Who is Loussac and why should you care?

Thursday, September 1, 2011 - 07:44
Scene at your library

Anchorage Public Library is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the opening of Z.J. Loussac Public Library with special cultural events, an author’s lecture series and a community picnic over the next couple months. Since it opened Sept. 14, 1986, Loussac has become the most visited public building in the city with millions walking through its doors in the last two-and-a-half decades — 785,625 last year alone. I wager a high percentage of those visitors have no idea who Z.J. Loussac was and why the library is named for him.

As long-time locals are quick to point out, the current midtown location is not the first library to carry Loussac’s name. The city’s first public building, designed specifically as a library, opened Feb. 21, 1955, downtown on Fifth Avenue and F Street. Without the generosity of Zachary Joshua Loussac, the library’s history would be much different. Zack Loussac is truly the father of today’s Anchorage Public Library.

Loussac’s story starts nearly 150 years ago. Born near Moscow in 1882, Zack came from a long line of educated men, rabbis, though his father was a manufacturer. While studying engineering, Zack was told that the Czar’s forces suspected he was a revolutionary. With exile to Siberia looming in his future, the 17-year-old fled to New York City. There, he studied to be a pharmacist and worked in a drug store.

In 1907, bit by gold fever, he headed to Nome. He bounced among the mining areas of Iditarod, Unalakleet and Juneau, periodically opening a drug store, making money and, often, immediately losing it. In 1914, Zack, then 32, bought several lots in the newly laid-out town site of Anchorage. He started the town’s first drugstore in 1916, and finally set down roots. Over the years, he invested in coal and gold mines, and local real estate. An avid reader, Zack carried books or magazines with him wherever he went, even, according to some, to the duck blinds while hunting with friends.

The town’s first library was set up early on in the parish house of a local church and run by volunteers until 1922, when the Anchorage Library Association was founded. Adults were charged a small fee to help fund expenses. The library was moved from building to building with no permanent home. In 1945, the city assumed the responsibility of running the library and moved the collection from city hall to a building on Fifth Avenue.

Zack, meanwhile, had made enough from his investments to sell his drug store in 1942, and dedicate himself to charity work. He is quoted as saying he wanted to give back to the place that had given him so much. In 1946, he created the Loussac Foundation, the first of its kind in the territory, “dedicated to the promotion of recreational, cultural, scientific or education activities in the Anchorage area.” Apparently, he endowed it with at least half of his fortune.

In 1951, the Loussac Foundation agreed to underwrite the construction costs, between $350,000 and $500,000, of a modern library on Fifth Avenue. It opened in 1955 with Loussac on hand among the dignitaries. In 1981, the building was demolished to make room for the Egan Convention Center. Five years later, the current Z.J. Loussac Public Library opened. Though Zack had died in 1965 at 82, his legacy is still visible today. Besides all the funds directed to the library from his foundation, which eventually folded into the Rasmuson Foundation, Zack left Anchorage his art collection, 12 painting by Sydney Laurence and four by Eustace Ziegler, to be displayed at the local library. You can see them in the Alaska Collection.

To learn more about Loussac, who also championed statehood for Alaska, come to “The Courtship of Zack and Ada,” a script commissioned for the 50th anniversary of statehood. The original cast is giving a special reading of the play on Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the library’s opening. For a complete list of celebration events, go to www.anchoragelibrary.org.

Toni Massari McPherson, APL Community Relations Coordinator, shares behind-the-scenes information about your public library in this column twice a month.

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