Central Library History and Architecture


Central Library History

Central Library is the third of three buildings the Library has occupied since its founding in 1882.

Pasadena Public Library was founded December 26, 1882 as private subscription library under the name “Pasadena Library and Village Improvement Society.” The Library’s founding thus predates the City’s incorporation by four years. Our first building was on Central School grounds, south side of Colorado St. between Raymond St.and Santa Fe tracks, and opened Feb. 26, 1884. This building was moved to 42 West Dayton St. in 1886.

Our second building, which opened on Sept. 9, 1890, was an impressive stone structure located on the southeast corner of Walnut Street at Raymond Avenue in what is now known as memorial Park. Although this building was expanded in 1901 and Children’s services had moved to a bungalow in Library Park, the existing space was insufficient to meet the needs of a growing City.

Influenced by a nationwide “City Beautiful” movement, Pasadenans began to discuss building a civic center as early as 1902. In 1922, the Chicago firm of Bennett, Parsons, and Frost were hired to devise a plan for Pasadena. In June 1923, the voters approved a $3.5 million bond issue to build the Library, City Hall, and Civic Auditorium according to the arrangement proposed by the Bennett, Parsons, and Frost plan.

An architectural competition was held to choose the architects for all three buildings. Ten California architectural firms were invited to submit drawings for all three buildings and were advised to use the architectural styles of the Renaissance or later periods as found in Mediterranean countries. In 1924, the design for the Library submitted by the firm of Myron Hunt and H.C. Chambers placed first. The beautiful entry, patio, handsome facade, and good provision for expansion were key factors in the decision. Construction began May 19, 1925 . This is why the year 1925 is carved in Roman numerals over the front entrance of the building after “Public Library of the City of Pasadena.”

Central Library was dedicated on Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), 1927, the first building in Pasadena’s now famous Civic Center. The Library, as well as the entire Civic Center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years, Central Library has been the location for some major motion pictures.

Central Library underwent a massive, historically sensitive restoration and renovation, which took place between 1984 and 1990. The Pasadena Public Library Foundation paid for all interior restoration with the exception of the book stacks, which were funded through a combination of federal, state and local funds. The Foundation was formed in 1983 as a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation and to date has raised over $3 million in individual, foundation, and corporate gifts specifically earmarked for architectural renovation and preservation of Central Library.

Central Library Architecture

CourtyardNorth EntranceMain HallAuditoriumBook StacksChildren's WingReference WingHumanities WingCentennial Room

The Courtyard was designed to give a sense of seclusion in an urban setting.

Myron Hunt was also responsible for the landscaping plan for Central Library. Even the palm trees are still placed as Hunt intended them to be in the original competition drawings: a natural way of softening the mass of wall on either side of the windows.

Outdoor reading rooms off the Children’s Room and the Humanities Wing (originally the Periodicals Room) were original parts of the building’s design. The Children’s patio is now regularly used for crafts and other activities.

The fountain is copied from an alabaster fountain at El Mirador de Daraxa in the Patio de Daraxa at Spain’s famous palace and fortress, the Alhambra.

The great windows are aligned to follow the axis of the Civic Center plan. The windows are separated by Corinthian columns of cast stone.

The oblong panel above each window contains amorini (cupids), griffins, and fruits.On the spandrels are blank tablets, griffins, fruits, and urns of fire. On the keystones above two of the windows are acanthus leaves.In the panels below the windows are cornucopias, urns of fire, griffins, and open books. Below the engaged columns are decorated square panels. Above each design of book or tablet is a bowl of acanthus leaves.

Around each door are conventionalized architectural designs of flowers, leaves, and books. In May 1931, Fine Arts librarian Mrs. Patricia Dutcher provided the following key to the symbols:

  • Amorini (cupids) – Lesser gods of love, found in decorative art of all ages.
  • Acanthus – Gardens of heaven.
  • Fruit – Good works of the righteous. Plenty.
  • Griffin – Wisdom and enlightenment. Unassailable superiority. Eternal vigilance and wardenship.
  • Cornucopia – Horn of plenty. Abundance. Gifts.
  • Books – A library. Great knowledge. Education. Wisdom and scholarship.
  • Bowl of flame – Divine fire of learning. Divine enlightenment. Wisdom. Purity.
  • Scroll or tablet – Attribute of a prophet. Prophecy.
  • Rose – Love. Wisdom. Beauty. Silence.

