by Sam Gnerre, courtesy of Daily Breeze
Manhattan Beach (CA) was a thriving beach town when it officially incorporated on Dec. 2, 1912, but it didn’t have all that many permanent residents.
A small group of strong-willed women, led by Jessie Bell Smith, were determined that their then-small town have all the necessities: a good school system, fire and police departments and its own library. Smith had founded the Neptunian Woman’s Club in May 1909, and it became a driving force in the community, advocating for such services.
As historian Jan Dennis told the Beach Reporter in 2012, the Neptunians started Manhattan Beach’s first library in the summer of 1912 at the club’s original location at 1200 The Strand. It members had been operating a book discussion group when the decision was made to make books available to the community for 10 cents a loan.
It was a popular option. By the time the library became affiliated with the Los Angeles County library system in January 1915, had 380 books and 143 card-carrying members. The city’s population was less than 600 at the time. The library would move to 1209 Manhattan Avenue in 1935 and remain there for the next two decades.
Library use increased as the city grew during the post-World War II baby boom. To meet the need of the growing population, a branch library was built at 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., across the street from Polliwog Park. It was intended to serve the population east of Sepulveda Blvd., and the nearby cluster of schools including Mira Costa High School.
The branch was known as the Mira Costa branch when it opened on Feb. 15, 1953, but its name officially was changed to Manhattan Heights in 1954.
Nine years later, the original Manhattan Heights branch was torn down to make way for a larger one. The new building was dedicated on Aug. 29, 1964, and its distinctive round shape made it instantly identifiable.
As for the main library, it had long outgrown its location by the 1950s, with calls for a larger facility being made as early as 1952. Construction began in 1956 on a new library building at 425 15th St. near Valley Drive. When it opened on June 10, 1957, it had 3,200 square feet and room for more than 15,000 volumes. It was built at a cost of $60,000.
By the early 1970s, the main library on 15th St. had outgrown its confines, and the city decided to build a new one right next to its new civic center. The construction firm of Willens & Bertisch won the contract for the one-story, 12,100-square-foot building at 1320 Highland Blvd, to be erected at a cost of just under $600,000. It opened on Nov. 1. 1975, and Manhattan Beach’s library situation finally stabilized for the next few years.
Until 1992. A budget shortfall led to belt-tightening throughout the L.A. County system, and Manhattan Beach Heights library was slated for closure. The city stepped in with financing to operate it for an additional six months, but it couldn’t sustain the support. On July 1, 1993, the Heights branch closed permanently.
The round building was repurposed, and now houses the Manhattan Beach Art Center.
The city once again had a library problem. Namely, they had to continue to pay the County system for two libraries, even though they only had one. City officials lobbied the state legislature to pass a law allowing it to keep the extra funds it had been paying, about $1 million annually.
That still left Manhattan Beach, now a thriving upscale family community, with a single one-room library. Newly overburdened by the branch closure, it was now one of the busiest in the county’s western region, and also one of the smallest.
Tackling the problem involved years of debate. Should the library keep its affiliation with the county, or go independent? Should the present library be remodeled and enlarged, or torn down in favor of a new building?
The debates began to settle themselves, but only after a couple of decades. The city felt that staying with the county library system would be cost effective in the long run. So would tearing down the present structure and building a new one; to do so wouldn’t cost much more than a major expansion of the old building.
In August 2011, the city signed a contract with the Culver City architectural firm of Johnson Favaro for $1.2 million to design the planned $22 million structure. (Its final cost would be just over $26 million.)
On April 11, 2013, the city gave final approval to the project, a two-story, 22,000-square foot building, with glass on three sides and an unencumbered ocean view from its second floor. The library closed on June 1, 2013, and the old building was demolished later that year. On May 1, 2015, the new Manhattan Beach library opened, and has become one of the most distinctive public structures in the South Bay and Harbor Area.
Sources: Beach Reporter files, Daily Breeze files, “The Foundation of NWC: Our History,” Neptunian Club website.