Athenaeum celebrates $5 million makeover with a party

Spreading its wings with a recently completed $5 million expansion, The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library is fulfilling its mission of providing the finest collections in art and music.

With the expansion project, the 108-year-old cultural center at 1008 Wall St. has reclaimed all of the space in its three historic buildings, portions of which previously had been leased out.

“Now we have enough gallery space to do three different exhibitions at the same time,” said Erika Torri, the Joan & Irwin Jacobs executive director of The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. “We are now able to present exhibits and collections in a more spacious environment.”

The Athenaeum’s mission is to provide La Jolla and the greater San Diego community with art and music collections, ongoing concert programs and studio art classes. Founded in 1894 and incorporated in 1899, the Athenaeum has grown over the past three decades from a library into a cultural center for art and music.

The Athenaeum is one of 17 membership libraries scattered through the United States and the only one in Southern California. The libraries are survivors of an era long before that of tax-supported public libraries. The La Jolla library offers its 2,300 subscribers a large circulating DVD and video collection in art, foreign film and music.

Torri said the three historical buildings that have been reclaimed by the Athenaeum were designed by three famed architects. One building, designed by William Templeton Johnson, opened in 1921. An adjacent building with a rotunda designed by William Lumpkins opened in 1957.

A third structure, the Parker Building, is believed to have been designed by high-profile La Jolla architect Tom Shepherd in the 1920s.

“The Parker Building had been rented out almost 50 years,” said Torri. “We’ve owned it since 1965 and rented it to the La Jolla Art Association, which was in there.”

The Spanish-style William Templeton Johnson building has also been rented out over the years, first to the public library and then to the Silver Store, which leased the property first in 1990.

“We needed some rental income,” said Torri. “That was the idea.”

The physical expansion of the cultural complex took place in 1990, with the Athenaeum using 6,400 square feet of space in the Athenaeum building, School of the Arts studio and part of the 1921 library building.

David Singer of David Raphael Singer Architects on La Jolla Boulevard has been working for the last 12 years on updating the Athenaeum. After the La Jolla Library moved out of one of the Athenaeum’s three buildings, Singer knocked out one of the walls to connect it with the other two buildings.

“We refurbished it, put in new sky lights and air conditioning,” he said. “We did a master plan, though they knew they weren’t going to be able to accomplish everything they wanted to do right away because they were a non-profit.”

But when the Art Association’s lease ran out and they moved out of the art deco building in 2005, Singer said the temptation for the Athenaeum to take back all of its leased-out space became too great to ignore.

“The Athenaeum said we need that space,” said Singer. “So we made a connection to that building at a different level with stairs. We basically rebuilt the interior of the building that was built in the 1930s.”

The old building needed a lot of work.

“Except for the art deco portion of it, it was basically held together with glue and Band-Aids,” said Singer. “The portion of the building rented by the Silver Store, we opened that up and totally redid the lighting, cabinetry. ...”

Singer likened the three historic buildings of the complex to a well-made and well-designed violin that hadn’t been tuned.

“The approach we’ve taken is to sort of tune it,” he said, “and be responsive to the character that it had that everyone loves, while still upgrading things that needed to be upgraded.”

Max Elliott, president of the Athenaeum’s 18-member board of trustees, said the $5 million expansion has had unforeseen benefits.

“We had an arts school that had not been very visible way up on the second floor,” Elliott said. “The only indication we had an arts school was a sign in the back of the parking lot. We’ve not only taken over the Parker Building, we’ve relocated our art school from upstairs to downstairs in this really beautiful space. It will be a much more visible part of the whole mission of the Athenaeum.”

Torri said nearly all money for the $5 million retrofit of the Athenaeum has been raised through member donations and a generous $1 million gift from La Jolla philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs. The cultural center’s original benefactress was another high-profile La Jollan, Ellen Browning Scripps, who was the Athenaeum’s first president in 1899.

“In 1921, she was the one who matched all the funds members raised to build this new building,” Torri said.

Torri said the center’s capital campaign to reclaim all its space has accomplished more than just retrofitting the historic buildings.

“We wanted to have a small endowment so we could live without the rental income to reconfigure the spaces and do general upkeep,” she said.

Facility improvements include a climate-controlled vault to keep the Athenaeum’s valuable book collection, as well as new work spaces for staff.

“We now have an enlarged gallery,” said Torri, “and a new area for CDs.”

The Athenaeum’s library, devoted exclusively to music and art, has an ever-expanding collection of books, periodicals, reference material, compact discs, videocassettes, films, sheet music, music scores and librettos, as well as one of the most significant collections of artists’ books in Southern California. The library is open to the public five days a week; members can check out materials for an annual fee.

The Athenaeum also sponsors an eclectic, year-round schedule of art exhibitions, classical, jazz and contemporary music at some 70 concerts at four locations. The cultural center also offers lectures, studio art classes through its School of the Arts, tours and special events.

To commemorate completion of its expansion, the Athenaeum is hosting a free celebration of its past, present and future, featuring live music, docent tours and artful demonstrations to be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Jan. 14.

“It will be a community event, an open house,” said Torri. “We want all of our members to come as well as the community to see it right here in the middle of town in the heart of La Jolla.”