Los Angeles has often been characterized as a jumble of “suburbs in search of a city.” But Los Angeles has always boasted a significant downtown and it looks a whole heck of a lot like it did eighty years ago. Unlike Manhattan (on an island) or Philadelphia (squeezed between two rivers) or Chicago (pressed against a lake), developers in Los Angeles could build freely to the west rather than destroy existing structures.
But far from being an amorphous blob, downtown Los Angeles followed a rigid development pattern in its formative years. The first break-out from the original settlement in the early 1900s took place south along Spring Street (the banks) and Main Street (the businesses) and Broadway (the theaters). Restless entrepreneurs began pushing a few blocks west along 7th Street around 1915 and by 1920, the city’s private and municipal rail lines stretched for over 1,000 miles into four surrounding counties with downtown as the hub.
As a developing town in the early 1900s the Los Angeles City Council passed a height restriction of 150 feet on skyscrapers to insure the famous Southern California sunshine actually reached the sidewalk. So early buildings marched like matched teeth up and down Spring Street and Main Street. After a half-century the height limit was rescinded and rather than tear down and rebuild the business district packed up and moved west to Flower Street and Hope Street and Figueroa Street and built to the sky.
Our walking tour will maneuver through these steel-and-glass monoliths on the blocks that do much to define the Los Angeles skyline. We will see the town’s tallest skyscrapers and also see some its finest Renaissance Revival architecture but we will begin at a place that has endured since the Los Angeles days of dirt streets when cypress and citrus trees were planted and a picket fence erected to keep roaming livestock from trampling the plantings...
bounded by 5th Street to the north, 6th Street to the south, Hill Street to the east, and Olive Street to the west
In 1866 this 5-acre block was dedicated as a public square, known familiarly as “the Lower Plaza,” being located south of the Pueblo de Los Angeles. It was the first of a parade of names that ended in 1918, a week after World War I ended and the space was renamed in honor of General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing. At some point the owner of a nearby beer garden, German immigrant George “Roundhouse” Lehman, planted small native Monterey cypress trees, fruit trees, and flowering shrubs around the park, and maintained them until his death in 1882. The plantings grew sub-tropically lush, and the park became a shady oasis and an outdoor destination for the city. The entire park was demolished and excavated in 1952 to build an underground parking garage and the park above became an eyesore. It was finally closed in 1992 and underwent a major $14.5-million redesign and renovation by landscape architects Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico, and Laurie Olin of the United States. Today’s park is peppered with public artworks including a 10-story bell tower.
EXIT PERSHING SQUARE TO THE WEST, TO THE MIDDLE OF OLIVE STREET.
The Biltmore Hotel
515 South Olive Street at Pershing Square
Canadian-born John McEntee Bowman started working in America in a men’s clothing store in Yonkers, New York but drifted into the hotel business at the Holland House Hotel. The owner died in 1913 and Bowman plucked his new Biltmore hotel from the estate, building it into a world-wide chain of top-shelf hotels. For this hotel in 1923, that was to fill half a city block, Bowman staked his $7 million budget on a new New York architectural firm started by Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver. Schultze and Weaver blended Italian Renaissance styling with the regional Spanish Revival and Mediterranean Revival traditions to create the 11-story, 1,500-room guest house that was the largest hotel west of Chicago. The Los Angeles Biltmore instantly became the premier luxury hotel in town. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded at a luncheon banquet in its Crystal Ballroom in 1927 and over the next 50 years several Oscar ceremonies were held here. If you have watched any movies or television shows at all you have no doubt encountered the Biltmore on screen.
FACING THE BILTMORE, TURN RIGHT ON OLIVE STREET AND WALK UP TO THE CORNER OF 5TH STREET. ACROSS 5TH STREET TO YOUR RIGHT, BESIDE THE PARKING LOT, IS...