On the outside of the building are the following inscriptions:

  • Homer – Pindar – Virgil – Dante – Milton – Goethe – Shakespeare.
  • “The true learning that makes for righteousness” – Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888), English poet and critic.
  • “Be made whole by books as by great spaces and the stars.” – Mary C. Davies, California poet from The Skyline Trail, a Book of Western Verse, 1924.
  • The assembled souls of all that men hold wise – Sir William Davenant (1606 – 1668), English poet laureate, playwright, and theater manager. Plato – St. Paul – Aristotle – Bacon – Newton – Darwin – Pasteur

Dr. Walter S. Adams (1876 – 1956), astronomer, director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, and member of the Library Board for 40 years, was responsible for the quotations and the names of the writers.

The North Entrance, which was originally designed as the Library’s loading dock and service entrance in 1927, was constructed as part of the 1984 stacks project.

In what must have been his only failure to plan for change far into the future and probably because he had not recognized the potential for growth of the automobile, Myron Hunt only planned for five parking spaces at the rear of the building.

For the North Entrance, Mr. Taylor designed a staircase that is a replica of the Library’s front entrance. A special mold was made to replicate the curved steps. The large blocks, on either side of the staircase, are an original Myron Hunt design and were part of the old loading dock.

In addition to the stairs, a new lift for the disabled was also built just east of this entrance. Accessibility was one of the primary objectives of the stacks and North Entrance project. This is one of four lifts throughout the building which were built to meet this objective.

The exterior lights are also replicas of the original exterior lights located on the south entrance. The pattern of the brickwork and the wrought iron handrails were also reproduced so that both entrances are nearly identical.

As anticipated at the time the plans for the North Entrance were made, sixty to seventy percent of the Library’s users now enter through here.

The North Entrance opens into a lovely foyer named the Edward M. Szynaka Hall. It is so named in honor of Mr. Szynaka, Library Director from 1981 until 1994, who envisioned the Library’s restoration and brought it to completion.

The floor here is made of polished Italian marble. Special quarter sawn oak furniture was made to neatly house free materials, such as newspapers.

On the east wall is the Foundation’s Donor Wall with its large plaque, designed by Adele Bass. The plaque features an etching of the Library’s south facade and is made of satin finish bronze. The panel is composed of individual tiles, each bearing a donor’s name and gift category and is designed to have names added as contributions are made to the Pasadena Public Library Foundation.

Myron Hunt, along with all the other architects in the design competition, was required to take into consideration many components and specifications stipulated by the Civic Center Plan and Jeanette Drake, City Librarian.

Myron Hunt intentionally designed the building to be basically a one-story structure, a unique concept for main libraries built in that time period. He did this based on successes with previous buildings he had designed but also primarily as a way to conserve space, eliminate grand staircases and elevators, and most importantly of all, to bring the design in on budget ($586,000). Consequently the Central Library design is quite distinct from other main libraries built around the same time, such as the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library.

The Main Hall is 33 feet wide, 45 feet high and 204 feet long. It was designed to connect to the other service rooms without any long hallways and with a minimum number of stairways. The Children’s Room, the Centennial Room, the Business Wing, Humanities Wing, and the Book Stacks all are connected to the Main Hall through open doorways. Also just off the Main Hall are additional service rooms: the Index and Newspaper Room, the Technology Learning Center, and the Photocopy Center. A long-forgotten doorway connecting the Main Hall and the Index and Newspaper Room was reopened during the 1989 restoration project and the beautiful skylights in this room were refurbished and backlit for increased lighting.

Myron Hunt was also responsible for all aspects of the interior design of Central Library and gave great care to every detail including the wall treatments and furniture.

Because of a limited budget, it was decided not to spend money on a lot of marble and bronze. Instead, the money went into the cork floor and the oak wainscoting. By using the wainscoting, Hunt was able to design the bookshelves to be an integral part of the overall design, thus preserving an elegant simplicity. The wainscoting is made of quarter-sawn oak, a common building material in 1925. This method of cutting the oak reveals the beautiful grain of the wood and adds a subtle beauty to the wainscoting.

