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.

Sallee March 02, 2011 at 01:04 AM
Your column is relevant and inspiring! It's fun to imagine a library like the one you wrote about in my community.
Judy Williams March 02, 2011 at 04:04 AM
I was particularly fond (in the video) of the angle of the wonderful old building and the newly bloomed hot pink blossoms of the flowering tree. I also loved the one shot straight up with the angles of the corner of the library and the blue sky and clouds above. Lovely! It's so inspiring to see that a structure such as that is just as vibrant now as it was over 100 years ago. What a treasure.
Jon Allee March 02, 2011 at 05:08 AM
Well said Laurie. Our is no ordinary library. Thank you for the beautiful article, and of course, thanks to Steve Fjeldsted. Our library is so wonderful. I don't even have to go in, every time I pass by I get a little lift.
Gretchen March 03, 2011 at 05:34 AM
I heard several people talking about this article today, I'm surprised there aren't more comments! The library is a unique and wonderful place and we're lucky to have it. We're also lucky to have someone like you covering it so beautifully in both words and images. Thank you, Laurie!
Ron Rosen March 03, 2011 at 01:43 PM
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a wonderful movie, especially if the wild parrots of South Pasadena fascinate you.
Dixie Jane Chapman March 04, 2011 at 01:48 AM
I enjoyed this whole thing! And the inspiring piece about a library, the likes of which I didn't know existed. The video is awe inspiring and it was such a treat to walk the halls and see all the aspects of the library's beauty. Than;ks so much for taking me along.
Mary Lou Wigley March 05, 2011 at 02:39 AM
Having worked in this beautiful building from 1990-1997, it was a thrill to see your exquisite photos and video and to read about the library. I haven't been back to California for 10 years and was delighted to see all the improvements - the landscaping, the painting, the refurbishing, etc. Even the ostrich is finally protected! The City Librarian and the Friends deserve so much credit - they've done a wonderful job. Mary Lou Wigley
Laurie Allee March 05, 2011 at 04:34 AM
Thanks so much, everybody! I truly love our library and spend a lot of time there with my family. The first time I met Steve Fjeldsted was when I was shooting night images of the main building. He came out and let me into the Community Room to shoot the light fixtures. The collection is vast, the setting is magnificent and oh how I love the original squeaky oak chairs. My daughter has practically grown up in the children's wing, and we enjoy going to check out books and play with the toys. I love that the library is living and breathing, not a dusty place of history but a thriving place of present time. (Be sure to check out the growing CD library of popular music!) The library feels like the heart of the city, and I am excited about many of the upcoming events. I look forward to covering some of the programs for this column.
Mary Lou Wigley March 05, 2011 at 05:59 PM
I hit the "submit" button too quickly in my earlier comment and should have stated that in addition to City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted and the Friends, the Library Board of Trustees and the Library Staff must also be commended for all they've done.
Jensen Lee March 07, 2011 at 12:14 PM
The Nilsson doc had some tremendous music. While “Everybody’s Talkin’” is the signature song of Harry Nilsson, it was written and performed by folk rock singer Fred Neil in 1966. The song almost didn’t make it to vinyl. I recently posted on my Rockaeology blog at http://bit.ly/hZAT9T the story of how “Everybody’s Talkin’” was created at the end of a recording session. Neil was anxious to get back home to Miami. Shot one track for an album, his manager convinced Neil to write a song on the spot, which Neil did in 5 minutes, and recorded “Everybody’s Talkin’” in one take.
Ron Rosen March 07, 2011 at 03:08 PM
Yes. Fred Neil was a giant of the early folk movement. Everybody's Talkin', That's the Bag I'm In, the Dolphins, and many others. Harry Nilsson wrote I Guess the Lord Must be in New York City for the movie Midnight Cowboy, but in the end they decided to use Everybody's Talkin' and had Nillson record it. This led people who were unfamiliar with Fred Neil to believe that Nilsson wrote it.
Kathy March 08, 2011 at 04:50 PM
Wonderful article and pics Laurie! The library truly is the crown of little So Pas!!! And Steve Fjeldsted surely the King!!! Steve has done a wonderful job of bringing the community and the library together in a vibrant and fun way... When I saw the murals of the children in your slides I thought..."that looks like Leo Politi"!!! Then I read that he did do those murals and was very much a part of the library...I have numerous books of his, signed and dedicated by him...my grandmother was a librarian for 52 years...she met him several times and gave me the signed copies of his books!
Johnny Brown March 09, 2011 at 01:08 AM
Laurie, this is another fantastic piece. The way you delve into this city with such care, pointing out everything that is beautiful, reminding us of what we know and teaching us about things we don't. I had no idea what those murals were in the library, or the panels on the side of the building. Thank you for bringing our history to life with such an artist's eye. I am looking forward to attending some of these events. I had no idea they were going on.
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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