Guaranty Trust Building
401 West Fifth Street at northwest corner of Hill Street
Architect John Parkinson was joined by his son, Donald B. Parkinson in 1920 and the firm created some of the town’s finest buildings, City Hall and Union Station among them. Here they applied the Art Deco treatment tinged with Gothic details to this highrise office building in 1930; it is dressed in stone-colored tile. Sharp-eyed fans of television’s Lou Grant, the spinoff for Mary Richard’s irascible newsroom boss from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, will recognize the building as the home for the fictional Los Angeles Tribune.
BEYOND THE PARKING LOT, THE FOUR-WINGED BUILDING IS...
Subway Terminal Building
417 South Hill Street
This luxury apartment complex began life as the downtown terminus for the “Hollywood Subway” branch of the Pacific Electric Railway Interurban rail line. The subway opened in 1925 and reached peak usage in the 1940s, carrying an estimated 65,000 passengers underground every day. The car culture won out in the 1950s, however, and Pacific Electric removed the tracks after the last train, waving a banner reading “To Oblivion,” rolled through the tunnel on June 19, 1955. Twelve years later the tunnel was filled in. Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver came out from New York to design the multi-towered terminal in a distinctive Florentine exterior.
TURN LEFT ON 5TH STREET.
Southern California Edison Building
601 West Fifth Street at northwest corner of Grand Avenue
Utilities around the country favored Art Deco buildings for their brawny plants in the 1920s and 1930s and this 14-story home of the Southern California Edison Company was no exception. Architect brothers James Edward and David Clark Allison, who began working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before transplanting to Los Angeles in 1910, drew up the plans. They dressed the lower stories in limestone and used buff-colored terra cotta to finish the higher floors. It was the second home for the primary supplier of electric power in southern California and appropriately this was one of the first buildings constructed with electricity providing all heating and cooling functions. Much of the building’s ornamentation is energy-themed from the Merrell Gage sculptures at the entrance to the mural in the marble-encrusted lobby by Hugo Ballin, a classically trained artist who directed and produced silent films. When Hollywood began making “talkies” Ballin left movies and went back to art, becoming a prominent muralist at many Southern California landmarks.
THE TOWER NEXT DOOR LOOMING OVER THE EDISON BUILDING IS...
U.S. Bank Tower
633 West Fifth Street at northeast corner of Hope Street
Here are the stats for the 1,018-foot skyscraper designed by Henry Cobb in the late 1980s. It is the tallest building in California, the tenth-tallest in the United States and the 55th tallest in the world. It was the tallest building in the world ever to be erected in a major earthquake region at the time of its construction (now second highest) and was designed to withstand a reading of 8.3 on the Richter Scale (the Northridge earthquake in Southern California in 1994 was 6.7, the San Francisco Bay earthquake in 1989 was 6.9). Los Angeles building codes required a heliport on the roof so it is the tallest building in the world where a helicopter can land. The distinctive crown is illuminated glass that is thematically lit throughout the year. The skyscraper was funded as part of a billion-dollar redevelopment project following a pair of fires that torched the Los Angeles Library across the street so it was known as Library Tower until naming rights were sold. The skyscraper is often shown on screen to establish a movie setting as downtown Los Angeles and its biggest star turn to date came in Independence Day when it is the first structure destroyed in the alien invasion.
TURN LEFT ON GRAND AVENUE. HALF WAY DOWN THE BLOCK ON THE RIGHT IS...
Hilton Checkers Hotel
535 South Grand Avenue
This 1927 Moorish-influenced hotel was one of the last project in the career of architect Charles Frederick Whittlesey who made his reputation in the desert Southwest and pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in California. Whittlesey became chief architect for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1900 when he was only 33. Here Whittlesey was asked by lawyer-developer William Henry Anderson to create 348 light-filled airy rooms on a slender lot 60 feet wide and 160 feet deep. The sandstone facade is littered with fanciful gargoyles and once boasted carved renditions of the Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria and the Pilgrims’ Mayflower. The 12-story hotel was shuttered in 1985 but has been renovated and is greeting guests again.
TURN RIGHT ON THE WALKWAY ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE HILTON CHECKERS (YOUR RIGHT SIDE AS YOU LOOK AT). WHEN YOU GET TO THE END OF THE HOTEL LOOK LEFT TO SEE...