This same wood was also used in the construction of the original Circulation and Information Center Desks. During the 1989 renovation, the Information Center Desk was redesigned and rebuilt by reference librarian and expert woodworker, William Lahay. He worked with the Information Center staff to design the modular interior of the desk, which in the tradition of Myron Hunt, can be adapted in the future, as needs change. The Circulation Desk was also restored and rebuilt with computers inset into the desk so as not to detract from the style of the building.

The Main Hall’s beautiful floor is made of cork, which came from Portugal. The cork, which was installed to help reduce noise, also was laid in a decorative pattern of alternating dark and light tiles.

Hunt even gave careful thought to the acoustic plaster, which is above the wainscoting in all the rooms. Hunt wanted to avoid the gray color that was so common in acoustic plaster at that time and simultaneously not ruin its acoustic properties by using just any paint. Careful experimentation with various pigments went on until Hunt was satisfied with the results.

One of the most beautiful features of the Main Hall is distinctive pendant lights. These are replicas of the original bronze and copper pendant lights Myron Hunt designed and were installed here, and in the Reference and Humanities Wings and the Centennial Room as well, during the restoration of the building in 1989. These new pendant lights replaced fixtures which were installed in the 1960’s and obscured the beautiful ceilings. While the fate of our original lights is unknown, the Library was fortunate enough to be able to borrow an identical light to copy from the Huntington Library, a building Hunt also designed. These lights were updated with state of the art technology for energy conservation and low maintenance.

The Main Hall has ten quarter-sawn oak tables and sixty chairs, some of which are original and some of which are reproductions. Note the lovely wrought iron medallions on the table legs.

Table lamps were added in 1989 to improve lighting. Although not original to the building, table lamps were common in buildings in the 1920’s. The installation of the lamps, which are cleverly wired through the table legs, also meant that electrical outlets are available at every table making use of portable computers easy.

The French antique tapestries hanging above the Circulation Desk were gifted by The Pasadena Public Library Foundation and replaced the tapestries that hung in the same spot from 1927 through the mid 1980’s.Tapestries were loaned to the Library for opening day on February 12, 1927 and subsequently returned to the owner. Later, two replacement tapestries and an Aubusson rug were purchased and hung on the wall. They remained there until the Central Library renovation in the mid 1980’s when they were removed for cleaning. However, sixty years of direct sunlight, dirt and the weight from hanging, had taken their toll. The Library was advised that the tapestries would not withstand cleaning, the weight of rehanging nor additional sun. Thus, the decision was made not to rehang them. They were sold with the funds going toward the restoration campaign. The newly acquired 17th century French tapestries were the final touch in returning the Great Hall to its former splendor.

Like the windows on the outside of the building, names of authors and literary quotations were also inscribed beneath the inside of the Main Hall windows.

These inscriptions can be seen below the windows on the south:

  • Scott – Dickens – Balzac – Hawthorne.
  • “Here I am in my kingdom.”- Montaigne.
  • Marlowe – Moliere – Schiller – Browning.
  • “Infinite riches in a little room.” – Marlowe, Jew of Malta.
  • Gibbon – Macaulay – Carlyle – Bancroft.

Under the windows on the north side are these inscriptions:

  • Chaucer – Shelley – Wordsworth – Poe.
  • “The truth shall make you free.” – John 8:32.
  • “Dreams, books, are each a world.” – Wordsworth
  • Montaigne – Swift – Johnson – Emerson.

This inscription is appropriately found under the window at the east end of the Main Hall over the Information Center:

  • “Truth may bear all lights.” – Shaftesbury.

A final interesting feature of the Main Hall is the model of the 1890 Library, a building which stood at the corner of Raymond Avenue and Walnut Street. This model was made by Pasadenan Rex Petty from salvaged original stone from this building.

The Donald R.Wright Auditorium was the first restoration project of the Pasadena Public Library Foundation and was dedicated on May 9, 1987.

The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation presented the Foundation with a generous grant for this project as a lasting memorial to Donald R.Wright, Chief Justice of the California State Supreme Court from 1970 to 1977. Chief Justice Wright, a native and life-long Pasadena resident, served on the Parsons Foundation Board until his death in 1985. A plaque near the stage honors Chief Justice Wright.

