a knowledgeable guide to figure that all out.

P1070192                                            P1070190The The ceiling at the top of the stairs, as well as many others in the library, stands out.

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Even the drinking fountains are colorful.

P1070059Teen’scape is a place in the library where teenagers can “work on computers, relax, study and read.”  I might have gone to the library more as a teenager if they’d have had beanbag chairs.

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The following room in the library is one of the “Wow” areas.  Designed by Goodhue, the Lodrick M. Cook Rotunda is the focal point of the library.

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The dome in this room is 64 feet tall…

P1070065…highlighted by an incredible chandelier (designed by Goodhue Associates and modeled by Lee Lawrie…more on him later), cast of bronze and weighing in at a mere one ton. I took a chance there wouldn’t be an earthquake and stood underneath to take some photos.

P1070068 (1)The chandelier represents the solar system with a globe that is surrounded by the planets and a crescent moon in chains.  There are 48 lights representing the 48 United States that were around back when the building opened in 1926 (sorry Hawaii and Alaska).

P1070071The rotunda is full of murals painted by magazine illustrator Dean Cornwell, depicting four eras of California history; Discovery

P1070073…Building Of The Missions…

P1070075…Americanization (not of “Emily”…love Julie Andrews)…

P1070076…and the Founding Of Los Angeles.

P1070080It took five years for Cornwell to paint these, and they were installed in 1933.  Not to be outdone, the incredible ceiling was painted by Julian Garnsey, a noted Southern California artist.

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The Children’s Literature Room is also a place of beauty…

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…containing murals depicting California history from artist Albert Herter.

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The carpets have some whimsical aspects, while some of the “swiggles” are the exact outline of figures from Cornwell’s rotunda mural.

P1070085Rock station KLOS donated a 63-seat Story Theater here (thanks Led Zeppelin), which are used for children’s performances and puppet shows (cue The Lonely Goatherd).

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In an alcove is the “Torch of Illumination,” which represents “the learning process and the knowledge that is passed from one generation to the other.”  This used to adorn the top of the building, but it was replaced with a replica. You could even say it was “gripping.”

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Walking past a couple of plaques…

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…Susan and I entered the more high-tech part of the library, Tom Bradley Wing of the library designed by architect Norman Pfeiffer, which opened in 1993.  The wing is named after L.A.’s late mayor. This area doubled the size of the Central Library to 540,000 square feet…or roughly the size of Donald Trump’s kitchen.

P1070114There are three large, whimsical chandeliers over the Atrium.  They were the creation of Therman Statom.

P1070110Made of fiberglass, they also weight about one ton apiece, and represent three themes; the Natural World, the Man-Made World and the Spiritual World.

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They looked like they would be a nice addition to the relatively new museum in Los Angeles, The Broad (check it out in California Dreaming).

P1070125There are four escalators in the Atrium, and Anne Preston’s lanterns (called Illumination) stand out next to them. The 13 1/2 foot tall columnar light fixtures refer to “light, understanding and books.”

P1070112We took an interesting elevator ride down to the bottom of the Atrium; interesting because the inside of the elevator is decorated with Library Cards.

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The view of the chandeliers from the bottom was very cool as we rode the escalators back up…

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…giving us various viewpoints of these one-ton, unique lighting fixtures.

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As we reached the top, Susan said, “I’ve saved the best for the next to last,” so in we went to the International Languages Department

P1070152In an adjacent room are a set of murals, which were the only portion of the east wing that escaped demolition during the seven year renovation project. Julian Garnsey and A.W. Parsons painted the murals depicting scenes from Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe.

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They cover the entire upper wall surface of this relatively small room.

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The ceiling is painted to simulate old wooden beams suggestive of old Normandy and “completes a castle-like environment meant to spark children’s imaginations.”  Or an old tour participant like me.

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Finally, Susan took me to the entrance of the Mark Taper Auditorium, which hosts various events in its 235-seat venue. “The World Is My Book,” and the tour was over.

P1070166I thanked Susan and made my way back to the Maguire Gardens.  The Maguire Gardens are named for Robert Maguire, who was the real estate developer that played a huge part in preserving the Goodhue Building and helping to restore the building and its grounds after the devastating arson fires of 1986.

P1070045Looking up at the building’s facade, you see the Central Library is an early example of Art Deco. There are two figures sculpted in limestone by Lee Lawrie, who often worked with Goodhue.  They have the names of Phosphor and Hesper and supposedly personify the morning and evening stars.

P1070213Tracy and I know Lawrie (not personally, he’s deceased) for his Reredos at the Saint Thomas Church on 5th Avenue in NYC. We stopped by last November for a look.

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In between the two is a relief of horsemen passing a torch that goes along with the quote above them, “et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt,” which loosely translated means (or so I’m told), “And like runners, they pass on the torch of life.”

P1070209Since the Central Library was Bertram Goodhue’s crowning achievement, it makes sense that the top of the building is what is recognized by many. The central tower is topped with a tiled mosaic pyramid. This Pyramid scheme has suns on either side with a hand that holds a torch that represents the “Light of Learning” at the apex.  Actually, most all of Lawrie’s sculptures for the library revolve around that same them…“Light of Learning.”  Pretty cool stuff.  It’s too bad Goodhue never got to see the completed structure.

P1070211Back down in the gardens are a few fountains of note.

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The Central fountain is named “Spine,” not for the body, but the spine of a book.

P1070200In one nook is the “Grotto Fountain,” which “pays tribute to civil liberties and each individual’s inalienable right to knowledge… It draws upon the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the words of Frederick Douglass.”

P1070205Lots of people use these tranquil gardens as a place to meditate, read or just hang out on a warm day.

P1070207The last thing of interest I encountered in the garden was The World Peace Bell, an internationally recognized symbol of world peace. The World Peace Bell Association is located in Tokyo, and it presented this bell to the city of Los Angeles in 2001.

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That was it. I had spent nearly two hours at the library, which was about an hour more than I spent in the library during the total of my five years at San Diego State.


The Central Library speaks volumes about the myriad of attractions to see in downtown Los Angeles, so whether tourist or nearby resident, take a page out of our book and visit the Central Library.

Richard J. Riordan Central Library
630 West 5th Street
Los Angeles, California 90071
Phone: 213.228.7000
Hours: Monday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. • Friday & Saturday 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. • Sunday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Free Docent Led Tours: Monday – Friday 12:30 p.m. • Saturday  11:00 a.m. & 2:00 p.m. • Sunday 2:00 p.m.
Art-in-the-Garden Tour: Saturday @ 12:30 p.m
Parking: Numerous overpriced lots in the general vicinity  •  Nearest Red Line Metro Stop Pershing Square (5-minute walk)
Website: www.lapl.org/branches/central-library