707 Wilshire Boulevard
This is the City’s second-tallest building and California’s as well. Designed by Charles Luckman, it reigned as the state sky king from its completion in 1973 until the Library Tower came along in 1989. The 62-story, 858-foot tower is unusually slender and even more remarkable is that the project was completed before deadline and under budget. When First Interstate Bank moved here from Spring Street when this tower opened it triggered a stampede of banks to this part of town and quickly ended Spring Street’s days as the “Wall Street of the West.”
FOLLOW THE WALK AS IT OPENS TO YOUR RIGHT INTO THE PLAZA PAST THE BUILDING ON YOUR RIGHT, THAT IS...
Los Angeles Central Library
630 West Fifth Street with entrances on Hope and Grand streets
The Central Library complex is the hub for 72 branches and more than six million volumes, one of the world’s largest library systems, started in 1872. The historic core building is named for its architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue who apprenticed in the Victorian Age and helped popularize Spanish Colonial architecture in California. Here Goodhue blended Egyptian and Byzantine influences into his stylistic stew for the library that was designed in 1924 just before Goodhue’s death at the age of 54. Carleton Monroe Winslow shepherded the building to completion, as he did for several of Goodhue’s projects, in 1926. Look up to see a pyramid atop the central tower decorated with mosaic tiles and with a hand holding a torch representing the “Light of Learning” at the apex. The Library had a date with the wrecking ball in the 1970s but the citizen-led movement to save the building resulted in the formation of the Los Angeles Conservancy that now numbers over 6,000 members and is the largest local preservation organization in the country. The Modernist interpretation of the Beaux Arts style on the southwest corner of Grand Street is a 1991 addition.
CONTINUE WALKING THROUGH LIBRARY PARK OUT TO FLOWER STREET AND TURN LEFT.
538 South Flower Street
This is the fourth, and by far longest tenured, clubhouse for the private California Club that held its organizational meeting on September 24, 1887. Formed to provide recreation and fine dining to its members, it is the oldest such club in southern California. The architect, Robert D. Farquhar, won a Distinguished Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for the Italian Renaissance design after the building was completed in 1930.
General Petroleum Headquarters/Pegasus Lofts
612 South Flower Street at southeast corner of 6th Street
University of Washington classmates Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket settled in Los Angeles in 1933 and set about designing some of the town’s largest and most notable buildings. In 1947 for General Petroleum they innovated the use of cost- and weight-saving aggregates that created a modular, easy-to-partition building. Today the office building is doing residential duty as the Pegasus Lofts, the name taken from the logo for General Petroleum’s Mobil brand gasoline.
727 West 7th Street at northeast corner of Flower Street
The brawny structure holding this corner, crafted in the Italian Renaissance Revival style by Alexander Curlett and Claud Beelman, was the largest office building in southern California when it opened in 1927. The exterior is terra cotta molded to look like rusticated stone blocks. The Roosevelt, named for President Theodore Roosevelt, has been re-born as residential lofts and much of the building’s character was retained in the conversion.
TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET AND TAKE A FEW STEPS TO SEE ONE OF THE MOST CELEBRATED BUILDINGS IN LOS ANGELES...
The Fine Arts Building
811 West 7th Street at northeast corner of Figueroa Street
This building was conceived as studio and selling space for high end artists and architects Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, known for their stylish creations, were hired to design the tower. Walker and Eisen tapped the Romanesque Revival style and outfitted their 12-story high-rise with a Spanish Renaissance-inspired mezzanine to display the works of art. The Fine Arts Building lobby was augmented with terra cotta and tiles from Pasadena kilns of Ernest Batchelder. The master craftsman himself was on site to handle the implementation and the price tag for the tile work alone was $150,000. Also on site was Claremont artist Burt William Johnson, who suffered a heart attack while working on the signature sculptors. He survived and was able to direct his assistants but Johnson died three months after the building opened in 1926. He was only 37. The high-style art concept didn’t work and the building trundled on as elegant office space for such tenants as Signal Oil.
