Art Deco Los Angeles
California’s broad landscape suggests endless possibility, a chance to realize your dreams. You can backpack in the Klamath National Forest within Siskiyou County. You can find a slice of Denmark in the Santa Ynez Valley. Or you can immerse yourself in the glittery landscape of the Hollywood hills, the place that has applied a practicality to its dreams by making an industry of them.
You tend to forget about reveries, though, when the 101 freeway slows to a crawl, as it did when I began to navigate the road in Hollywood this spring. Time on my hands, I looked up and caught a glimpse of the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower, referred to as Library Tower by many locals for the 90-year-old actual library and architectural gem across the street that it dwarfs.
Completed in the late 1980s, the iconic Bank Tower is one of those structures that sneak up in vistas to remind you that yes, you’re in Los Angeles, in case you were wondering. It was the tallest building west of the Mississippi for 27 years, until the Wilshire Grand Center’s spire was added this year. Designed by the architect Henry N. Cobb, the building is topped with a distinctive crown that hints at downtown’s Art Deco past. Despite its size, it is not exactly the first building that comes to mind when people think of Los Angeles.
Some cities have a single architectural identity but Los Angeles is known for many. It was an incubator of the American Craftsman style, and it embraced Beaux-Arts, as well as Spanish Colonial Revival and Mayan Revival, which found a powerful advocate in Frank Lloyd Wright. But then Art Deco arrived and proliferated during the decades when movie studios became the cornerstone of an economy that had previously relied primarily on oil. It left a stunning cache of public buildings in its wake.
The Paris Exhibition of 1925, officially L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, was held from April to October of that year and was instrumental in promoting Art Deco as a design style that stressed modernity and progress. The industrial arts exhibit influenced a wave of architects to deviate from the formal Beaux-Arts style popular at the time to a style that was punctuated by features like colorful terra cotta, stucco, decorative crowns, zigzags and flat roofs with parapets. For years, this style was loosely called Art Moderne. However, it would become known as Art Deco, a term fashioned by the British art critic Bevis Hillier in 1968.
Several of them have been razed, and a few of the surviving ones are underused or vacant. Tourists gravitate toward the Bank Tower, which has an observation deck, or Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. But before being literally overshadowed, these Art Deco treasures were once icons of downtown Los Angeles. And they still should be.
CreditTrevor Tondro for The New York Times
Most of the Art Deco buildings are smaller than the modern skyscrapers rising in the area, but they still soar. To explore them is to witness a grandeur that inspires you, unlike many skyscrapers, which merely surprise you. Because they arrived at a moment of economic expansion, they suggest the sense of endless possibility that permeated the city. I set off to get a glimpse of what those architectural dreamers were able to accomplish.
On an otherwise mild morning, I found myself holding an umbrella in Pershing Square, a public park. The rain quickly tapered off, sparing me the embarrassment of having chosen to visit California on a weekend when the weather was worse than it was in New York.
Pershing Square, originally known as La Plaza Abaja and dedicated in 1866, is one of the oldest parks in the city. Taking up an entire city block and almost centrally located downtown, the park is a perfect starting point for exploring Art Deco in Los Angeles.
In the early 1920s, Los Angeles was in an enviable position. There was a burgeoning retail market downtown, with stores including A. Hamburger & Sons, Bullock’s and the J. W. Robinson Company strengthening their economic footholds. Automobiles brought so many people here that multiple parking garages were constructed to alleviate the constant traffic backups. The robust Pacific Electric Railway system connected downtown to nearby cities like Pasadena and Whittier, as well as more far-flung places such as Colton and Redlands in San Bernardino County. These developments made the area all the more attractive for architectural innovation.
From the late 1920s until the early 1940s, Art Deco was at the height of its popularity in the city. The design style included Zigzag Moderne — characterized by classic zigzag patterns and setbacks, where buildings featured a wide base, becoming narrower as they rose in height. It also included Streamline Moderne, a subdued style that emphasized horizontal design elements and often had flat roofs and curves.
As I walked to the northeast edge of Pershing Square, one the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the city came into view.
The Title Guarantee and Trust Company Building, at Hill and West Fifth Streets, a beautiful cream-colored glazed terra cotta structure with a granite base, has a way of drawing your attention. Built in 1930, the building still radiates an architectural regalness. At 12 stories, it has a Gothic-style tower that recedes from the larger structure and features stylized buttresses. The recessed tower design is a flourish that allowed the building to exceed the established 150-foot height limit, dramatically rising to 240 feet.
It soared, just not excessively. Citywide height ordinances, in place from 1905 until 1957, were enacted to prevent Los Angeles from becoming a carbon copy of skyscraper-laden cities like New York and Chicago.
