USC Libraries

University of Southern California

skip navigation

Doheny Memorial Library

History

In 1892, Edward Laurence Doheny Sr. struck oil in Los Angeles, setting off a major land boom. The Dohenys built a financial empire based upon their success in the oil-producing business. Their son, Edward L. “Ned” Doheny Jr., studied at USC and remained involved in the university after his graduation in 1916. Tragically, he was murdered at his home in Beverly Hills in February 1929. As a memorial to their son, the Dohenys contributed the entire $1.1 million needed to build the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library and actively participated in the design and construction of the facility.

Building the Library

In 1930, the president of USC, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, in conjunction with the Doheny family, settled on the Boston firm of Cram and Ferguson to design the library. Ralph Adams Cram, an expert in Gothic church architecture, believed the primary goal in the design of institutions of higher learning was to instill in visitors a sense of reverence for a building’s purpose. The Pasadena-based architect Samuel Lunden was chosen to fashion the interiors and create the final working drawings for the building.

Construction of the building, from groundbreaking to dedication on September 12th, took only 12 months. Doheny Memorial Library was recognized instantly as a landmark building in Southern California, earning numerous design awards for its beautiful Italian Romanesque architecture. In setting the four-story structure 270 feet from University Avenue, facing the Bovard Administration Building, the architects created a quadrangle in the center of campus. The sycamore trees planted seventy years ago now tower majestically over the area and provide a shaded canopy during the annual commencement ceremony in May.

The architects said that they aimed to “create an original expression in brick and stone that would harmonize with the other buildings on the campus. Round arches in groups, walls of pale Roman brick with cream colored limestone trim enlivened with colored marbles are suggestive of the Romanesque styles of Northern Italy, though the Romanesque has been taken only as a point of departure.”

The parties involved in building the library agreed that the decor of the building should reflect the activities taking place inside, namely those of education and higher learning. Cram felt that the unity of proportion and sense of reverence found in Gothic architecture best supported this goal. The ornate ceilings, magnificent stained glass windows, elegant chandeliers and light fixtures, and custom furnishings and cabinetry lend a cathedral-like air to the building’s interior.

The theme of higher education is commemorated in many forms throughout the library. Statues of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri flank the main entrance to the building. Above the doors is a marble sculpture that portrays three seated figures—a teacher instructing two students. On either side of the medallion is depicted a mythological scene related to ingenious thinking: Hercules obtains the golden apples guarded by the Hesperides (outsmarting the gods in doing so), and Alexander the Great uses his sword to cut the famously intricate Gordian knot (instead of attempting to untie it). The massive, hand-chased bronze exterior doors weigh some two tons yet are balanced so well they can be moved with the touch of a finger.

Marble, granite and travertine are featured in much of the interior surfaces and decorative details. Estelle Doheny took a keen interest in the artistic program, requesting that all the furnishings be made in America and that California companies especially be involved. The library contains many woods native to California—redwood, black walnut, white oak, sycamore, satinwood and knotty pine.

Upon entering the doors, one may descend a double-sided grand staircase to the ground floor or climb to the first floor.

Ground floor

Upon descending the stairs, one enters the ground floor rotunda, recently renovated to accommodate exhibitions from the university’s special collections. On the south side of the rotunda are entrances to the Cinema-Television Library and the David L. Wolper Center. The Cinema-Television Library holds some 20,000 books, the archives of five major Hollywood studios and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and papers and memorabilia from hundreds of actors and directors. The Wolper Center was created in 1999 through a gift from producer David L. Wolper. In addition to holding his personal archives and films, the center stages frequent exhibitions from its collections.

On the north side of the rotunda and up a short flight of stairs is the Music Library, the main research and study area for students in the USC Thornton School of Music. The Music Library holds approximately 20,000 books; 55,000 music scores and 25,000 sound recordings in various formats. Past the library, a long hallway leads out to a quiet, beautiful courtyard, where special university programs and events are hosted. The courtyard is part of the Nazarian pavilion which includes the popular LiteraTea tea house.

First floor

At the top of the stairs, one stands in a soaring rotunda featuring massive yet jewel-like hanging light fixtures and six stained glass windows designed by the distinguished Boston artist Wilbur Herbert Burnham. The windows contain decorative medallions that pay homage to important foreign and American universities and noted scholars throughout history.

From left to right on the top row: Socrates holds a scroll and the cup of deadly hemlock he was forced to drink; Plato holds a book and scroll; Aristotle holds a scroll and rule; Moses Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, humanitarian, physician and theologian, holds a book that represents his “Guide”; St. Thomas Aquinas, who holds a book, is depicted with the sun on his breast; and Francis Bacon holds an open book.

The middle row of medallions features seals of the following American schools:
Harvard University, College of William and Mary, Northwestern University, University of California, Stanford University and Princeton University.

The lower tier of medallions depicts the seals of foreign universities: University of Paris, Trinity College (Dublin), Oxford University, Heidelberg, the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (Lima), and the Universidad Nacional de Mexico (Mexico City).

