Los Angeles Central Library | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Zeetz Jones

Los Angeles Central Library

The last work of the major American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, the 1926 Los Angeles Central Library is an architectural treasure beloved by countless Angelenos. Today, it's hard to believe the building could ever be threatened with demolition.

Yet, despite its undeniable importance and its status as a designated local landmark (Historic-Cultural Monument), the Central Library was threatened with demolition and insensitive alterations starting as early as the late 1960s.

The long-standing threat to the Central Library, along with threats to other important Los Angeles landmarks, spurred the creation of the Los Angeles Conservancy in 1978.

After years of advocacy by the Conservancy and other preservationists, and with the support of government, business, and community leaders, the building was saved through a creative solution that changed Los Angeles’ skyline. Click the Issue Background tab for details.

In the mid-1960s, plans were already being considered to demolish the Los Angeles Central Library. The functional problems with the forty-plus-year-old structure were mounting, including inadequate space, outdated electrical and mechanical systems, deferred maintenance, and limited onsite parking.

Despite its architectural and historic significance to Los Angeles, which was recognized when the Central Library was designated a city Historic-Cultural Monument in 1967, the demolition threat remained into the 1970s. Members of the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (today’s AIA-LA) formed a study group to offer possible alternatives to rehabilitate and expand the library. Yet the City continued to study options for building a new library at the same Fifth and Flower Street site, or elsewhere downtown, to encourage development and investment in the declining central city. 

As proposals and funding for solving the library’s functional needs came and went, growing resistance to the loss of this and other important Los Angeles landmarks eventually spurred the founding of the Los Angeles Conservancy in 1978.

The Conservancy’s founders, supporters, and other preservationists strongly believed that the Los Angeles Central Library was a civic landmark of local and national significance.

As a masterpiece of architectural design, the library attested to both the cultural achievements and the historical developments of the City of Los Angeles. The Central Library not only defined the sense of space in the downtown area, but it also contributed to its unique identity, as one of the only remaining buildings of its type and importance on the West Coast. We strongly believed that the Los Angeles Central Library deserved the sensitive attention of the City of Los Angeles.

By 1981, a plan emerged that would trade development rights on the current library site to a private developer in exchange for a new central library facility “at little or no cost to the taxpayer.” The plan would likely mean the demolition of the Central Library. The nascent Conservancy organized a highly successful telephone campaign to reach Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilmember Gilbert Lindsay.

The Conservancy also spearheaded a Citizens’ Task Force for Central Library Development to seek a viable solution that addressed the functional needs of the library and the cultural significance of the historic building. The task force included representatives from downtown corporations such as ARCO, as well as librarians, developers, architects, and city officials.  

As the assessment progressed, common ground was found between the librarians and preservationists, and the task force reached a broad range of agreement. In 1983, the City Council directed the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency to make the project happen.

The architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Associates was retained to add a wing to the Central Library that would complement and be compatible with the landmark. A financing package was brokered with Maguire Thomas Partners, in which the developer contributed more than $125 million through a combination of density transfer, land purchase, incremental tax financing, and in-kind contributions. In exchange, the developer received the air rights to the library building, which allowed them to develop what would become Library Tower (now US Bank Tower) and the Gas Company Tower, two of the tallest buildings in Los Angeles.

Other components of the project, known as Library Square, included the Lawrence Halprin-designed Bunker Hill Steps and a return of a landscape area to the Flower Street side of the library. 

With funding in place for a design that preserved the historic structure, the Los Angeles City Council approved the Central Library project in 1985 with the Conservancy’s support. Yet a series of disasters, including an arson fire in 1986 and the Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987, delayed the renovation plan until 1989. 

The careful conservation of the original Central Library was researched extensively, and the library was rehabilitated with high standards of workmanship. Many art and architectural conservators wrote detailed specifications on methods and materials for cleaning and restoring all historic surfaces, and the individual subcontractors then performed tests and created mock-ups to make sure that all work was done properly and professionally. 

On October 3, 1993 -- more than fifteen years after the building was first threatened with demolition -- the Central Library re-opened in a grand community celebration. Angelenos were again able to experience and use the rehabilitated landmark as envisioned by Goodhue. The new expanded East Wing more than doubled the library’s size, and the re-established historic West Lawn became the Maguire Gardens.

The Los Angeles Central Library was the first victory for the Los Angeles Conservancy, and it symbolized the founding tenets of the Conservancy -- Awareness, Assistance, and Action.

Today, it's hard to imagine downtown Los Angeles without the Central Library. It remains a prime example of how vulnerable our treasured landmarks can become, and why their preservation is worth the effort.