The Auditorium seats were original to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium (built in 1932 as the final structure in the Civic Center plan) . Early in the restoration planning, these seats were found in storage and were reupholstered in the burnt orange color originally planned by Hunt for the Library Auditorium. The end panels, featuring the City logo of the Crown and Key, were carefully restored to their original condition. The curved wire frame under each seat is a hat rack, a 1932 necessity!

There are 142 fixed seats. Another 35 seats upholstered in the same fabric can also be set up.

The color scheme of the seats was used as the inspiration for the custom designed one hundred percent wool carpeting which was made in Northern Ireland. This carpeting is used in the Children’s Room, the Reference and Humanities Wings, and the Centennial Room.

Improved stage lighting, staggered seating to improve sight-lines to the stage, a stage drape and a special piano storage area make the stage better for both performers and the audience.

Two Steinway grand pianos are in the special storage area behind the stage and are owned by the Tuesday Musicale. They may be rented from the Tuesday Musicale.

As part of the restoration, the Auditorium was equipped with advanced lighting, sound, and audio-visual systems. In 1995, the Library was one of two public libraries in California to receive a PacBell “Education First” grant which funded the installation of video teleconferencing equipment.

Even the restrooms were improved. An old door to the existing Women’s restroom which had been hidden behind shelves was reopened. (A new Men’s room had been built in 1983 off the west side of the entry foyer.) A combination restroom/dressing room for performers was constructed backstage.

The Wright Auditorium is one of the most heavily used public meeting rooms in the City, averaging over 450 bookings each year. A variety of events are held here such as the Library’s captioned film program, additional Children’s programming, recitals and concerts, lectures by local scholars, public hearings by City Commissions, etc. The Auditorium is available free to non-profit groups who do not restrict or charge for attendance, and for a fee to profit-making or limited attendance groups. Seventy percent of the Auditorium use is by non-profit groups.

The following paintings are in the Auditorium (starting on the south wall with the Colorado Street Bridge painting and moving clockwise):

  • “Colorado Street Bridge”, c. 1929 by Christian Seimer (1874 – 1940).
  • “Snow at the Canyon”, no date, by Benjamin C. Brown (1865 – 1942).
  • “Majestic Solitude”, no date, by Benjamin C. Brown (1865 – 1942).
  • “Under the Studio Balcony”, c. 1926 by Antoinette deForest Merwin (1861 – 1941).
  • “Sunset Moon Catalina Island”, no date, by Benjamin C. Brown (1865 – 1942).

In the original plans for Central Library, Myron Hunt designed a four-levelbookstack area, which could someday be finished to accommodate a growing collection. When this building was originally opened in 1927, only two levels were completed, the main level (with an immense open space above where more bookstacks could one day go) and one below at the basement level.

By the 1980’s, the Library’s collection had grown to the point where it was necessary to complete Myron Hunt’s visionary plan for a larger capacity bookstack. A $2.6 million project began in the summer of 1984 and was funded by a combination of federal, state, and city funds.

In order to enlarge the bookstack from two to four levels, include an elevator, and meet modern seismic and fire safety standards, it was necessary to completely gut the book vault by removing the existing two levels of stacks. Inside this space, an entirely new steel structure was built with solid floors, an important feature in preventing a chimney-like spread of fire, which occurred in the disastrous Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986.

The original marble floor, an unpolished Vermont marble, was carefully removed when the stack area was gutted for construction. It was put back in a pattern, which was specifically designed to direct patrons to the Main Hall.

When Myron Hunt won the competition for the original design of Central Library, there were certain key design features, which influenced his selection as the project architect by the City. This was also the case when the 1984 selection committee chose William Henry Taylor as the stacks project architect. His use of the natural light from the original skylights on the fourth level and the atrium linking the upper and lower floors, convinced the twelve individuals who represented the Cultural Heritage Committee, the Design Review Committee, and the Library Board to select him. Mr. Taylor was assisted by Raymond Girvigian, a historical restoration architect. Mr. Girvigian helped ensure historical continuity in this project just as he did during the restoration of the California State Capitol building in Sacramento.