“People in early 20th-century Los Angeles were interested in the design of the city,” said Paul Gleye, author of “The Architecture of Los Angeles” and a professor of architecture at North Dakota State University. “San Francisco was still the pre-eminent city in California, but there was a great civic pride in Los Angeles.”
CreditTrevor Tondro for The New York Times
As I looked up from the base of the Title Guarantee Building, I took in the bas-relief sculptures depicting two kneeling men and a central figure that adorned the exterior. John B. Parkinson and Donald Parkinson, the influential father-son team of architects who designed this building and several others, commissioned the artist Eugene Maier-Krieg to design the sculptures. Hugo Ballin, a noted American muralist, designed six panels in the lobby that chronicle the history of the city.
I admired the zigzag motif that formed part of the design above the main entrance on West Fifth Street. Because the building is now private, only residents and their guests can enjoy its full glory. Still, the facade alone was engrossing, so it was hard to leave.
The Bunker Hill neighborhood, which offers some of the most commanding views of the surrounding area, is just a few paces from the Title Guarantee Building. There, the extent of Art Deco craftsmanship in downtown Los Angeles was on full display.
One Bunker Hill, built as the headquarters for Southern California Edison, the electric supply behemoth, rests on a steep slope. When completed in 1931, it was one of the first buildings with an all-electric heat and cooling system in the Western United States. An illuminated “Edison” sign at the top of the building solidified the region as an emerging economic power.
One Bunker Hill is now almost surrounded by the U.S. Bank Tower and the 26-story 400 South Hope building, two 1980s-era skyscrapers. It now looks diminutive by comparison, many say. But I was drawn to it, rather than to its tall bookends.
The granite and limestone building was designed in a setback style, with architectural offsets on two lower floors, along with two of the upper floors. The central tower at the top of the building is fronted with terra cotta. The corner entrance, featuring a stately octagonal rotunda, has three bas-relief figures on the exterior. The figures, created by the sculptor Robert Merrell Gage, depict power, light and hydroelectricity.
One Bunker Hill was envisioned as a monument to energy. The two-story lobby only reaffirmed the intent of architectural grandeur. Natural light poured into the multicolored room, highlighting its indelible features: over a dozen types of marble; gold-leaf ornamentation on the ceiling; and murals by the artists Barse Miller, Conrad Buff and, once again, Hugo Ballin.
Mr. Ballin’s mural, “The Apotheosis of Power,” features the English physicist William Gilbert, a pioneer in the research of magnetism and electrical attraction, and Benjamin Franklin.
The building gives you a sense of what Los Angeles wanted to be, and what it has become, part of a huge megalopolis that still shows no signs of slowing down.
When I saw the Los Angeles Central Library building from a distance, I first thought it was a temple. It had Byzantine, Egyptian, Spanish Colonial and Roman architectural influences and, at 90 years old, it truly exemplifies the grandeur of early Art Deco.
Bertram Goodhue, designer of the Nebraska State Capitol, and Carleton Winslow Sr. were the architects of the Central Library. The building is topped with a mosaic pyramid-shaped tower. Limestone figures, including a bust of Leonardo da Vinci, are featured on the exterior. The interior of the main rotunda has prominently arched ceilings. The Central Library incorporated so many architectural styles, in addition to Art Deco, that it was almost an early precursor to what the city has become: one of the most culturally diverse places in the world.
Beginning in the 1960s, the threat of demolition loomed over the Central Library. In 1978, the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit organization committed to the preservation of historic buildings in the city, was established largely because of opposition to the proposal. The bulldozers never came. This was an almost unheard-of civic victory in an era when downtowns were rapidly depopulating.
As I walked into the rotunda, I noticed that people were enthralled with murals designed by the illustrator Dean Cornwell. Each mural depicts an aspect of the history of California, including the 1781 founding of El Pueblo de los Ángeles, the Spanish settlement that eventually grew to be modern Los Angeles. The murals prompted conversation, even among strangers. I overheard a man recall being taken to the library as a child, influencing him to do the same for his children.
Not all of the buildings survived long enough to inspire memories of family legacies. The Richfield Oil Company Building, which was demolished between late 1968 and 1969, according to Mr. Gleye, “was one of the most magnificent Art Deco structures anywhere.” Richfield Tower was clad in glazed black architectural terra cotta and gold trimming, with the top of the building resembling an oil derrick. It was the epitome of Zigzag Moderne.
But it wasn’t so appealing at the time of its demolition. “In 1968, people looked back at Art Deco and thought it was ugly and too decorative,” Mr. