To keep the community both enlightened and entertained, LFIA’s launching a new online Observer newsletter feature. We thought it would be fun to begin with a salute to our Los Feliz Library, celebrating its 22th anniversary this month. The branch on the corner of Hillhurst and Franklin Avenues has a background befitting a book. As you know, the library’s been closed due to the pandemic, but offers a Library-to-Go service. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear the library’s doors are reopening.
The Little Library That Could
by Lynne T. Jewel
Like a good book, the Los Feliz Branch Library has a storied past. It’s had many editions spanning nearly one century in different locations and configurations.The library’s back story is a long and winding tale. Along the way, it has experienced both tremendous community support as well as conflict and controversy. But the transformation from a tiny library to the beautifully-designed building at 1874 Hillhurst Avenue (celebrating its 22th anniversary in 1921) has a happy ending.
It all began in 1923 when the Los Feliz Library opened as a private library at 1703 N. Vermont Avenue. One year later, on February 15, it became the Los Angeles Public Library’s 36th branch which took on various Vermont addresses.
During the 1940s, the library faced a checkered career of opening and closing with a library-conscious community never giving up hope on having its own branch service.
In 1950, the library moved to a small storefront at 1939 ½ Hillhurst Avenue. Today, Spitfire Girl gift shop occupies the site.
“I remember the aisles being so narrow, you had to walk sideways,” recalls Angela Stewart, a long-time LFIA board member. High school students could be seen studying on the floor. When the afternoon sun came pouring in, it reportedly was hot as an oven.
Tom Johnson, who served as the children’s librarian, remembers removing furniture to accommodate his scheduled programs. “We put the reading tables in the stacks so there was no access to the fiction books,” the former librarian reminisces, but fondly adds, “We were always busy.”
A Sixties subplot was that the Los Feliz and Atwater branches would be combined and located at Rowena and Hyperion Avenues. But that concept never materialized, according to LFIA records.
By the late 1970s, the small storefront, which had taken on “A Hole in the Wall” non de plume, had expanded into several adjacent spaces.
Finally, the community agreed, enough was enough with the makeshift cramped quarters. LFIA and Friends of Los Feliz Library, along with other community leaders and the Board of Library Commissioners, began developing plans for a permanent facility. David Moss and Marilyn Bush, long-time president and vice president of “Friends,” were champions for the literary cause.
But like any good page turner, along came the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake forcing the branch to lease temporary space at the nearby vacant Yellow Ribbon Market, 1801 N. Hillhurst Avenue and now Sotheby’s International Realty.
In an unexpected twist of fate, the library received funding for a new building from the 1989 Library Bond Issue and went from being a 1,500 square-foot storefront to a $2.7 million 10,500 square-foot building.
Exactly where the library was going to be located was not without civic engagement.
Former City Librarian Fontayne Holmes, who with the library’s architect Barton Phelps spoke several years ago at the library’s Architecture&Beyond Lecture Series, remembers an emotionally-charged community meeting on whether the library should be built at Hilhurst and Franklin Avenues or at the foot of Barnsdall Park.
“Many people let it be known they wanted the library on Hillhurst,” says Holmes. Those who wanted “our library” to remain in the heart of Los Feliz won out.
As many know, the new library was ultimately built on the lot where one of Los Feliz’ most celebrated residents, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, had once lived.
Community support has helped make the library what it is today, including funding from the DiCaprio Family and the Walt Disney Company Foundation’s “Adopt-a-Branch” program. It offers many programs, including the long-running Architecture&Beyond Lecture Series.
The “new” library doors opened April 8,, 1999. “And we’ve been busy ever since,” said Pearl Yonezawa, who has the distinction of being the head librarian for this location’s entire 22-year-plus chapter.
Not to forget its hardscrabble history, the Los Feliz Library–whose entrance faces Franklin Avenue–maintains a Hillhurst Avenue address.
Anyone with photos or memories of any of the library locations on Hillhurst Avenue, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
DiCaprio Connections to Los Feliz Library
The Los Feliz Branch Library’s claim to fame is that it’s situated on the site of the childhood home of actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
But the DiCaprio connections don’t stop there. His family funded the state-of-the-art Leonardo DiCaprio Computer Center, which is lined with movie posters starring the famous actor. His father, George, thinks the center is exactly where his son’s bedroom was located.
And, yes, the young Leo, who attended nearby John Marshall High School, used to study across the street at the library’s former “storefront” location. “A young Leonardo DiCaprio really did come in the library every afternoon to do homework and hang out until his dad came to pick him up just before we closed at 5:30,” remembers former children’s librarian Tom Johnson.
Veteran librarian Pearl Yonezawa assures DiCaprio fans that his former home was long gone before the LAPL purchased the property. “We did not tear down Leonardo’s house,” Yonezawa told Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Harvey when the new library opened in 1999.
Library Brings Outdoors In By Design
The contemporary and cozy concept for the Los Feliz Branch Library, conceived by architect Barton Phelps two decades ago, purposely brought the natural world in to provide an outdoorsy ambiance.
For starters, those large rocks in front of the building on the corner of Franklin and Hillhurst avenues have an imaginative dotted line connecting them to boulders in the building and out into the courtyard.
The carefully-placed rocks, or small boulders, are also functional. Patrons can be seen sitting on them inside and out. That’s exactly what the architect wanted to accomplish.
Phelps tells the LFIA Observer:
Indoor/outdoor ambiguity in architecture can engage the observer and give liveliness to the experience of a place. The library has two main parts (reading room and gathering space) and two entrances, one symbolic and the other more relaxed. I like to think of the space between as an open urban pathway that predates any building.
The main room in the library has a calming effect with warm redwood walls, skylights and large picture windows. “We wanted the coziness of a house,” said Phelps, who also designed the Woodland Hills and Will and Ariel Durant branch libraries. He’s one of a few architects who produced multiple designs for the 73-branch Los Angeles Public Library system.
The windows along Hillhurst Avenue are cleverly angled to give patrons a view of the iconic Griffith Observatory and hills of Griffith Park. The dome-shaped teen reading room features public artwork, “Conjunction of 500 Wishes” by artist Joyce Dallal. Funded by the Cultural Affairs Department, it offers dreams and wishes from local adults and children.
In the magical Whispering Children’s Room, Phelps and his team designed artwork made of manzanita branches. Before entering the enchanting kids’ space, there’s another outdoorsy touch: a tree trunk.
Team Phelps wanted to make the Los Feliz Branch Library unique to the community. They went above and beyond to make that happen, including planting a Deodar tree, a signature of Los Feliz, out front.