Replicas of the Main Hall pendant chandeliers were also incorporated into the design in the stack area. Also noteworthy in this area are the beautiful banisters. Each bend is composed of 4 or more pieces of wood that were glued together and then carved into their lovely shape.

This wonderfully inviting room was originally named the “Peter Pan Room” for its unique fireplace designed by the accomplished Pasadena sculptor Maud Daggett (1883-1941) as a gift to the children of Pasadena and in memory of her parents, Charles and Mary Daggett. It tells the story of Peter Pan and all his friends, including Captain Hook.

In her notes about the sculpture, Miss Daggett said it represents those “universal moments of childhood, when… imagination and adventure thrill in the land of ‘make believe’, when each young soul realizes in full his heart’s desire”. She wanted people to know when they saw the sculpture that “the sculptor loved every minute of her childhood in beloved Pasadena, in freedom and sunshine, with loving parents who never grew up, and who believed in fairies and who believed in Pasadena”.

Myron Hunt’s design for this room shows great sensitivity to the unique service needs of children of all ages. Hunt designed the furniture to be scaled down versions of the Library’s adult furniture. The tables and benches in front of the Peter Pan Fireplace are intended for elementary age children and is adjacent to their book collection. Three-quarter size tables with chairs are located near the junior high and reference collections.

During the restoration and renovation of this room in 1990, a “down-sized” information desk and computer work stations were specially designed and installed to better serve the needs of young library patrons.

In addition, a new piece of furniture (inspired by Library staff) was designed for placement in the picture book area. These are the “Read To Me” chairs, which are sized for an adult and child to sit comfortably together. Made of quarter-sawn oak, the design even includes a carving of a book like that which appears carved in the stone at the front of the building. The standing lamps were original to the building and were brought out of storage and rewired.

At the west end of the room, just beyond the non-fiction book collection is the Story Hour Room. This was an addition to the building in the 1960’s and was extensively remodeled during the restoration project to better accommodate the needs of the busy schedule of children’s programming. Prior to the restoration, the entrance to the Story Hour room was through the display case just inside the room to the left. This display case is surrounded by stonework which surrounded the original exterior windows. The present central doorway was cut through what was an original exterior wall of the building and one can see how thick the exterior walls of the building are, over twenty-four inches of brick and concrete.

For programs, children sit on the carpeted steps of the “mini-amphitheater”. State-of-the-art equipment includes theatrical lighting; a recessed film screen; video and film projectors; compact disc, audio and video tape players; and a sound system. Sectional stage drapes offer flexibility for a variety of programs.

Today, the Children’s Room is named in honor of Ernestine Avery, whose husband R. Stanton Avery, donated the funds necessary for the restoration and renovation which was dedicated on April 21, 1990.

Here, as in the Humanities Wing, jarring pieces of unmatched furniture were replaced by new oak tables and chairs which are exact copies of the 1927 originals. Most of the library’s original oak and wrought iron tables, chairs and other furniture, repaired and refinished thanks to the PPL Foundation’s successful fundraising work, are actually still in use.

Particularly noteworthy in this room is the beautiful stairway. This leads down to a former storage area which was opened for public access as part of the restoration project and houses the Library’s periodicals, microform, and federal and state government documents.

The narrower set of stairs which lead up to the balcony over the Information Center Desk are original to the building. The stairs which lead down to the Microform and Periodicals Center and documents collections were built by hand in 1989 as entirely new construction. Most patrons think the entire stairway is original construction – a compliment to the remarkable craftsmanship of the carpenters who worked on the restoration project.

The Community Bank Business Room was dedicated on June 21, 1990, and houses an extensive business collection, which is a specialty of the Pasadena Public Library. The Business collection is the most heavily used subject collection in the Library. The room was named in honor of Community Bank which underwrote the restoration.

This wing was dedicated on January 26, 1990 as a memorial to Mrs. Ria Lee through the generosity of her husband, Dr. Henry Lee III, and her son, Ronald G. Lee. In May 1991 a generous gift was made to endow the Fine Arts Room in the names of Robin and Linda Galbally.

This area, the Reference Wing on the north, and the Main Hall were restored in one large project to take advantage of “economies of scale” and to minimize disruption to library services. This work was completed during August and September 1989.