TURN AND WALK EAST ON SEVENTH STREET, ONE OF THE MOST STORIED COMMERCIAL THOROUGHFARES IN TOWN...
Barker Brothers Furniture Building
818 West 7th Street at southeast corner of Flower Street
Obadiah Truax Barker was an Indiana man who ran retail operations in the Hooiser state and then in the small mining community of Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1872. He came to Los Angeles in 1879 for a horticulture show and a year later he had moved his family to the frontier town with dirts streets ad went into the furniture and carpet business with a new partner, Otto Mueller. Barker soon bought out Mueller and brought his sons, Obadiah, William and Charles into the business and by 1898 when the enterprise became Barker Brothers it was the largest department store in Southern California. In 1926 the business relocated to this 11-story commercial showplace, designed by Alexander Curlett and Claud Beelman. Their new home was finished with black walnut woodwork and Italian travertine marble and boasted 11 customer elevations to move wide-eyed shoppers to each floor of high end furnishings. Barker Bros. abandoned downtown Los Angeles after 104 years in 1984, surviving for eight more years in it suburban locations. In its office life the old Barker store retains its nearly original exterior and a forty-foot high beamed lobby.
The Union Oil Building
617 West 7th Street at northeast corner of Hope Street
Claud Beelman and Alexander Curlett were two of the most stylish architects working in Los Angeles during the go-go days of Los Angeles in the 1920s. Here they constructed an office tower as the headquarters for expanding Union Oil in 1923 after the company outgrew their digs in the Bartlett Building down the street. Union Oil formed in 1890 when three Southern California oil companies - Sespe Oil Company, the Hardison and Stewart Oil Company, and the Mission Transfer Company banded together in 1890 to form Union Oil in Santa Paula. The company would move on again in the 1950s. The textured fenestration has been likened to the hanging chads of a computer punch card.
J.W. Robinson Company
600 West 7th Street at southeast corner of Hope Street
Joseph Winchester Robinson operated a dry goods business in Massachusetts until he was 36 years old and he decided to pull up stakes and travel across the country to grow oranges. But when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1882 he couldn’t help but notice the poor quality of the merchandise available in the dusty town. He hopped back east and made arrangements to ship goods around Cape Horn and by February of 1883 the Boston Dry Goods Store, offering “fine stocks and refined ‘Boston’ service.” Business was brisk and new quarters were required by 1887. Robinson died unexpectedly in 1891 and his father traveled west to take over the business which would be renamed for the founder. In 1915 Robinson’s, “catering to the most exclusive trade,” became the first store to bolt the business district west of Broadway and opened a new Beaux Arts retail palace with 392,000 square feet. The gamble paid off and Robinson’s prosperity spawned a seven store addition in 1923 bringing the total of selling space to over nine acres. The flagship modernized in the early 1930s and the Los Angeles Times gushed over the sleek new Art Deco design executed by architect Edward Mayberry calling it “one of the outstanding beautiful structures of America.” Robinson’s lasted until 1991; its building today is mostly office space.
529 West 7th Street at northeast corner of Grand Avenue
In the 1920s Gabriel S. Meyer and Phillip W. Holler built one of the largest architectural firms in the city, best known for their iconic theaters, especially the Egyptian and Chinese palaces for Sid Grauman. Here Raymond Kennedy of the firm turned his talents to office towers here in 1926, pressing up against the City’s 150-foot height limit.
530 West 7th Street at southeast corner of Grand Avenue
In the Historic Core of Los Angeles block after block are filled with office towers that are all exactly at that 150-foot height limit. But John Brockman, a German immigrant who made his fortune in mining, was the first to build such a structure west of the Broadway Commercial District. George D. Barnett gave the pioneering structure a vibrant Beaux Arts visage in dark brick and creamy terra cotta in 1912, establishing Seventh Street as the City’s high-end retail district.
TURN RIGHT ON GRAND AVENUE.
