CityDig: The Miraculous Circumstances Surrounding LAPL’s John Feathers Map Collection

The below map and this week’s back story have a personal meaning to me as they explain further the power of the gift of thousands of maps and street guides, all of which were the recent subject of a short film by LARB’s Alec Ernest. The film tells the amazing tale of an uncanny number of coincidences—stars aligning in the archival heavens to bring the Los Angeles Public Library the greatest single bestowal to its collections in its long history.

It started in the simplest way.

Star One: A few years ago, I utilized Facebook to reminisce amongst my library loving friends about a quarter century spent overseeing the LAPL map collection.

Star Two: Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Harnisch, who had read said status update and was struck by the map archive portion, spent quite a bit of time studying the collection and subsequently writing a column on it for the Times.

Star Three: Having read Harnisch’s article, Beverly Hills realtor Matthew Greenberg had a light bulb moment: He had recently taken responsibility for selling a property in Mount Washington on Canyon Vista Drive for two heirs of the original owner. The property that was stuffed with maps of all sorts. All of a sudden, Matthew had the name of a map librarian.

Star Four: Former resident of said home in Mount Washington was one John Feathers, one of the most extraordinary private map collectors in the country, who was promised by his former partner that he could live in the house until his death. Feathers died rather unexpectedly in 2012, thereby leaving an entire house full of maps—but no will or testament to describe where (or to who) they should go.

Star Five: Greenberg, who had orders to bulldoze the house and create two lots for the heirs (neither of whom had any idea as to what was inside), was the son of a prominent local librarian.

Star Six: Seeing as he was raised by a librarian, Greenberg knew better than to throw away a collection.

Star Seven: Greenberg had the moxie to invite me over to see this “house full of maps”—and to take every single map in the place out before the house was razed.

Star Eight: City Librarian John Szabo was a lover of maps and a former map cataloger who, when I asked him for a plan, made it known that he wanted everything in the house.

Which brings us to present day. As the library has wrestled with the huge Feathers collection over the past couple of years, many people have asked me if there is one extraordinary moment surrounding the discovery or the collection that stands out above all the rest. Turns out, there is.

If you want to go way back with the whole stars aligning metaphor, it might have started in 1941, when Ben Creason met Charline Hurt at a young folks’ gathering spot in Hermosa Beach. Ben decided pretty quickly that Charline was The One; she was a telephone operator, and he was a smooth operator with a beautiful suit, a shiny new Chevy, and enough cash to take her out to dinner at Lawry’s (where he would pop the question). They got married on September 7, 1941, and settled in a cozy apartment on Rodney Drive in Hollywood, as seen here in the pages of a Renie Street Atlas, the first edition. This is one of the mint condition Renie guides in Feathers’s collection (it was protected in plastic), and after Feathers’s death, I became the first person with the privilege of turning its pages in 72 years.

As I carefully flipped those crisp white sheets showing the streets and places of my then-newlywed parents’ lives, it gave me the kind of goosebumps you experience maybe a couple of times in your life. Not long after their marriage, my parents moved away from Rodney Drive and settled in South Gate, where they raised me and my three siblings. I guess the move wasn’t too bad a decision; they stayed together for 51 years. So when people ask me about one special moment, I don’t have to search too long for an answer. No indeed.

The New Renie Atlas of Los Angeles, Jack Renie, 1942
The New Renie Atlas of Los Angeles, Jack Renie, 1942

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.

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