Across from the stairs is the main circulation desk. To the right of the desk is the entrance to nine levels of stacks, where the majority of the library’s books are held.

Turning to the right, one can see the entrance to the Treasure Room down the hallway. The room, now an exhibition space for materials from the library’s special collections, originally held the rare book and manuscript collections. Inside, a frieze of murals by the noted Santa Barbara artist Samuel Armstrong honors the history of the written word with a work entitled, “The Written Word Passeth on the Torch of Wisdom.”

To the right of the Treasure Room is the Current Periodicals Reading Room. During the summer of 2002, the Los Angeles-based woodworking shop Sinacrope meticulously renovated the room, virtually erasing 70 years of use and restoring its original luster.

Opposite the Current Periodical Reading Room, the Los Angeles Times Reference Room in the southeast wing of the first floor inspires awe in first-time viewers. Designed to accommodate 400 students, some 6,000 books and the main reference service desk, it remains the busiest study room in the building. The room also serves as home to the annual USC Scripter Award ceremony. Capturing one’s attention is the gold and blue coffered ceiling, designed by John D. Smeraldi, who also worked on the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. The room’s chandeliers are made of bronze and pewter; the furniture and recessed bookshelves are of walnut; and the tall side windows are of English antique leaded glass. Above an exquisitely detailed carved wood entrance, a frieze running along the base of the ceiling celebrates distinguished contributors to the history of the printed book. Repeated around the perimeter of the room are fourteen early printers’ marks. The emblems include those of Fust and Schäffer, who in 1457 produced the third book ever printed and the first to contain a date; William Caxton, who in 1477 printed the first book in English; and the famous Aldine family company of Venice, who produced many of the first editions of classic Greek and Roman writings.

The north side of the first floor includes the dean’s suite and the former card catalog room—today called the Hall of Honor—where donors who have contributed $10,000 or more to the USC Libraries may have their names engraved. The East Asian Library is located on the other side of the Hall of Honor, and it offers access includes to the reference and collection and periodicals in Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Second Floor

The second floor of the library holds a mixture of offices and collaborative workspaces. Many of the staff on this floor participate in the acquisition, preservation and display of unique archival materials.

The Intellectual Commons is designed for study and academic discussion. The room holds the Boeckmann Iberian and Latin American Reference Collection, which consists of core reference sources in the humanities and social sciences for the study of the Luso-Hispanic world from pre-Columbian times to the present. Its lounge chairs and couches provide comfortable space for informal study. The Intellectual Commons is also equipped for holding conferences or large group meetings.

To the east of the Intellectual Commons, a large space behind locked doors awaits renovation during the 2004–2005 academic year. The room will eventually hold additional conference/lecture space, a rare materials reading room and the Boeckmann Center for Iberian and Latin American Collections.

On the south end of the second floor is the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, which houses some 8,000 volumes from the personal collection of the German émigré writer Lion Feuchtwanger. The space was configured during the mid-1980s and serves as the main rare materials reading area. Down the hall from the Feuchtwanger Library is the Horton Rare Book Room, one of the most beautiful interior spaces on the campus. The room holds a number of rare book collections, including a significant collection of Lewis Carroll-related material.

The Evolution of a Library

The twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in published material over previous centuries. Charlotte Brown, the head librarian of USC at the time of Doheny Library’s construction, came up with a visionary plan for managing the book collections. Originally built to hold 450,000–500,000 volumes, the stack wing required expansion in the 1960s to double its capacity, as Brown had projected.

When it opened, Doheny was one of the most advanced libraries in the nation. To obtain a book, one looked it up in the card catalog, brought a call slip to the loan desk and waited while pneumatic tubes whisked the call slip to the appropriate stack level, where a waiting staff member would retrieve the volume and put it on an automatic conveyor. When the book arrived at the loan desk, a number on a board would light up to let the student know it was ready for checking out.

Until 1966 the stack levels were closed to all but graduate students and faculty. Today, the card catalog has been replaced by an online one and any student, faculty, or staff member can search for a book’s call number using USC’s online catalog, find the book in the stacks themselves and then check it out with their ID card.

Recent Renovations and New Plans

In December 1999, Doheny Library was closed for a major seismic retrofit. The complex upgrades involved the insertion of concrete shear walls behind existing ones. In addition, the lighting system was upgraded and overhead fire suppressant sprinklers installed. Afterward, the building’s interior and exterior received a thorough cleaning. The Los Angeles Conservancy recognized the Doheny upgrade as one of seven “exemplary preservation projects” at its annual preservation awards in spring 2001.

More than 70 years after its construction, Doheny Library is still evolving. Recently, the building has been strengthened as an intellectual and cultural destination on campus with the redesign of some of its interior spaces. The library hosts exhibitions, lectures, conferences, performances, readings and the annual USC Scripter Award® ceremony. Numerous other modifications are underway for Doheny, including enhanced reading rooms for rare materials and a courtyard cafe.