838 South Grand Avenue
Frederick Noonan and Charles Kysor, whose father Ezra was one of the first architects to practice in Los Angeles, enjoyed a brief design partnership that produced this hotel for Charles Henry Stillwell in 1912. Since 1959 the Stillwell has shared the building with Hank’s Bar, started by a journeyman prizefighter named Hank Holzer who made a living fighting under the name Steven Terry because pugilists in the 1920s made more money if they had an Irish name. Holzer ran the bar until he died in 1997 at the age of 88.
Embassy Hotel/Trinity Auditorium
851 South Grand Avenue at northwest corner of 9th Street
This Beaux Arts tour de force was designed in 1913 to function as a hotel, an auditorium and an office building, so ambitious that it required the talents of three architects - Thornton Fitzhugh, Frank Krucker and Harry Deckbar. Scattered through its nine stories were social halls, a library and a separate ladies parlor. On the roof was a garden. The auditorium, which could seat as many as 2,500, was the home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its first season in 1919. During its nearly 100 years the building has done duty as the Embassy Hotel, the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church and a dormitory for the University of Southern California (1980s).
TURN LEFT ON 9TH STREET.
Insurance Exchange Building
318 W. 9th Street at southeast corner of South Olive Street
For this office tower in 1924 Alexander Curlett and Claud Beelman heeded the early architectural practice of designing a high-rise in the image of a classical column with a defined base (the stone lower stories with the balustraded arched windows), an unadorned shaft (the brick faced central stories), and a capital (the decorative stone cornice).
TURN LEFT ON SOUTH OLIVE STREET.
Commercial Exchange Building
416 West 8th Street at southeast corner of South Olive Street
Albert Walker and Percy Eisen drew up plans for this Neoclassical office tower in 1923. In 1935, new city property lines forced he George R. Kress House Moving Company to cut the building in half, move one section back five feet and stitch the whole composition back together. The neon sign on the corner is reputedly the tallest in the city.
Hotel Olive and Bristol Hotel
northeast corner of South Olive and 8th streets
The north side of 8th Street on the block to your right boasts two century-old hotels. On the corner are what remains of the Hotel Rockwood, designed by John Parkinson, one of the town’s most prolific and important architects of the early 20th century. Next two it, having come through the last hundred years a bit better but with major alterations, is the former Woodward Hotel, later the Bristol Hotel. Fred Dorn designed the building of reinforced concrete with pressed brick and terra cotta in 1906. In 2011 French street artist JR adorned the wall you see from the corner with “Westside Hand.” Although the “W” symbol is most often associated with gangs here it is part of a program called Wrinkles in the City that installs paintings of senior citizens on the sides of buildings in the streets where they live and represents the West Side.
Southern California Telephone and Pacific Telephone
740 South Olive Street and 716 South Olive Street
For Southern California Telephone, John Parkinson returned to Olive Street decades later, this time with his son, to provide Southern California Telephone’s expansive headquarters at #740. The facade for Pacific Telephone is a 1930 redesign of a 1908 building by the prestigious firm of Morgan, Walls and Clement.
Ville de Paris Department Store
712 South Olive Street at southeast corner of 7th Street
Auguste Fusenot sailed from France in 1873 for San Francisco where he became a partner in the fabled City of Paris Store on Union Square. When he struck out for Los Angeles in 1893 he went full French and opened the Ville de Paris. The French mystique played just as well in southern California and Fusenot prospered, eventually moving into the city’s prime retail space in the Homer Laughlin Building on South Broadway. The next generation of the Fusenot family was in charge in 1917 when they migrated west into this classically-inspired retail space created by William James Dodd and William Richards. Before the decade was out, however, the Fusenots sold out to B.H. Dyas, who gradually phased out the Ville de Paris name. Dyas was a purveyor of sporting goods and promoted his emporium as “The Most Interesting Store in California.” Sportsmen familiar with the vast Cabela’s and Bass Pros Shops today would recognize the trout-filled aquariums, rifle range and stuffed game animals shoppers saw at B.H. Dyas ninety years ago.
