One of San Antonio’s most beautiful, historic gems has been closed to the public until April, but when the Landa Library reopens it will be ready to battle the summer heat with a brand new air conditioning system.

Even well-loved landmarks need air conditioning in the San Antonio summers, and the library’s 13-year-old HVAC system wasn’t cutting it anymore, said Cheryl Sheehan, a public services administrator for San Antonio Public Libraries.

The heat was almost unbearable on the second floor during the summer, Sheehan said.

“Even at full blast it would still be 85 or 90 degrees up here,” Sheehan said.

The HVAC repairs and some foundation and tile work on the library’s terrace are expected to cost around $650,000, according to numbers provided by the library. The funds are part of the San Antonio Public Library’s fiscal year 2018 capital improvements projects.

The historic library has been shut down for extensive repairs for months at a time on at least three previous occasions, including most recently in 2017. That renovation cost about $800,000 and included repairing the entryway’s ceiling fresco and repainting the exterior from a rose pink to a pale yellow, which the architects determined was probably the building’s original color, Sheehan said.

The library reopened in September of that year with a celebration of its 70th anniversary. The careful, accurate restoration of the historic building, led by the local Seventh Generation Design architect firm, earned the library an award from the San Antonio Conservation Society.

Built in 1929, the library was first the home of Harry and Hannah Landa, who were wealthy philanthropists in San Antonio. Hannah especially was passionate about education, according to Landa Library branch manager Kiyanna Stephens. 

The couple had no children of their own, and after Hannah died in 1942, Harry couldn’t bear to live in the home anymore, Stephens said. So with some advice from his rabbi, Harry decided to donate the building to the City in 1946.

Stephens said Harry’s donation specified that the building be used as a library and also required that the grounds always include a playground for children.

Landa Library in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy / Landa Library

The library opened to the public for the first time in April 1947 as the Hannah Landa Memorial Library. But the grounds were mainly an untamed natural area for the first 50 years, until the Landa Gardens Conservancy was able to raise the money for actual playground equipment in the 1990s, Stephens said.

Located on Bushnell Avenue in the historic Monte Vista neighborhood in midtown, the nearly 100-year-old building is prized for its unique, intricate, though not always consistent style. The exterior stucco walls and Spanish tiles have a distinct Mediterranean flair, while the inside boasts a wide array of Asian designs, Greek sculptures, and art that appears to represent many different time periods, styles, and regions of the globe. Stephens said Hannah Landa collected many of the pieces from her travels around the world.

“Nothing matches,” Stephens said, laughing. “There was some kind of vase that was some kind of animal, next to dragons and Chinese fish. And then there’s the big grandfather clock, which is very traditional compared to all the other things that are very exaggerated.”

She said Hannah Landa had strong opinions and was involved in every detail of the building’s design, and that included the floors, which are a dazzling patchwork of colorful tiles in varying blues and oranges, mixed with some traditional black and white. Even the baseboard tiles are decorated with a pattern so distinct that replacements had to be ordered from a Mexican tile-maker. 

The brightly colored original tile installed in the Landa’s home was recently discovered hiding underneath the carpet in pristine condition, according to Landa Library librarians. Credit: Jennifer Norris for the San Antonio Report

The building is famous among local photographers as a coveted spot for bridal and wedding photos. Stephens said they receive frequent requests from residents wanting to have their weddings at the old mansion, and while the indoors is off-limits for events, the grounds are often used for hosting a variety of events. 

But Sheehan and Stephens believe the building’s unique historic significance is only a part of Landa’s Library’s story, and just as important is the library’s role in the community. Stephens said there’s evidence that Landa, like many local libraries, is becoming more valuable as a community resource every year.

“For a lot of people libraries are a lifeline of social contact with some other people,” Sheehan said. “It’s job searching, career skills, social services, reading, tutoring. There’s just so much more, which is why we constantly say, ‘Oh, yeah, and we have books.’ We really try to have in our libraries spaces that meet everybody’s needs.”

Since 2016 the library has seen an 8 percent increase in circulation, or books being checked out, which works out to about 11,000 more items per year, Stephens said. That tracks with an increase in visitors to the library, which Stephens said has also gone up by almost 6 percent, or 8,000 people per year, since 2016. 

But as new ideas for expanding community access have taken hold in local libraries, the very things that make Landa Library special have sometimes become a challenge. 

“When you have a building like this that has such physical limitations, it’s really hard to try and manipulate the building to accommodate spaces that you need for your community,” Stephens said.

One example of this challenge is the upstairs bathroom, which was considered a modern marvel when it was built, with a shower featuring six jets and a glass door. All of it has been carefully protected, but the narrow bathroom is now a storage closet for the library’s children’s program and is jam-packed with brightly colored craft items and toys.

But Sheehan and Stephens know the bursting closet is a sign of the growth and popularity of the library’s children’s program and just more evidence of how the Landa Library is deeply embedded in its community. 

Stephens said many community members have asked that their memorials be held at the library after they die, while young neighborhood families frequent the playground daily and regularly use it for children’s birthday parties. (The playground will remain open during the library’s closure.)

“Everybody includes Landa in the things going on in their lives,” Stephens said. “And it becomes a part of their life.” 

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Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.