The Richard J. Riordan Central Library on Fifth Street is one of downtown’s greatest landmarks. Built in the era historian’s call "The American Renaissance," The Los Angeles City symbol is sculpted above the north door. Divided into four squares, the Stars and Stripes are for the United States, the Bear is for the California Republic, the Lion with the Castle represents Spain and the Eagle with a Serpent in his mouth stands for Mexico.
Designed by architect Bertram Goodhue in 1926, the Central Library on Flower and Fifth stands with the great libraries of the world. Aside from being the last building created by Goodhue before he died, the clean rendering of the library made the edifice an immediate iconic structure. Built in the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco, the design includes influences of ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean Revival architecture. The central tower is crowned with a tiled mosaic pyramid with a sun on each side. Topping the pyramid is a hand holding a gold torch symbolizing the "Light of Learning." The Central Library is monumental.
In 1978 the Central Library was almost demolished to be included in a new high rise development in Bunker Hill. A coalition of local residents came together to fight the demolition and they stopped it from happening. This group became known as the LA Conservancy. The LA Conservancy‘s efforts restoring historic buildings set the benchmark and precedent for the eventual redevelopment of downtown LA. They deserve as much credit as anybody does for the rebirth of downtown LA. The Conservancy has saved dozens of other historic buildings throughout downtown and the rest of the city since they first rescued the library three decades back. A few years after the Conservancy saved the library, two arson fires in 1986 almost finished it off for good.
Legendary Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski wrote a great poem shortly after the fires. His poem "the burning of a dream," is both an ode to the library and a revealing window into his youth. He starts it like this.
The old LA Public Library burned
that library downtown
and with it went
a large part of my
The poem is one of Bukowski’s longest, over eight pages. Celebrating the library, his favorite authors, his rite of passage and how the library assisted with his growth as a writer and survivor. "Meanwhile while other young men chased the ladies I chased the old books. I was a bibliophile, albeit a disenchanted one and this and the world shaped me." Bukowski speaks for millions that love books and have relied on the library. He writes, "that wondrous place the LA. Public Library it was a home for a person who had had a home of hell." The poem communicates how the library gave him one thing to hold on to in a cold world.
Fortunately the fire wasn't as bad as Bukowski thought. Almost 400,000 books burned and the library was severely damaged, but a plan of expansion was already in the works before the fire and now it would have to happen. Over a seven-year period the library was expanded to include five more levels. The new wing is on the East Side of the library and cascades along Fifth Street. It connects to the original structure smoothly without affecting the integrity of the original architecture. Looking over the new wing, one sees a vast hall filled with light lying below a glass atrium-ceiling overhead. Five floors are linked by a long set of escalators.
There is a cozy bookstore/gift shop in the middle of the library loaded with Journals, off-beat books, bookmarks, candles, calendars, maps, mugs, purses, puppets, crystals, quartz rocks, stuffed animals, T-shirts printed with phrases like, "The Bell Jar," and "Reading is Sexy." Poetic sound bytes and literary slogans stamped across bags, shirts, sweaters and posters. Their merchandise is hip with a lot of affordable gifts.
Behind the register in the bookstore is a printed portion of the mural on the ceiling upstairs. The four-part mural upstairs painted in 1933 capture three centuries of California history. There are four walls included in Dean Cornwell's mural:
THE COMING OF THE SPANISH EXPLORERS.
THE FINDING OF THE MISSIONS
THE INDUSTRIALIZATION OF CALIFORNIA
THE BIRTH OF LOS ANGELES.
An ornate yet sturdy chandelier decorated with all twelve symbols of the zodiac and 48 light bulbs for the 48 states in 1926 remains suspended below Cornwell’s mural in a rotunda with high ceilings below a dome. Visitors of the Central Library are always awe struck by the monumental design.
Visitors of the Central Library will realize the contents match its architecture. An extensive collection of books, magazines, audio-visual materials and historic photographs are available to the public as well as computer access.
And finally, A-List Author events in their auditorium are another reason residents have to love their Central Library.