Coulter Dry Goods/The Mandel
500 West 7th Street at southwest corner of South Olive Street
Benjamin Franklin Coulter started selling clothes to Los Angeles women in 1878 in less than 1000 square feet of space on the corner of Temple and Spring streets. The family business moved five times before it landed in this space in 1917. Architect brothers Charles Sumner and Henry Mather Greene, who worked together for 30 years before going their separate ways, designed the gracefully curving building. Coulter’s stayed twenty - a virtual lifetime for the company - before moving to the Miracle Mile on fashionable Wilshire Boulevard. Other retailers came and went and the building dodged the wrecking ball to be fused with neighboring former Mandel’s Shoe Company building and be reborn as loft apartments.
Bank of Italy
505 West 7th Street at northwest corner of South Olive Street
Before San Francisco’s Bank of Italy, orchestrated by Amadeo Peter Giannini, became the Bank of America in 1928 it established a beachhead in Los Angeles in this building in 1922. The oldest architectural firm in Los Angeles with roots stretching back to the 1870s, Morgan Walls and Morgan, executed a grand Renaissance Revival bank vault that radiated serious money management. Confident depositors entered through a parade of double-height Corinthian columns shielding great bronze doors. The building was not without its light touches, however. Regal faces are sculpted from granite on the facade and playful images of American coins decorate the entrance.
Los Angeles Athletic Club
431 West 7th Street at northeast corner of South Olive Street
The Los Angeles Athletic Club formed in 1880 and settled into this home in 1912. There have been several scalpels taken to the lower part of the facade over the past century but the essential character of the building by John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom, the dominant design partnership in Los Angeles at the time. The clubhouse’s biggest wow factor was not its architecture so much as its engineering since its pool was all the way up on the sixth floor. Membership was a vibrant mix of movie stars, politicians and Olympic athletes. Athletes with ties to the Los Angeles Athletic Club have won 97 Olympic medals through the years, including 47 gold.
James Oviatt Building
617 South Olive Street
James Zera Oviatt left his native Utah in 1909 at the age of 21 to begin his working life in Los Angeles as a window dresser. Three years later he was able to launch his own haberdashery with hat salesman Frank Baird Alexander. In short order the legends of the emerging movie industry began relying on Oviatt to find them cutting edge fashions during his annual buying trips to Europe. By 1927 Oviatt was ready to build his dream store. He hired the town’s go-to architects for elegant downtown buildings, Percy Eisen and Albert Walker, and imported tons of French marble and 60,000 pounds of glass from artisan René Lalique for chandeliers, door panels and fixtures. For his own penthouse above the selling space Oviatt relied on Parisian designers to parse together the rich hardwoods, European fabrics and Lalique glass. Much of the showy ornaments have been sold off through the years but 1920s Paris lives on in the dining and entertainment establishments operating here.
Pacific Finance Building/Heron Building
510 West 6th Street at southwest corner of South Olive Street
Step back to look up above the street level to see the classically-inspired handiwork of William J. Dodd and Frank Richards for this 1920 office building. Dodd was a Canadian who worked as a designer for the legendary New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White before partnering in his own firm in Kentucky at the age of 25 in 1887. He did not arrive in Los Angeles until he was past 50 but built busy commercial practice for the last 15 years of his life with Richards, an Englishman who himself did not come to Los Angeles until he was past 40, beginning in 1915.
Pacific Mutual Life Insurance
northwest corner of South Olive Street and 6th Street
Pacific Mutual Life issued its first policy ceremonially on May 9, 1868 to Leland Stanford, who was in between his stint as California’s 8th governor and his role in the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad as a Big Four director of the Central Pacific Railroad. Stanford served as the first president of Pacific Mutual Life, headquartered in San Francisco, from 1868 until 1876. In the rubble of the1906 Earthquake directors voted to establish a new home office in Los Angeles, which was designed on this corner by John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom. Parkinson would return just before his death with his son in the 1930s to give his 25-year old Beaux Arts building a fresh Art Moderne update. In the interim the expanding company commissioned a 12-story addition from William Dodd and Frank Richards who delivered a classical U-shaped confection packed with Corinthian pilasters, coffered archways and statuary.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN PERSHING SQUARE.