Athenaeum celebrates its 110th birthday

It took La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library five architects, thousands of loyal members, one amazing director and 110 years to make it what it is today: a treasured landmark.

On June 19, the membership-only library (consisting of three historic buildings) will welcome its 110th birthday, but the real celebration will come a month later.

“Our 110th anniversary - the day of incorporation - falls on June 19, right in the middle of our annual soundON Festival of Modern Music,” said Erika Torri, Athenaeum director. “So we’ll celebrate on July 21 at our annual meeting where we will introduce our new board members.”

La Jolla’s oldest cultural institution (one of only 16 membership libraries in the U.S.) has come far in its 11 decades.

It began as the La Jolla Reading Club in 1894 and was incorporated as the Library Association of La Jolla in 1899 when the organization built a reading room on the corner of Girard Avenue and Wall Street. By 1921, its members had raised ample funds for architect William Templeton Johnson to construct the library’s current Spanish Renaissance-style building. In 1955, the San Diego Public Library began renting space from the association, and the association renamed itself the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. Next, architect William Lumpkins designed and built the signature rotunda in 1957 to house the art and music collection. It is now home to the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Music Room. In 1989, the San Diego Library moved to Draper Street, allowing the Athenaeum to expand into its building. That same year, Torri became the library’s executive director. In her new role, she spearheaded some major changes for the organization.

“In 1990, we did our first expansion into that part of the building that the library had used,” Torri said. “With more space, we moved strongly into programming because we were losing members; that was when we started the jazz, chamber concerts and new exhibitions, and became who we are today.”

Becoming who they are today has made the Athenaeum a very busy place, indeed.

“We put on 18 jazz performances during this year and did almost 250 events, including the lectures, jazz and chamber concerts,” said Dr. Max Elliott, current president and longtime supporter.

Elliott and his wife, Melissa, who have always been interested in the arts, became involved with the Athenaeum 20 years ago.

“When you become involved with the Athenaeum, you realize what a hidden treasure it is; it is an incredible resource for La Jolla and all of San Diego,” Elliott said.

The institution is a very hands-on organization, and its members and volunteers’ ample talent allows it to produce a lot on site to save money. Its annual gala fundraiser is just one of many projects that Athenaeum members produce solo. The gala (always held on the first Friday after Labor Day) usually spotlights a different city or country (such as Brazil, Greece or Venice) and features food, decorations and costuming of the chosen local. But to commemorate the gala’s 20th anniversary, the Athenaeum will depart from its usual format to present “Have a Ball in Black and White.”

“People will dress in cocktail clothing or black and white, and even the food must be black and white, so we may include things like cauliflower, asparagus and white chocolate,” Torri said.

Such attention to detail is a hallmark of an institution that continues to look forward.

“We have one of the best collections of artists’ books in the country,” Elliott said, “and we are trying to build complete collections of all the books by various artists.”

Artist books are small press runs printed in editions from five to 200 that Elliott considers a new way of collecting.

“Sometimes they are very whimsical, such as Ed Ruscha’s photography book depicting all the gas stations on Sunset Boulevard,” Elliott said. “We now have a complete collection of his artist books.”

In recent years, the older members began creating programs to attract younger people to use the library and participate in its events. To that end, they recently created the A List.

“It was designed to attract a younger age group for social get-togethers at the Athenaeum that include drinks, hors d’oeuvres and live music,” Elliott said.

As the Athenaeum reaches it 110th year, Torri fully realizes the treasure that she helped create.

“What we’ve created here at the Athenaeum has been the highlight of my professional career,” Torri said. “I think by my doing the expansion and having it the way it is today, it will be here a long time, and that gives me great pleasure.”

Learn more about the Athenaeum’s collections and programs at


Athenaeum Music Arts Library Timeline


The La Jolla Reading Club is formed.


Library Association of La Jolla is incorporated; Ellen Browning Scripps is elected first board president; Florence Sawyer donates a cottage to the Library Association


Ellen Browning Scripps matches money donated by the membership to build the William Templeton Johnson Building in the location of the cottage.


The children of La Jolla resident Eda Hurd Lord donate her book and music collection, which includes the rare and valuable Bach Gesellschaft Werke.


The San Diego Public Library begins renting space from the Library Association; the association adopts the name Athenaeum Music Arts Library.


William Lumpkins designs a building to house the art and music collection, adjacent to the Johnson building on Wall Street.


The Parker Building, adjacent to the Johnson Building on Girard Avenue, is acquired by the Athenaeum and leased to tenants.


A second story, designed by Robert Mosher, is built.


The Athenaeum’s School of the Arts is founded.


All three buildings receive historical designation; the public library’s lease expires.


Erika Torri is hired and becomes the organization’s library director and later executive director; the public library moves to Draper Street; plans for an expansion into part of the Johnson Building are undertaken.


The expansion project culminates with Celebration Week.


Many new programs, concert series, collections and special events are introduced.


The Artists’ Books Collection is begun.


The Athenaeum celebrates its100th anniversary with 100 events in 100 days.


The Campaign to Reclaim, the largest fundraising initiative in the organization’s history, is announced.


Groundbreaking takes place on a major remodel and renovation.


The success of the Campaign to Reclaim is fully realized with a three-day celebration.


The Athenaeum Music Arts Library celebrates 110 years of service to the community.