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Photos: Happy 90th Birthday To L.A.'s Central Library

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Los Angeles' wondrous Central Library is celebrating its 90th birthday today, and there is much to celebrate. Downtown's Richard J. Riordan Central Library, as it's formally known, is a major Art Deco landmark, as well as a leading research library. It's also the crown jewel of the City of Los Angeles' 73-location public library network, which serves the largest population of any public library system in the United States.

According to the L.A. Conservancy, the building heralded modernism but also "alluded to ancient Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, and various Islamic civilizations, as well as to Spanish Colonial and other revival styles." Of particular note are the high- and low-relief sculptures that adorn the building's exterior, which revolve around the theme "light of learning," and feature literary and intellectual figures.

The Central Library's permanent location came about through the passage of special bond issue in 1921. According to the L.A. Times, campaign slogans for the vote included included "Grow up, Los Angeles! Own your own public library and take your place with progressive cities!" as well as exhortations reminding property owners that the average cost to them—50 cents—was "less than the price of one movie."

Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue—the library's architect—subscribed to a deeply romantic vision of California, famously saying that his heart "yearns so for California and everything this magic name connotes." The library was his last project, and he sadly never saw it completed—he died suddenly in 1924, two years before Central Library opened its doors.

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Soon, as historian Cecelia Rasmussen wrote in the Times, "the acclaimed structure would become a victim of its own success."

What Goodhue envisioned in the 1920s as a home for 1 million books was, within a decade, lending that many in a single month. By the 1950s, the facility was antiquated and impossibly overcrowded. A 1685 Shakespeare Fourth Folio was wrapped in blankets and stored in a utility closet. Plugging in a coffeepot could blow a circuit. The fabulous murals were coated with decades of grime.

By the 1960s, the facility suffered from "serious overcrowding and physical deterioration," and the search for solutions ended up launching a decade-long debate over how or whether to save Goodhue's building, and the nature of historic preservation. The library's proposed demolition in the 1970s actually led to the formation of the L.A. Conservancy. As evidenced by the existence of this post (and, more importantly, the library), the preservationists won, and and a plan was put in place to create a new wing. The library came up with an extremely creative solution to finance the bulk of construction of the new Tom Bradley wing—selling its air rights to developers. These developers would build what is now called the U.S. Bank Tower across 5th Street using these air rights. Construction of the new building and renovations on the old were completed in 1993, and the complex was renamed for former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in 2001.