From its earliest years, the Cahuenga Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library operated amidst movie studios, halls of higher learning, and architectural wonders. One of three remaining Carnegie libraries in the Los Angeles Public Library system, this beautiful gem of Italian Renaissance architecture was designed by Clarence H. Russell. Learn more about the history of this branch and its place in the community here.
Movie folks lived and worked in East Hollywood, and numerous pie-in-the-face comedies, westerns, film noirs, low-budget horror films, and dramas were filmed northeast of the Cahuenga Branch Library. Perhaps attendees at the library’s dedication on December 4, 1916, also visited the massive Babylon set from D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance, which stood approximately a half mile north of the branch. The Intolerance film set, which was built on the site of the Vista Theater, was enormous and sat fading in the sun for years before being demolished in 1919. [The book Adventures with D.W. Griffith describes the set construction in detail– including resources, materials, tradesmen, the process of assembly, securing it from Santa Ana winds, and the nail-biting filming schedule.] Another movie studio stood across the street from the oversized movie set, on the site of what is now the Vons parking lot. This studio had many owners over the years, which can be traced through the library’s digitized city directories. Beginning as Reliance-Majestic Studios in 1914, the lot consecutively housed D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio, Tiffany-Stahl Productions, Tiffany Pictures, Talisman, and others. By 1917, the Fox Film Corporation also took up 18 acres nearby. The library has a book of letters between William Fox and Sol M. Wurtzel pertaining to the Fox lot at Sunset and Western that provides insight into the inner workings of film studios at this time (see resources).
Early Poverty Row Studios describes many of the studios in the surrounding area, including the former longtime home of KCET, which housed movie studios since 1912. Likewise, the triangle-shaped building at the corner of Fountain and Bates, constructed the same year as the Cahuenga Branch, was built for the movies. The building started out as the Mabel Normand Studios and, through the years, has housed other businesses pertaining to the entertainment industry, including William S. Hart Productions. It is currently operating as Mack Sennett Studios. Biographies of Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett describe why he created this studio just for her. [Spoiler: it was not a happy Hollywood ending.]
Interestingly, the Cahuenga Branch may have been a setting for the 1921 silent film The Lost Romance. Directed by William de Mille, the drama starred Lois Wilson (pictured here) as a young librarian who receives marriage proposals from two different men. She accepts one and leaves the library behind, only to wonder years later if she chose the right man. A fun tidbit about the hard to find film Lost Romance—the role of the spinster librarian was played by film and stage star Mayme Kelso, the younger sister of Tessa Kelso, the Los Angeles City Librarian from 1889-1895! [Catch a glimpse of Mayme Kelso in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999].
Art and unique architecture have surrounded the Cahuenga Branch throughout the years, and the best-known spot is due north of the library. Los Angeles’ only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Hollyhock House, is located within the Barnsdall Art Park. The beautiful texture block house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1919, was built on Olive Hill for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. The library has several excellent illustrated books featuring the Hollyhock House. Equally fascinating are Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography and Aline Barnsdall’s biography, each presenting a different side of the difficult design and building process associated with the Hollyhock House. Architect R.M. Schindler and Lloyd Wright were also involved in work on the Hollyhock House and its grounds. Of special note is the fact that Barnsdall tried to gift her home to the city of Los Angeles for use as a public library, but the site ultimately became devoted to art. Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center calls attention to Barnsdall Park’s role in the Los Angeles art scene.
Over the past 100 years, several schools have called the area south of the library home. The Los Angeles State Normal School, which originally stood on the location of the Central Library from 1882 to 1914, moved to Vermont Avenue in September 1914. The school later became the Southern Branch of the University of California, known today as UCLA, and moved from its Vermont campus to Westwood in 1929. The 1929 book Six Collegiate Decades: The Growth of Higher Education in Southern California offers a quick overview of both schools as well as Chapman University (then called California Christian College), which opened directly across Vermont Avenue in 1919. Additionally, the headquarters of the Braille Institute opened south of the Los Angeles City College in 1933 and today takes up a city block.
The former UCLA Vermont campus has changed over the years (see Tessa, the library’s online photo database, for some great photos) and is now home to the Los Angeles City College (LACC). Alumni Charles Bukowski, who studied journalism at LACC, lived a mile west of the Cahuenga Branch from 1964 to 1973. Many of the things he wrote while living in East Hollywood (e.g. Post Office, Tales of Ordinary Madness, Burning in Water Drowning in Flame, and Notes of a Dirty Old Man) are available at the library. Interesting note: Biographer Barry Miles noted that Bukowski was an avid reader and read his way through several sections of the Central Library.
In addition to exploring photos of East Hollywood in the library’s photo collection, it's worth exploring the library’s digitized historical local newspapers and city directories as well. There are fascinating legacy businesses in the area that can be traced in these sources. For example, the nearby restaurant El Cid dates back to 1962, but in the 1920s, it was the Jail Cafe, complete with dinner service in a jail cell, waiters dressed in prison garb, and a mannequin stationed in a guard tower over the entrance. Don’t miss the Tiki Ti either. Ray Buhen worked at the original Don the Beachcomber on McCadden Place and opened Tiki Ti on Sunset in 1961. Today his son and grandson continue the tradition of mixology (check out Sven Kirsten’s Book of Tiki to learn more). Also, on Sunset, the Black Cat lives again on the site of 1967 protests against police harassment against the LGBT community, read all about it in both the Faderman and Davis books (see resources).
There is so much to explore within the library’s service area (approximately Western Ave/Hollywood Blvd/Effie St/Sunset Blvd/Melrose Ave). Thai Town and Little Armenia are both nearby and Jonathan Gold’s book Counter Intelligence, and the documentary City of Gold, are excellent resources to learn about the restaurants there. Don’t miss the beautiful buildings of the Melrose Hill neighborhood (known for its bungalows) and the former Jensen’s Melrose Theater (now the Ukrainian Cultural Center). North of the branch, along Vermont, are several hospitals with long histories at their locations. If interested, check out the book Children's Hospital and the Leaders of Los Angeles: The First 100 Years, which is chock-full of ephemera, photos, and interesting anecdotes.
One last thing. As you walk down the stairs of the Cahuenga Library towards Santa Monica Boulevard, take a look across the street. Sheila Klein’s public art installation Vermonica features twenty-five Los Angeles streetlights that date back to 1925. Learn more about these beautiful lamp posts at the Los Angeles Museum of Street Lighting and in Virginia Linden Comer’s book on streetlights in Los Angeles (see resources).