For much of its life, the city of Los Angeles had to clear its throat and change the subject whenever anyone brought up the fact that the metropolis didn’t have its own dedicated public library building. After a civic outcry that included slogans like “Grow up, Los Angeles!,” in 1926 the city dedicated the Central Library. It was a three-story, 260,000-square-foot colossus with a 188-foot tower topped with a hand holding a torch of golden flame.
Designed by legendary architect Bertram Goodhue, the building was everything an aspirational city could want. Socrates and Da Vinci perched on buttresses on the exterior, owls held up the balconies, and story-book legends Alice and Robin Hood leapt from sculptured walls. Goodhue wanted his library set in a park—its West Lawn was an oasis of green, planted with stands of laurel and olive. A series of long, stepped reflecting pools flanked by cypress ran from the entrance to Flower Street, where a large bronze basin called the Well of the Scribes greeted visitors.
For decades, the city loved its library. But by the 1960s, the place, always poorly ventilated, was overstuffed with books and starting to fall apart. The librarians complained that there was no parking, and in 1969 the entire West Lawn was yanked out and paved over. With it went the trees, the long pools, and the famed Well of the Scribes, never to be seen again.
The Well was a symbolic depiction of the history of writing, in which the East handed off its wisdom to the West. (A Pegasus in the middle brokered the deal.) The bronze vessel may have weighed well over 3,000 pounds; it would’ve taken heavy equipment to move it. So the fact that it hasn’t been seen since the demolition of the West Lawn is a 50-year-old mystery.
Its disappearance captured the attention of Susan Orlean, who wrote about it in The Library Book, her account of the Central Library published last fall. “I think it’s very revealing that nobody seemed to care enough to keep track [of it],” Orlean told me. “I never found anything. No one seemed to have any record, which is bizarre, because it belonged to the city.”
Knowledge of the Well’s whereabouts was lost sometime during the ensuing decades of discussion about what to do with the failing library building. Restore or replace? The scales were tipped in favor of restoration after a developer proposed an ambitious plan to expand the library in exchange for air rights. The massive deal resulted in three skyscrapers, including the Library Tower (now the U.S. Bank Tower)—once the tallest building in the West. In the middle of all this, two arson fires in 1986 damaged more than a million books and galvanized the public to see the library restored.
The project included reconstructing the West Lawn, getting as close to the original vision as possible: lawn, reflecting pools, and the Well, if anybody could find it. Nobody could, but at least three hunches about its fate remain alive today.
One possibility was raised by landscape architect Douglas Campbell, who with his wife, Regula, contributed to the design of the green space for the new West Lawn. “I don’t remember anything being said, except after a few drinks people would start to talk about where it could be,” he said. “It could be up in a house in Laurel Canyon or somewhere. I’m sure that piece is out there somewhere.”
A different conjecture came from Jud Fine, who designed most of the art for the current West Lawn: writing in many languages on the concrete steps’ metal facing and the story of evolution emerging from the reflecting pools. “The fact that it was so valuable and it could’ve been smelted, that’s probably what happened to it,” he said. “Probably right around the corner, since so many scrapyards were downtown.” (The Smelt Theory is, incidentally, the one favored semi-officially by the library itself.)
And a third, tantalizing theory is that the Well is in limbo somewhere, maybe in a storage yard, swallowed by time and bougainvillea. If this seems unlikely, consider a story John Szabo, L.A.’s city librarian, told me. Early in Szabo’s employment, a gregarious city councilman named Tom LaBonge picked him up in his car with a promise that he was going to show him a secret. They tore off into Griffith Park and down an unpaved road, and eventually the councilman jumped out and called to Szabo to follow him into the woods.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh dear God, my tenure as city librarian is coming to a grisly end at the hands of a city councilman,’ ” Szabo said. Just then, the councilman began digging through the brush; moments later, he uncovered the monolithic carved stone sign for the Los Angeles Central Library, removed to make space for that parking lot a half century before. It had been misfiled.
Szabo had it removed from the park, cleaned up, and mounted in front of a different library. “So every time I think about Well of the Scribes, I think about Tom LaBonge walking me into the woods and finding that sign.”
Today, a different Well of the Scribes can be found on the West Lawn (renamed Maguire Gardens). Fine created a new one, bronze like the original, for the restored and expanded library, which opened in 1993. It bears a world map of burned libraries throughout history, including the Central Library. “It [is] about this tenacity of books, one of the most fragile things that keeps asserting itself despite book burnings and authoritarian regimes,” he said. “The library keeps surging back stronger than ever.” Even if some of its parts get lost along the way.
Brandon R. Reynolds writes about trees, politics, wildfires, technology, crime, business, and hot springs. He has only accidentally stolen library books and promises there are no significant artifacts in his backyard.