The first time Ann Longyear ever wrote her name, it was to sign her new library card from the Pasadena Public Library when she was just 4 years old.
Now a spry 90 years of age, Longyear has been a lifelong library patron and fierce fundraising champion for the city’s treasured landmark, helping to spearhead the Pasadena Public Library Foundation board back in 1983. In the coming year, the foundation will have granted more than $3 million to the historic building’s refurbishment and maintenance since its inception.
“It’s such a magnificent building, and the inside of the libraryis as beautiful as the outside,” said Longyear, who used to walk to the main branch as a child.
Part of the library’s magic — much like the great novels it shelters — is in the finely interwoven details. Finished in 1927 by renowned architect Myron Hunt, he painstakingly designed every aspect, including floors, wall panels, ceilings and even the lush palm trees swaying in the wind and visible from the enormous arched grand windows.
The library’s south façade boasts an elaborate stone-laid courtyard with intricate carvings, including engravings of famous quotes and beloved authors that hover over the entrance.
“I just love the ‘Be made whole by books as by great spaces and the stars’… it was always my favorite,” said Longyear, referring to the inscription from great California poet Mary C. Davies.
Surrounded by birds of paradise in full bloom, the courtyard also features a fountain copied from an alabaster one at a palace in Alhambra, Spain.
But such finery does not come without its costs. The stone and brick façade has bore the brunt of California’s hot summer sun, and the Mediterranean-style stucco needs constant preservation.
In comes the Pasadena Public Library Foundation. The library foundation was born of a group of volunteers in the early 1980s who gathered to address the library’s state of disrepair. The group raised enough money to become a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, funding a massive, historical restoration and renovation between 1984 and 1990. It is largely responsible for updating the building, making it handicapped accessible with elevators, and constant upgrades such as redoing the Children’s Room and improving the stacks.
Now, the foundation is working to fundraise for the latest leg of a three-phase restoration, which includes painting, cleaning, repairing and waterproofing the exterior cast stone elements and grand window exteriors.
All in all, the scope of the project will come to about $300,000, half of which will come from the Foundation. The other half will be matched by the city, said foundation co-chair Peter McAniff.
The cost is well worth it, McAniff noted.
With some 55,000 visitors monthly and up to 107,556 computer users alone per year at the main branch, the building really has lived up to its purpose as a community space and an “engine of social mobility,” McAniff said.
“The library plays a major role in that capacity, making sure technology is available to anyone with a library card. I love that, looking out at all the occupied tables and computers, to see so many people bettering themselves,” he said.
Each foundation member has a favorite detail or area of the library. McAniff admits to admiring the cork flooring in the Main Hall.
Imported from Portugal, the original cork floor was installed to reduce noise, which indeed makes the hall and its 45-foot high ceilings quieter, while it’s also laid in a decorative pattern of dark and light tiles. The special floor also was replaced in one of the refurbishing projects by the Foundation.
“I just loved that flooring [as a boy],” McAniff said. “I always found it fascinating that Albert Einstein may have stood on that same floor when he was teaching at Caltech.”
The Library Foundation is now in good financial condition to protect the building, due in great part to the endowment of $1.3 million in assets managed by the Pasadena Community Foundation. The library foundation became a fund of the PCF in 2011, which allowed the foundation board to focus on fundraising and restoration projects, while the PCF holds, manages and invests the endowment funds to ensure maximum returns. The PCF oversees a total of about $62 million in funds from 300 diverse, area nonprofit organizations.
Library Foundation co-chair Connie White loves that the beloved central branch has become a complete community center with its auditorium, state-of-the-art technology learning center, children’s room, teen reading room and even the law-library, serving as a research center for those heading to the courthouse nearby.
“We serve such a widespread range of demographics and income levels … it really is the only place some people have to use a computer,” she said. “The foundation centers on where it can do the most good. Right now, we are focusing on the courtyard because it’s kind of the jewel in the crown.”
Nearby, the Central Grounds Coffee Bar, located on the east reading patio, percolates with the buzz of quiet chatter as students and some suited for business gather at the small wrought iron tables.
Across Walnut Street continues the stretch to the Civic Center, which, along with the library, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The library, Civic Hall and Civic Auditorium were planned as part of a nationwide city beautification movement in the early 1900s. By 1923, voters
had approved a $3.5-million bond issue to build the three Civic
Center buildings. The main branch originally was located nearby, but the structure was dismantled and later incorporated into its current location.
With the history of the main branch, Longyear is proud to have played such a large part in its beginnings, and now its restoration. But as passionate as she is for the work done to preserve the building and historic city center, Longyear says she loves the city it serves more and the stories that the library generates.
She notes that many people who come to the main branch are immigrants from diverse countries, many of which do not provide public libraries.
“Some people who come, they see the books they want and are afraid to check them out,” she said. “They really don’t believe it can be free. I just love that aspect — teaching people the concept of a free ‘lending library.’”
For more information on the Pasadena Public Library Foundation or how to donate, go to the PCF website at pasadenacf.org or call (626) 796-2097, ext. 8, to speak with Dan Maljanian.