Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 6, 2018

A Carnegie Library in Los Angeles: Cahuenga Branch Library

As 1911 began, the city of Los Angeles was growing. Swelled by a stream of migrants looking for jobs in oil drilling, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and the not-likely-to-amount-to-anything fad of making moving pictures, the population reported in the census of 1910 was 319,000 city residents — more than triple the population ten years prior.

Those people didn’t occupy a dense central downtown. The Los Angeles basin had a vast amount of open land — seemingly inexhaustible! Suburbs were springing up amid the farms, connected by the Pacific Electric system — commonly referred to as the Red Car Line, which included streetcars, interurban lines and buses. The system — privately owned, not municipal — began service at exactly this time: 1901. Los Angeles was becoming the city of sprawl.

To be clear, I’m speaking of the City of Los Angeles, not the surrounding county, although there, too, little farm towns and nodes of the oil drilling business were growing into cities.

To the credit of the Los Angeles Public Library, founded in 1872, it was determined to keep pace in serving its new citizens. In January 1911, it received a $210,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation to build six branch libraries. A few months ago, I wrote about one of them, still operating, Lincoln Heights, east of downtown (red “X” on map below).

Lincoln Heights Library Brad Nixon P (640x317)

All six branches were built. Only three remain standing, all still part of the Los Angeles library system. This week I visited another of them, northwest of downtown on Santa Monica Boulevard: the Cahuenga Branch library. It opened in December 1916, and is now the third oldest library building in the city.

Cahuenga Carnegie Brad Nixon 0644 640

About a sixth (about $34,000) of the total grant was designated to build the Cahuenga branch. The architect Clarence R. Russell was engaged to design it. He chose Italian Renaissance Revival style.

Cahuenga Carnegie Brad Nixon 0641 640

That decision is no surprise. Russell was one of the designers of the development of Venice, California, to the west, with its artificial canals and Italianate theme. The library got a lot of detail for its investment. Click on any photo to enlarge.

“Cahuenga” wasn’t so much a neighborhood name as a recognition that its location — which had been citrus groves just six years before the library went up — was part of the original Spanish Rancho Cahuenga land grant. L.A. has more than its share of Spanish and Mission Revival architecture, but not in this instance.

The elevation of the main floor above street level is a common feature of public buildings of the era, and Cahuenga’s grand staircase is a rather extreme example.

Cahuenga Carnegie Brad Nixon 0639 640

The library collection and reading room are on the upper level. Below are offices and administrative space, and there were community meeting rooms and a small auditorium, although a librarian told me the stage no longer exists.

The reason the front entrance lacks the ramps many older buildings require to be ADA compliant is an accident of timing. Damage from a 1987 earthquake forced the closure of the library, followed by seismic retrofitting and renovation. The library added space and a new entrance in the rear parking area, at ground level, simplifying access.

Inside, the original reading room is one large open space, spanning the width of the building.

Cahuenga Carnegie Brad Nixon 0636 640

I visited on a busy Saturday, and the presence of a large number of library patrons limited my ability to take photographs without imposing on them. There’s more space than I picture here. In that view above you can see the original coved plaster ceilings, columns and pilasters with Corinthian capitals and mouldings. I failed to ask if the lighting fixtures are originals. They may be. If not, they’re certainly consonant with the era.

I suspect that the wood-encased horizontal beam between the pillars is a disguised steel beam for seismic reinforcement, not original. It doesn’t belong with the grand hall aesthetic of the space, but was probably a pragmatic requirement.

The cost of replacing a structure of that size? Far more than the $2 million required for the retrofit and renovation. A couple of additional architectural details are a small price to pay to keep a building that cost $34,000 working into its second century.

The central desk originally occupied the center of that space, facing the doors to the street on the right. It’s been moved out of sight toward the left, the rear of the building.

It’s a Library, Not Just a Building

Although I’m describing a building, my real message, as always, is about how important libraries are to communities. Cahuenga branch has had a fascinating evolution in serving a changing population, responding to world wars, the depression, new waves of immigration and now the advent of electronic media. The very way people interact has altered. Good public libraries have a long history of responding to shifts in population, culture, language, technology and community dynamics. Cahuenga and the L.A. system are exemplars, but so are thousands of other public libraries.

Not every old building is worth saving, but the ones full of books and people who know how to find information that serves the community often are. To read more about the library’s history, I encourage you to click on their website at The history was written prior to the remodeling, but provides a worthwhile look at how Cahuenga Branch has kept pace with the times.

MV 3555-Cahuenga Carnegie Lib front door 640

Visiting Cahuenga Branch

The library’s at 4591 W. Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles, California.

Cahuenga Branch Map Google 640

My best advice is to use the Hollywood Freeway, U.S. 101. Exit onto northbound Vermont, turn right onto Santa Monica, then one block later, left at the light at Madison — there’s no turn signal, so you may have to be patient, depending on time of day and traffic. The library’s at the intersection of Santa Monica and Madison. There’s free library parking behind the library off Madison. If it’s full and you have to park in the neighborhood, be cognizant of driveways, fire hydrants, etc. Don’t get towed.

Library hours and details are available at this link, the library website.

Licensable, high resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photograph © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission.


  1. Very interesting as always! The building is beautiful!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. Yes, always a plus when an important public building has an attractive design that wears well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting Library. Our local library was an old post office in the 1950s. Libraries always seem to occupy interesting historical buildings.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Communities know libraries are important. I think they tend to put them in good buildings to signify that.


      • Its sad that libraries are kind of dying now because of the internet. Now you walk into a library and half of it is computers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • But, it’s still a library, still a knowledge and information resource. We depend on more than books for information, and libraries are reflecting that. I don’t share your pessimism that libraries are on the way out, and I actually think reading is pretty much as necessary as ever.


      • So much “Fake News” going on today. I don’t think Libraries are on the way out, I just think they are not being used too much.


  3. Hopefully people will start looking at books again, and unbiased journalism instead of just blindly reading posts on Facebook and believing everything in their news feed to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That would be good. Having libraries with access to facts might be one bulwark against ignorance.


  4. You’re amazing! Do you have a list of all of the Carnegie libraries? I know that you’ve written about many of them. How many have you visited?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hardly amazing. It’s been a while since I counted up how many. Not a huge number, contrasted with the 600+ Carnegies still stand in the U.S. alone. Easy to find lists of them. My go-to list is on Wikipedia, listing all the states on this page, and if you click on any state, you’ll see the individual libraries, color coded to indicate if they’re demolished, standing but not libraries, or still an operating library:


    • And, I’ve written about a few that I haven’t seen. My dad gets credit for some of those, visited during his travels, as well as my brother in Indiana who stopped to shoot photos of a couple for me (Indiana has the most of any state). You, of course, studied (I assume) in one: the Alumni Library at the Alma Mater. And do not tell me you didn’t study or go to the library.


      • I remember vaguely going to that library, but not to study. I think I read news and history magazines like American Heritage. Not at all related to any of my courses, of course! 😀


      • Rings true. I went there because of some brunette who studied there.


  5. My compliments to the photographer: that last image is marvelous. It’s very nearly a perfect library image: historical form, beauty, a reminder that it’s meant for everyone (“public”), and the lamp of learning.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I stood right there and did not see what she saw. There’s more to photography than working a camera! I’ll make certain she reads your comment. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

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