Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 15, 2018
Kenneth A. Breisch The Los Angeles Central Library: Building an Architectural Icon, 1872–1933 Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2016. 220 pp.; 21 color ills.; 140 b/w ills. Hardcover $45.00 (9781606064900)

The Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library building (1924–33) in the city’s downtown has long been hemmed in by high-rise buildings. Their bland commercial anonymity makes it hard not to regard the library as the beloved elderly neighborhood dandy—one you feel sure could tell you some terrific stories about the old days. Kenneth A. Breisch’s beautiful new monograph aims to let the building do just that. It leads us first through the twists and turns that preceded the building’s construction and then through the political wrangling that accompanied its financing and even its design, its germination from idea to blueprint to reality, and the high ambitions of the men who conceived and executed it. An associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, Breisch is not only a lucid analyst of architectural form but also a careful historian with a light touch for evoking the humanity of the many colorful characters that cross his stage. Breisch does not venture much in the way of critical conclusions about how this well-told story fits into or adds to the history of Los Angeles or of architecture, but for those who pursue such larger questions, this book will henceforth be an essential go-to reference on the building.

The book’s eight chapters fall into three distinct groups. The first four concern the history of the Los Angeles Public Library as an institution from its inception in the nineteenth century up until June 7, 1921, when, after innumerable failed attempts, city voters approved the bond issue that funded the current building. It is something of a shaggy-dog story, as we follow the itinerant institution from an office building to City Hall to another office building to an upscale department store to yet another office building. Along the way the library’s board burned through a trio of progressive, effective female head librarians: Tessa L. Kelso, Harriet Child Wadleigh, and Mary Letitia Jones. All three labored tirelessly to expand the library’s reach to the less privileged and lobbied continuously to secure funding for a new building. All three were in the end undermined by the reactionary sexism of the men in city government and the closely allied press, and eventually forced to resign on one pretext or another. (Jones was at least told the truth: that it had been decided “it would be in the best interests of the library to place a man at its head,” 27.) That man was Charles Fletcher Lummis, a flamboyant and somewhat notorious character in southern California history (his stint as chief librarian was but one of many accomplishments), who comes across here as a thoroughly odious figure, lazy and incompetent yet brimming with elitism, sexist bluster, and entitlement. With the election of a rare progressive mayor in 1909, Lummis was forced to resign, which led eventually to the appointment of thirty-four-year-old Everett Robbins Perry as head librarian in 1911. Perry was to hold the job for the next twenty-two years and is the first of the four principal figures around which Breisch’s history revolves.

Los Angeles in 1911 was fully in the grip of heroic ambitions: it had recently built the world’s biggest man-made port and the world’s most extensive interurban electric railroad system, and it was in the process of building the world’s biggest aqueduct. Yet Perry and the board still struggled to secure funding for a central public library. Andrew Carnegie had promised money for a series of branch libraries, but homegrown philanthropists were surprisingly thin on the ground in early twentieth-century Los Angeles, and even the potential site for a new library became politically controversial. Breisch reproduces the plans for a few City Beautiful projects for a new Civic Center, including a mall stretching between Central Park (now Pershing Square) and what used to be called Normal Hill—projects with improbable echoes of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Berlin and Vienna’s Ringstrasse—but the slim chance these had of being adopted was snuffed out by the First World War. Lobbying resumed after the war until finally, in 1921, it met with success: the city council agreed to place a request for a $2.5 million bond before the voters, and—perhaps influenced by a publicity campaign that stressed the need to keep up with San Francisco, which had just built a handsome classical public library—the voters obliged.

Things moved swiftly at this point. Perry embarked on a lightning tour of the major new North American libraries, and an open competition was held for the commission. After some further wrangling, this was won by the New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who is the second of Breisch’s four principal characters. Goodhue had begun his career on the East Coast in partnership with Ralph Adams Cram, but after striking out on his own became particularly esteemed in the American West for his skill in handling the Spanish Colonial Revival style. His projects for the recent Panama-California Exposition in San Diego seem particularly to have attracted the library board, which envisioned their new library in this same style. Breisch offers a few very circumspect paragraphs on the unsavory undercurrents that animated the contemporary Anglo-American attraction to this style, but we also learn that Goodhue himself held a low opinion of it. As he baldly stated in an interview in 1915, “the Spanish colonial style hasn’t much artistic pretensions—is in fact a bad style. My work in it at the best is scarcely serious” (87). This helps explain the extremely patient and crafty manner in which Goodhue subsequently managed to steer the design away from rote revivalism and toward the more original design vocabulary of the building as built. He accomplished this through a series of designs and redesigns, which were regularly challenged and even rejected by the city’s Municipal Art Commission (whose most influential members for a time hoped to derail the whole project).

At this point the last two principals in Breisch’s story make their entrance: Lee Oskar Lawrie, the monumental sculptor, and Hartley Burr Alexander, a University of Nebraska philosophy professor who Goodhue hired to provide the library’s pedantic iconographic scheme. Goodhue had worked with both men on his biggest previous independent commission, the Nebraska State Capitol building, and regarded them as indispensable collaborators. But with the final design approved and his team in place, the architect unexpectedly died—at age fifty-four—mere months before ground was broken.

Chapter 6 describes the construction of the library in some detail, from the initial contract-bidding process through to descriptive accounts of the library’s various facades and interior spaces. The emphasis is on the sculpted figures Lawrie created based on Alexander’s premises, but there is also a detailed inventory of the interior murals, the furnishings, and the original gardens (none of which survive), which were based on Islamic examples Goodhue had studied during an extended trip in 1901 through Persia and the Persian Gulf region.

Chapter 7, entitled “Form and Meaning,” offers an overarching interpretation. Breisch relates the architectural and iconographic conception of the library to the work of the British architect and theorist William R. Lethaby, who Goodhue knew personally. Lethaby seems to have encouraged Goodhue to think in terms of an architecture liberated from the historical styles, but humanized and tied to tradition via legible and humanistic forms of ornament, and in particular by allegorical figures and inscriptions. Echoing this, the iconographer Alexander once wrote, “a building should read like a book, from its title entrance to its alley colophon” (141). Breisch relates this conceit to the nineteenth-century European discourse on the “book and the building,” which more or less started with Victor Hugo and was subsequently taken up by John Ruskin and others (although it is odd that Frank Lloyd Wright is nowhere mentioned; his essay “The Art and Craft of the Machine” would surely have influenced Americans thinking about such issues). Breisch tracks the ambition to create a legible building by unpacking the often esoteric iconographic schema for each façade, the central tower, the interior sculptures, and the painted ceiling of the central rotunda. They are all shown to refer back to Alexander’s diligently erudite and highly favorable conception of Civilization. (Alexander was a man who liked to capitalize the Important Words.)

Breisch evokes the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris a few times in his “Form and Meaning” chapter, and while it is unclear how much Goodhue knew or cared about Henri Labrouste’s building, the contrast throws into sharp relief the almost touching intellectual provincialism behind the Los Angeles Central Library’s iconographic program. Labrouste’s library presented a series of politically progressive reflections on the changing status of architecture and information in modern culture—reflections that seem relevant and thoughtful still today—while in Los Angeles, more than three-quarters of a century later, we get a philosophy professor explaining Civilization to the masses with allegorical statues. It is only a little malicious to suggest that the Los Angeles library—for all its charm, and for all the wonderful work it accomplishes as an institution—bears witness unintentionally to the same idea that Labrouste’s library reflects upon with complete self-awareness: namely, Victor Hugo’s warning that in modernity it was to be printing, and no longer architecture, that would carry humanity’s most essential thoughts.

Richard Wittman
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California at Santa Barbara