As in the other areas of the Library, woodwork was repaired and refinished and pendant lights and schoolhouse globe fixtures replaced jarring 1960’s era lighting. The same lovely carpeting is used here as elsewhere. Here it replaced a dark green “battleship” grade linoleum and has markedly improved the acoustics by softening and absorbing sounds.

Note the ceiling here and elsewhere in the building. The beams are hand-hewn redwood. The center tiles are composed of plaster and crushed sugar cane stalks which were blended and tinted brown. Myron Hunt used this combination instead of solid oak which was not affordable under the budget constraints of that day. The use of sugar cane stalks also was an economical way to help with the acoustics and control noise. Hunt wrote that the acoustic quality was from the porosity of the crushed sugar cane stalks.

Blond maple shelving and furniture of the 1960’s provided a startling contrast next to the 1920’s era oak immediately adjacent. Now both rooms flow together naturally thanks to a continuous use of replicas of original tables and chairs, matching woodwork and shelving, and lighting.

The Fine Arts Room, and its mirror image which is the Community Bank Business Room over on the north side, underwent what was the most amazing transformation of any area in the entire Library. These wings were part of the 1966-1967 additions to the Library.

At the time of the 1927 opening of Central Library, this room housed the Fine Arts and Californiana collections. From 1970 to 1988, it housed the Business-Technology Department.

Today, this space once again houses the Pasadena history and Californiana collections of the Library. Dedicated June 23, 1989, the Pasadena Centennial Room was the second of the Pasadena Public Library Foundation’s restoration projects and commemorates the 1986 celebration of the Centennial of Pasadena’s incorporation as a city. Major gifts for this restoration came from the Pasadena Centennial Coordinating Committee, Chandis Securities, and the Ahmanson Foundation.

The Pasadena local history collection, which includes books, periodicals, photographs, maps, city documents, videos, and ephemera (e.g. flyers, brochures, pamphlets, etc.) is housed here in the Centennial Room. Historical and contemporary materials about Pasadena are collected, preserved, and heavily used by both Pasadenans and researchers from all over the world.

Also housed here is a rare collection of materials about the discovery, exploration and settlement of California, collected by Miss Nellie Russ, City Librarian from 1898 to 1919. The collection includes such items as the Californian, the first newspaper published in California (started by Walter Colton in Monterey on August 15, 1846).

This room was originally ventilated by the clerestory windows above. These windows, like the other high windows throughout the building, were designed to be opened to provide good air circulation. You can still see the semi-circular pieces of metal which were attached to mechanical controls built into the walls; a hand crank could be attached to a metal stem which extended from the wall. With this crank in place, staff could crank open the overhead windows!

In 1989, several changes were made to provide a more protective environment for the special materials. A separate air conditioning system, which runs 24 hours a day, was installed to provide a constant temperature of 70 degrees and 45% relative humidity. Ultraviolet filters were also placed on all the windows to limit potential damage by sunlight. Grillwork doors, locked on the south side of the room, provide special security for the rarest material. Access to these materials is provided by staff at the Information Center, located just outside the Centennial Room.

Additional special features in this room include deeper than normal shelving which accommodates extremely large books, filing cabinets for ephemera and photographs, and large flat cases which hold maps, oversize photographs, scrapbooks and other items which are best protected by flat storage. A special “book edge” photocopy machine, designed to be used with fragile material, is located just off the north alcove.

As in the Main Hall, authentic replicas of the original pendant bronze and copper light fixtures were installed as replacements for the 1960’s era fluorescent and sodium vapor fixtures.

Today’s “history in the making” is also available in the Centennial Room with contemporary information on the Pasadena community, City government, important local issues located on the Neighborhood Information Service kiosk.

The Genealogy Room was part of the Centennial Room project. It was named in honor of Ida Lloyd Crotty who endowed it in 1992.

By renovating and transforming what was formerly a staff workroom, space was made for the Genealogy collection in this much more accessible location here on the Main floor. Previously the materials were located up a narrow flight of stairs on the balcony over the Information Center Desk. The genealogy collection is geared toward the beginning genealogist and includes instruction books, guides, and indexes as well as a collection of Pasadena area family histories.