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Bookworm Sanctuaries

With so many new libraries going up across Los Angeles, it’s not easy figuring out which one ranks above the others. There’s the one recently built in Chinatown, with its high ceilings and multitude of windows. There’s the stately Pico-Union branch, whose brickwork gives it the appearance of a historic civic building. And there’s the expanded regional branch in Highland Park, whose smooth plaster exterior and river rock make it a perfect fit for the Arroyo Seco.

But the finest of the new libraries, most of which were built with money voters ponied up in 1998, can be found in South Los Angeles, where the neighborhood of Canterbury Knolls smacks up against Hyde Park. The Hyde Park Miriam Matthews Branch Library is eye-catching and inviting, not to mention a delightful place to read on an afternoon — no mean feat considering that the library’s first design nearly got the architect tossed out of a community meeting.

“We first proposed a building which was very subdued and elegant and librarylike — kind of mature and institutional. And it got a very negative reception from the neighborhood,” says architect Craig Hodgetts, a partner in Hodgetts and Fung, the firm that designed the branch. “The community really wanted an icon — something that caught your eye. They wanted to be expressive. They wanted to be exuberant.”

With those instructions in mind, Hodgetts set out to create a piece of architectural jewelry, a civic building that would stand out on Florence Avenue, a tough street with a checkered past. On the exterior, Hodgetts applied a “joyous collision of materials” — cement board, galvanized steel, and Kynar, sheets of metal painted the color of copper that feel surprisingly delicate. On the inside, walls jut upward at sharp angles, and light from the clerestory windows bounces off the walls, bathing patrons in reflected sunlight.

Seeking to evoke Moroccan and Ethiopian sculpture, Hodgetts combined metal sheets with wood. Responding to concerns about safety, the firm placed small, square windows on the north side, almost like portholes, but then interspersed them with colorful tiles created by artist Robin Strayhorn. The sense of drama continues inside, where copper-colored Kynar tubes are suspended from the ceiling. Sound like too much? It’s not. Somehow it all fits.

Although the Hyde Park branch is one of the city’s newest, it evokes the past as well, carrying the name of Miriam Matthews, the city’s first African-American librarian, a historian who assembled an extensive collection of materials on black Californians.

If Hyde Park is the city’s best new library, another branch, just a mile away and not too far from USC, stands out as the best renovated library in South Los Angeles. The Vermont Square Branch Library, named for the neighborhood that surrounds it, is one of the city’s oldest and tiniest branches. Yet it has a sense of grandeur, in part because it sits in an open community square in a neighborhood filled with century-old Craftsman bungalows.

The Vermont Square Library was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Sumner P. Hunt — an architect known for his work on the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Doheny Mansion. Hunt’s involvement may explain the library’s classic, early-20th-century look. With cream-colored brickwork, a grand, arched entry and white marble in the lobby, the branch looks like a place where Atticus Finch would have gone on a Saturday afternoon to catch up on his reading.

While the wood surfaces in the Hyde Park branch are made of shiny, recycled lumber, the Vermont Square Library bears a crisscross pattern of oak ceiling beams, with skylights interspersed between them.

The city actually got the Vermont Square branch for free, since it was paid for by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, whose foundation funded nearly 3,000 libraries around the globe. When the library opened in 1913, a streetcar ran immediately behind it on tracks that ran parallel to nearby 48th Street.

That the Vermont Square branch still stands is a small marvel. It was shuttered in 1990, following an order from building inspectors worried about earthquake safety. But it was repaired and reopened six years later, its appearance nearly unchanged because of fervent pleas for its return by the surrounding community.

Hyde Park Miriam Matthews Library ?2205 Florence Ave., L.A., ?(323) 750-7241

Vermont Square branch library ?1201 W. 48th St., L.A., (323) 290-7405

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