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Art, Architecture and Activities at the Library

From historical design to cultural events, see why the South Pasadena Public Library is worth checking out.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the is not just a place to research a report or check out an out-of-print book. While it beautifully performs both of those standard-issue library duties, it offers much more.

When you think of libraries, it‘s the left side of your brain that fires up. All those books and reference materials are perfect stepping stones for the linear mind. But South Pasadena’s library reaches out to the creative, right side of the brain, too. The library’s architectural history, art collection, cultural events, film programs and concerts have made this city center into a hub of intellectual, creative and social development. I think of it as South Pasadena’s very own salon.

The building itself is a monument to South Pasadena’s -- and Southern California’s -- earliest history. Designed by Norman Foote Marsh and his partner C. H. Russell, the library made front page news when its doors opened in February of 1908. One reporter wrote, “Few cities of our size can point with pride to such a building.” There was reason for civic celebration: Marsh, a South Pas resident, was an influential Southern California architect most known for his contribution to the nearby beach community of Venice. Marsh & Russell laid out the site plan for that quixotic canal city, designing its first commercial buildings including the famous Hotel St. Marks on Windward Avenue.

Not only did Marsh design South Pasadena’s library, he served on its board of Trustees. And in 1930 when the library remodeled, it was Marsh who drew up the plans. At that time he was joined by Merrell Gage, a famed artist and USC professor of sculpture. Gage contributed many of our library’s most memorable design elements. If you look at the original building facing El Centro, you’ll immediately notice Gage’s classical friezes mounted in the bricks. They represent famous literary works. Above the windows, you’ll see names of famous regional authors. Walk around to the Oxley side and you’ll find two of Gage’s whimsical carvings flanking the entrance -- a Spanish galleon emerging from a book, and a rendering of St. George and the Dragon. Soon, Gage’s restored stone casting will hang above the Oxley patio.

Walk inside the library and you’ll notice the colorful stained glass panels on the wall behind the circulation desk as well as on the skylight above. Both were designed by the master glassmakers at local Judson Studios. Take a peek into the children’s wing, and you’ll find playful murals by renowned artist and children’s book author Leo Politi. While Politi painted many other famous murals, the smaller of the two in our library is his earliest remaining work.

Like the library’s historic Moreton Bay fig tree, an artistic community rooted itself early in this city. Both Gage and Politi served as presidents of the prestigious California Art Club, an organization that began in South Pasadena and spread statewide. William Judson was also a member.

In 2010, the library added several more works to its collection: two paintings by 20th Century impressionist Zolita Sverdlove and one painting by Jean Tryon. Sverdlove, who passed away in 2009, lived and painted in South Pasadena for over 30 years. Tryon, a Chouinard Art Institute attendee, was the wife of Robert Tryon, a noted South Pasadena architect and creator of the stately sign facing El Centro. The Tryons both passed away in 2010, after spending 59 years in South Pas.

But it’s not just works in stone and on canvas that give South Pasadena Public Library its artistic patina. In recent years the Community Room has served as center stage for a series of free monthly cultural events including lectures, screenings with notable filmmakers and author Q&A sessions.

Last summer, Ray Bradbury celebrated his 90th birthday at South Pasadena library, including a screening of Something Wicked This Way Comes. In January when John Scheinfeld came to the library to present his acclaimed film ? the buzz was so loud it made front page news at Pasadena Weekly.

A few weeks ago when , he also brought along three historic, autographed photographs worthy of making any baseball fan swoon.  The photos are available to the highest bidder this month as a fundraiser for the , a nonprofit support group with a 15 member board and over 700 dues paying members. Donations to the Friends help the library pay for programs, acquisitions, art, furniture and books.

On Thursday, March 10 at 7:00 p.m. will be screened in the Community Room. This award-winning documentary will be presented by the filmmaker and author Mark Bittner, who will certainly appreciate South Pasadena's own wild parrots, often perched in the trees outside the library. 

“It’s one thing to read a book, and I’m all for that,” head librarian Steve Fjeldsted told me recently. “But it’s really visceral when you can hear an author, or see a film presented by a filmmaker, or listen to an actor perform. It brings it alive for you. You feel more of a connection to the material and also to the community and to the library. It makes everything more vivid and vibrant.”

Vivid and vibrant are two words that aren’t often used to describe a library, but ours is no ordinary library. It’s our own community-based work of art. And like all great works of art, the continues to be relevant and inspiring.

For more information on upcoming programs at the library, click here.

For Laurie Allee's photo montage of the art and architecture of the South Pasadena Public Library, click on the video in the photo box above.

Laurie Allee March 10, 2011 at 11:16 PM
Thanks again, you guys. Just a reminder that Mark Bittner will introduce Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill tonight at 7:00 tonight at the library community room. Don't miss it!
Johnny Brown March 11, 2011 at 07:22 AM
Laurie, I attended the show at the library tonight and what a treat. I can honestly say it is because of your column and blog interview today with Mr. Bittman that I made the decision to go. You really bring the library to life with your beautiful pictures and words and I was not disappointed by the presentation. I am looking forward to more nights like tonight. I even met a neighbor I didn't know. Please keep doing what you do!
Laurie Allee March 11, 2011 at 07:25 AM
Wow, Johnny. Thank you. I was there as well and would have loved to have met you! It was a beautiful presentation and I, too, look forward to more of our library/salon events.
Ron Rosen March 11, 2011 at 07:35 AM
It was such a great presentation! I love this movie, and now I have the book to go along with it! I hear some locals are taking up a collection to move me back to the Bay Area. The movie certainly made me homesick. We used to hang out on those stairs on Telegraph Hill back in the 60s.
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