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Original Children's Room Holds Art and ... Secrets!

Central Docents, Central Library,
1926 Mural
1926 Mural features JOUSTING KNIGHTS in battle in the beloved 19th century tale, “Ivanhoe,” by Sir Walter Scott

I love taking tours through the old children’s room in the Central Library because it’s the only place in the building where one can stand close enough to the ceiling to see how artist Julian Garnsey’s painting skill created the illusion of wooden beams. The secret behind the illusion? The ceilings only appear to be made of wood; they are actually paint on the concrete surface. His secret? Garnsey used real wood to press texture onto the concrete, and that was painted over in hues of brown to imply wood.

In two places in the children’s room, his secret is revealed to all: once in the ceiling on one’s left as one enters the room and once where ceiling and wall meet, on the right. Each gives us a peek at the concrete that has been exposed.

Damaged paint
The concrete showing through the hand-painted ceiling in the old children’s room.  The ceilings, by A.W. Parsons and Julian Garnsey, were painted directly onto concrete using stencils.

Ivanhoe, saving Lady Rowena.  Note the shield icons in the framing edges of the painting. It is replicated in the new Children’s Room’s carpet, below.

Throughout the original Goodhue building, Garnsey’s primary decorative painting technique incorporated stenciling, which enabled the artist to paint through metal or cardboard stencils onto the concrete ceiling. This resulted in uniform geometric shapes, and the colors chosen were both vibrant and soft, yet clearly rendered throughout.


A huge part of the charm of the original children’s room, completed in 1926, is the original Julian Garnsey ten-panel “Ivanhoe" mural, which he designed and painted along with his assistant, A. W.  Parsons. This spectacular 10-foot oil-on-canvas art story covers the perimeter of the room and illustrates the popular novel by Sir Walter Scott. The 1819 book catapulted the author to J.K. Rowling status and its popularity even reached across the pond to America where it was a selection for grade-school readers here in California well into the mid-twentieth century. 

Some literary critics have credited Scott's "Ivanhoe" for being the first historical novel. While his previous novels were all set in Scotland, Scott set Ivanhoe's high-tension drama in 12th century England.

Damaged Paint
A second glimpse of the concrete shows through the hand-painted ceiling in the old children’s room on the right as you enter the room.

The story focuses on the reign of the Norman King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lion-Heart. The youthful Ivanhoe falls in love with Lady Rowena, a damsel in distress, and defies his father to join the army to fight in the Third Crusade. The Crusades occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries between the ancient Muslim Palestine and Christian Europe. Upon Ivanhoe's return to England, he takes part in jousting tournaments, thus winning the hearts of both his countrymen and the aforesaid damsel.

“Ivanhoe” also takes on such enduring issues as prejudice (class and station) and bigotry (anti-Semitism.) The novel features a character named Rebecca, a stellar Jewish woman, and the reverse largesse of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Imbued with the storied excitement of courtly love and chivalry, sword fights (with the proverbial Black Knight no less,) and the lost feelings so common to heroes returning from war, it remains a popular story to this day. LAPL has six pages of selections in its catalog of print and downloadable e-books, and movies for both children and adults. “Ivanhoe” is an endearing, enduring story and a great read that proves as relevant to the 21st century as it was when it first appeared in the 19th.


The story also has a connection to late 19th century Los Angeles. The area now known as Silverlake was originally named Ivanhoe by Scotsman Hugo Reid, who thought the rolling green hills were reminiscent of summertime in Scotland, and named it for his favorite novel. Many of the streets are Scottish names (Herkimer, Kenilworth, Ben Lomond, Hawick and St. George (sans dragon.)

Scott’s hero, Ivanhoe, is now commemorated in Silverlake with the Ivanhoe Elementary School; Ivanhoe Terrace, a residential street; and the Ivanhoe open drinking water reservoir. (The area once had a Rowena reservoir, too.) But Lady Rowena has not been forgotten! The object of Ivanhoe’s passion is paid homage with Rowena Avenue.

The original Central Library’s children’s room was part of the 1926 East Wing, which was demolished to build the Tom Bradley Wing, completed in 1993. Although the East Wing was eliminated, the original room was preserved, including both its dynamic ceiling that implies Norman castle-like wooden beams and the Lawrie-Parsons murals.

Now repurposed as the John Fletcher Language Lab, the room is adjacent to the International Languages Department. A ramp for wheelchair access was added along with a bank of computers plus a collection of dictionaries and grammar books, which replaced the children’s tomes. The dynamic ceiling and murals remain unchanged, not unlike the venerable story of pride, prejudice, Richard the Lion-Heart, and young, fearless Ivanhoe.


There’s one more “secret” to ferret out in the original children's room. Inside the room, above the doorway, one can see the inspiration for several interior design elements in the new children’s room on the second floor: A twisted cross emblem reminiscent of a knight’s shield. The shield icon is particularly evident in the new children’s room carpet designed by Tom Bradley Wing architect, Norman Pfeiffer. His carpet design contains other images to connect the old building and the new wing such as the turtle and bear from the Statue of Civilization in the vestibule. One of the largest carpet images is the shield icon taken from the original children’s room. Pfeiffer also connected old with new by using both the twisted detail in the shield, and the twisted wrought iron over the huge windows, in the teal-colored twisted legs of the tables through the two main rooms in the Children’s Literature Department.

Detail from carpet in today's Children's Department
Language Lab
Now a language lab, the original children’s room has been repurposed to help patrons learn up to 29 languages. A ramp was installed to accommodate anyone using a walker or wheelchair. The ceilings, chandeliers, and murals remain unchanged.

To view the original children’s room, take a free library tour M-F at 12:30pm; Sat. at 11am or 2pm or Sun. at 2pm. An art-in-the-garden tour is offered on Saturdays only at 12:30pm. All tours meet in front of The Library Store in the main lobby. To arrange a tour outside of these hours, write jung@lapl.org or call (213) 228-7168.

Julian Garnsey was born in New York in 1887, the son of muralist Elmer Ellsworth Garnsey. For more information on Garnsey, please read our blog on him. A.W. (Arthur Wilde) Parsons was born in Bristol, England (1853-1931) and was well known for his scenic and portrait paintings in Great Britain and in the U.S.

Story and photos by Diana Rosen
Primary research provided by Kenon Breazeale