The Last Word in Libraries

Los Angeles has restored and expanded a great architectural landmark after fire destroyed 400,000 books

THE city whose trademark is freeways, filmmaking, and flakiness has added a symbol of civility to its depraved logo.

Seven years after a fire destroyed 400,000 books housed in one of the city's great architectural landmarks, Los Angelenos have united to raise their Central Library building from ashes, restored and expanded. To the mix of Art Moderne (the sleek trim lines of a 1920s and '30s movement), Byzantine, and Spanish colonial motifs designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in the 1920s, architects have added contemporary variations on these historic styles: a modern wing with a soaring eight-story glass atrium; an oasis of outdoor green space in an urban desert; and the largest collection of up-to-date books in the West.

``This is a monument to this community,'' says Abigail Martinez, a 20-year Los Angeles resident who visited the library on opening day last month. ``It's a class act for researchers, readers, and thinkers ... but also visually and architecturally, for the city,'' she says.

Outdoors, with a terraced plaza of olive trees, lawns, fountains and sculpture, the grounds have become an island of calm and artistic whimsy amid the downtown's sea of auto congestion and steel/glass monotony.

Inside, the expansion has doubled the space of the original edifice. A 235-seat auditorium has been added, along with expanded video, music, art, science and rare book collections accessed by state-of-the-art information retrieval.

With inaugural festivities through November, the unveiling is seen as a defining moment for the city. Leaders and public alike bit the bullet during the hardest of financial times to back what they hope is a major community resource and model of historic preservation.

``This will be a cultural center for the city,'' said City Librarian Elizabeth Martinez. ``This is like a rebirth.''

The 60-year-old flagship building of the 63-branch Los Angeles Public Library had been the object of a 20-year fight between preservationists and library officials. After 1965, librarians increasingly saw the aging rotunda, mural-covered walls, and dark halls as a dangerous fire trap and clamored to bulldoze the structure for more room.

Architectural buffs knew that the building, with its tile-covered, pyramidal tower and wood-beamed interior, was one of the few gems of antiquity within the city. A wrecking ball to library walls would puncture civic identity, they said.

Not long after, a two-decade debate was quelled with a compromise plan by the Community Redevelopment Agency, and two arson fires in 1986 forced the library into temporary quarters. Original reconstruction estimates of $141 million grew to a total $213.9 million over the life of the project, funded amid budget cutbacks by donations, bond sales, and the controversial sale of library development rights and property to surrounding buildings.

IN addition to the architectural design by New York/Los Angeles-based Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, five local contemporary artists were commissioned to continue the look of the original building into new spaces. For the elevator cabs of the Bradley wing - named for 20-year Mayor Tom Bradley - artist David Bunn lined the walls with thousands of catalog cards, discarded in favor of a new computerized system.

Another artist, Therman Statom, has donned the ceiling with three 18-foot chandeliers with fanciful, multicolored sculptures of tulips, eggs, houses, and angels. Four 13-1/2-foot floor lamps resembling fat palm trees illuminate the atrium, the work of sculptor Ann Preston. A wildly patterned lobby ceiling painting is the work of Venice, Calif., artist Renee Petropoulos - a mosaic of letters, pyramid and sun shapes, arcing colors, and single-hued backdrops.

In following the lead of the original library artist, Hartley Alexander, functional artist Ries Niemi adorned steps and other surfaces with quotations in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Armenian. These are meant to embrace the importance of the printed word.

``I like the whimsy of these foreign sayings, they're almost like hieroglyphics,'' says Rudy Tarkanian, a 15-year resident of nearby Pasadena, Calif. ``They show this is a city of many cultures, not just one.''

Replacing the rows of card catalogs inside are computer terminals placed throughout the renovated building and new wing, where most of the library stacks and reading rooms reside. Each can pinpoint any of the six million books in the building or 63 branches, indicating whether or not the volumes are available and, if not, when they are due. Library-card holders will eventually be able to tap into the system from their home computers.

Besides structurally reinforcing the old building, designers added a network of conveyor belts beneath slate- and marble-tiled floors that retrieve and move books from one end of the library to the other. New cameras and motion detectors help security officers keep watch 24 hours a day.

Some have complained that the money spent on the new Central Library has been exorbitant, given budget deficits that are squeezing city services from welfare to parks. But Gary Ross, Library Commission chairman, says the money is well spent. ``If this serves as a hub of a wheel that radiates out into the community,'' he says, ``then we have done something great.''

Paul Goldberger, long-time architecture critic for the New York Times gives the library high marks all around. ``Pfeiffer has managed to create an addition that both defers to [original edifice designer] Goodhue and stands strongly on its own,'' he says.

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