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A piece of local history could be lost

By Carol Olten

Historian, La Jolla Historical Society

Since its completion and dedication in 1982, the Copley Library has been a silent La Jolla landmark — its timeless treasures hidden behind a dense growth of ficus vine at the corner of Ivanhoe Avenue and Kline Street. Its stately front doors seemed to quietly whisper “By Invitation Only.” Occasional scholars and visitors came and went, also very quietly. And now the library is just as silently slipping from presence as its collections are sold as well as the building.

The question could well be asked, what will La Jolla lose when the Copley Library and its historic contents no longer exists or exists in some altered use or state? After all, it has been occupying this particular corner for nearly 30 years without fanfare or flourishes. Who will really miss it?

More than most places its size, La Jolla has a wide and extensive history of libraries and the preservation of them, beginning with the little Reading Room donated to the community in 1898, moved from place to place over the years and now still intact on the Bishop’s School campus. The Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, established in 1899, retains its reputation as one of the finest membership libraries in the country. And, of course, the La Jolla Public Library, built as a new facility in the late 1980s after a generous donation from Florence Riford, continues to serve a wide range of readers.

Loss of the Copley Library in La Jolla is far more than the loss of a book. The building itself is a Late Modern architectural gem designed by La Jolla architect Roy Drew, constructed with materials and details that spared little change. The roof line has a signature embossed copper border. Interiors are in the classic Old World tradition of ceiling moldings and ornamental balustrades, with the central reception area featuring a 19-foot-high atrium lighted by three ornate chandeliers. The foyer features bricks from the street outside the Springfield, Ill., railroad station from which Abraham Lincoln departed to begin his presidency in1861.

The library was a lifetime dream of newspaper publisher James S. Copley. After his death in 1973, it was realized by his widow, Helen Copley, whose son, David, inherited it along with the Copley Newspapers and other holdings after her death. The senior Mr. Copley had a devoted interest in American history, particularly of the Revolutionary War times and the later settling of the American West. He began to seriously collect artwork, books and memorabilia from these times in the mid-1960s and wanted a private library to house them.

In its prime, the library housed more than 1,600 rare books and pamphlets and about 400 signed letters and documents related to the American Revolution, including letters written by George Washington and a first printing of the Declaration of Independence. Also significant were portraits by Jeremiah Paul and James Peale, as well as about 275 items related to Samuel Clemens — first editions, letters and photographs.

All going, going, gone — the first library in La Jolla’s long library history being lost!