From the Central Library fire 35 years ago, a story just now being told

| April 1, 2021 | 0 Comments

CENTRAL LIBRARY, Los Angeles” is a poster by David Lance Goines, released by the Los Angeles Library Association to commemorate the opening of the restored and expanded Central Library in 1993. Goines writes of the poster: “The greatest library known to antiquity was that founded by the first Ptolemy at Alexandria. The story of its destruction is of doubtful authenticity, but other libraries really have suffered dreadful fates. Knowledge put to the torch is a common theme, even in our own time, even among our own kind. Like the fabled phoenix, the Los Angeles Central Library was renewed and stands, more splendid than before, a gem sparkling in the smog-beautiful sunset diadem of tall buildings. City of Angels, heart of soaring celluloid dreams. It really does look like this.” Poster by David Lance Goines

The shocking April 29, 1986 news broadcasts of the senseless fire ravaging a Downtown building so loved — and then burned and waterlogged — led to a cry for volunteer help from every news source region-wide.

I was one of many who heard that cry, and I knew instinctively that, early the next morning, the senior recognized elected and appointed public leaders of the City and County of Los Angeles emergency and logistics teams were instantly needed with their expertise and resources to meet … as equals … turf and politics set aside. It was their Library!

As is often true, there was tension between them in the months before the fire.

Only one person in the private sector could call that meeting … Lod Cook, chairman of the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) … who at the time set the vision for community caring.

During the early afternoon of the fire, I called him at his top-floor office in ARCO Tower, across Flower Street from the burning Central Library. I clearly explained the situation and, with his agreement, — and in his name — his staff then brought together a 7:30 a.m. meeting the next morning. Everyone asked to be in that next-morning group attended without exception … taking chairs around the huge walnut conference table that filled the wood-paneled Board Room on ARCO Tower’s Executive Floor.

No agenda. No paperwork. No note-taker. No camera. No press. And no leaks.

No ARCO representative was there. It wasn’t necessary. An ARCO presence filled the room.

There must have been someone quietly solemn from the Library and hoping for help he or she could barely define.

Someone ceremoniously closed the huge door when about 25 leaders had filled every chair.

I sat purposely not at one end, but with my back to the magnificent city-view windows in the midpoint of the long side of the table filled with Chiefs of City and County Fire and Police departments in uniforms, emergency department leaders, staff of County Supervisors and City Councilmembers. No list exists.

All had filled out name badges with bold markers, to be readable from across the table. Around the table that morning, in that unfolding crisis, they met as equals. Vital. Respectful. Respected.

They came for the Library.

They waited for whoever would lead. I began.

I remember my words, spoken from my heart and wisdom without notes.

“I’m Sally Sturdy Stewart … third generation Los Angeles. My corporate attorney father Herbert Sturdy was managing partner of Gibson Dunn  & Crutcher at 634 South Spring Street. He rewrote the City Charter for Mayor Sam Yorty
and led the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the largest natural open space within a one-hour drive of the largest population in the nation. He was Walt Disney’s attorney.

“I’m proudly vice-chair of the KCET Public Television board and co-president of the Los Angeles Conservancy that is saving and revitalizing historic places in our city.

“And I was a co-chair of Tom Bradley’s successful re-election campaign under Fran Savitch. [I paused.]

“In this circle right now, I am nobody. … And I am everybody!

“Our Library needs each and every one of you right now, with your resources and expertise. That’s why I called Lod Cook as the fire was still uncontrolled to ask you to come together this morning … and you have come responding to that call!

“Every one of you leading your departments and teams is urgently needed to talk to each other and work together starting in this room right here, right now, to serve and save our Library!

“Your cultures and turfs could make that challenging. Not now. You lead our city and county, and you can make things happen. Every idea shared and red tape cleared will make a difference.

“Simply, we in this City need you … and we trust you.”

And with those words, the room came slowly alive with connecting, commitment, business cards and empowerment. And they left talking and going to work on the project.

There is no other record of that important half hour.

Freezers and KCET

As Susan Orlean reports in her wonderful tome, “The Library Book,” published in 2018, the Library staff reserved space in huge freezers Downtown to house hundreds of thousands of waterlogged books, to be thawed and returned after the building would again be ready for them — a long time later.

Next: So, right from the early morning ARCO meeting, I raced to KCET and directly into the live broadcast studio where I explained the urgent immediate need for people to drive to our Downtown Central Library and, in trunks and on seats (which was my understanding), to cautiously load up and transport wet books to be frozen so they wouldn’t grow mold and have to be thrown out, but could be placed back on new shelves … eventually.

I learned later that the single largest immediate response from volunteers came from KCET’s intense constant on-air appeals.

[It turned out that volunteers’ personal vehicles were not needed to transport the books. We volunteers carried piles of wet books out from the library shelves and carefully stacked them on wooden pallets outside. There, they were bound together with plastic stretch wrap, and the pallets were loaded on trucks and were driven to frozen food warehouses on the east side of Downtown. – JHW, Ed.]

Thanks given

Another aspect heretofore publicly unknown: Five days later, I drove to the Library temporary offices (donated by ARCO, across the street) to ask if there was a plan to officially thank the volunteers who had worked under the guidance of the emergency Library leadership team. They were honestly swamped, and they said “no.” So they authorized me to create — and with 10 KCET and Los Angeles Conservancy friends — to address, personalize, stamp and mail “Thank You” notes to the first 600 volunteers who had signed in and begun helping on Day 1 and during the first five days.

The Library personnel trusted me, and they gave us their handwritten lists with approximately 600 signatures and addresses as of that time.

I saw several signed-in with their address: “Pershing Square.” Obviously Downtown without-homes people. Hearing someone comment that she thought they just came to the saving-the-books effort for coffee, I responded, “No … this is where they live, and this is their Central Library that they love, and they came as fellow volunteers to help.”

Over two days in my living room in Toluca Lake, we personalized 600 “Thank You!” postcards from “‘Dick Shunary’ and 2400 fellow volunteers.”

Someone took a formal photo of our incognito team holding open books in front of our faces. We mailed the 600 postcards all at once at the former main Downtown post office — Terminal Annex.

A friend later said, unknowingly, that she had received the nicest personal “Thank You” from Mr. Shunary at the Library … she’d been so happy to help in the crisis.

Postscript: Last night, I checked an untouched file box I have deep in a dark under-stairs closet, hoping to find a bright yellow postcard if I had saved one. My hand reached down between the papers and suddenly came up with this … the only remaining one. A true miracle!

I thank the Larchmont Chronicle for asking me to share this story about the 1986 Central Library fire that never has been told — prior to right now.

Sally Stewart Beaudette now lives in Damariscotta, Maine, and she visits “home” in California when COVID-19 allows.

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