Epilogue - by Margaret Bach, founding president, Los Angeles Conservancy
“Meaning is what the Central Library – the building we fought so hard to save – is all about. Its noble public purpose, its unifying theme of “Light and Learning,” its embrace – through its architecture and decoration – of diversity, inclusiveness, and the great civilizations of the West and the East, all combine to offer an exemplary lesson for our time.”
The preservation of the Central Library – and the fight to save it – marked a watershed moment for historic preservation in the Los Angeles region.
The existential threat to what may be our most iconic civic landmark – and one of architect Bertram Goodhue’s most important buildings – served as a catalyst for a movement, inspiring a small group of activists to create something new for Los Angeles: an organized voice for historic preservation. In 1978, as the fight to save the Central Library was ramping up, the Los Angeles Conservancy was born, and it has grown in its 40 years to become the largest local historic preservation organization in the nation.
Yet an account of the Central Library’s preservation would not be complete without acknowledging something perhaps even more significant. The effort to save the building, and to revitalize it to meet future needs, ultimately produced a rare consensus among stakeholders in Los Angeles.
Early advocates, along with the Conservancy, were the American Institute of Architects – from their chapter offices in the historic Bradbury Building – with their important 1978 study and their legal challenge to an inadequate EIR. The downtown business community – notably ARCO, Maguire-Thomas, and the Central City Association, and others – also stepped forward with support and influence. The Community Redevelopment Agency played an essential, pivotal role, offering financial strategies and tools that made the renovation and expansion of the landmark building possible.
These collective efforts culminated in a plan, ultimately adopted by the City, to preserve, renovate and expand the Central Library to house a vibrant array of services and cultural offerings.
Preservation, and the civic values it represents, had thus joined the conversation about the future of Los Angeles. In ensuing years, the Central Library continued to serve as a touchstone for advocacy that spread to embrace not only the iconic, signature buildings of the region but also neighborhoods, vernacular buildings, and culturally significant places.
Examples of progress are many. The City of Los Angeles bolstered its support for preservation, with the creation of the Office of Historic Resources and Survey L.A., funded by the Getty, the first comprehensive program to identify the City’s historic resources. Thirty-five Los Angeles neighborhoods, and counting, are now protected as Historic Preservation Overlay Zones. Other L.A.- area municipalities have launched their own preservation programs. And thanks to the City’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, along with robust market forces, the revitalization of downtown L.A.’s historic buildings for housing, arts, and commerce has reached a new high. The list goes on.
Yet despite these significant gains, preservation today operates in a more challenging environment. In the face of the complex urban issues facing our region – notably housing, affordability, density, and gentrification – preservationists are obliged, as never before, to engage in these larger, contextual issues while continuing to advocate for the protection of the historic resources that give richness and meaning to the city in which we live.
And on this note, the question of meaning – we return to the subject at hand.
Meaning is what the Central Library – the building we fought so hard to save – is all about. Its noble public purpose, its unifying theme of “Light and Learning,” its embrace – through its architecture and decoration – of diversity, inclusiveness, and the great civilizations of the West and the East, all combine to offer an exemplary lesson for our time. May this glorious, complex building continue to serve as a model, and inspiration, for our urban future.
Margaret Bach has a longstanding engagement with the built environment, as a designer, writer, documentary filmmaker, historian, and preservation advocate. Highlights include founding president of the Los Angeles Conservancy; project coordinator/editor for the AIA’s 1978 study, Guidelines for Preservation, Restoration and Alterations to the Central Library of Los Angeles; editor of L.A. Architect; manager of KCET’s award-winning public television series, L.A. History Project; restoration of Irving Gill’s Horatio West Court in Santa Monica. She has written extensively about the Los Angeles built environment, and now devotes her time to her interior design and art practice, her family and grandchildren, local history, and community work.
Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library: Photographs From the Collection of Los Angeles Public Library (2018) is a tribute to Central Library and follows the history from its origins as a mere idea to its phoenix-like reopening in 1993. Published by Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, it features both researched historical accounts and first-person remembrances. The book was edited by Christina Rice, Senior Librarian of the LAPL Photo Collection, and Literature Librarians Sheryn Morris and James Sherman.The book can be purchased through the Library Foundation of Los Angeles Bookstore.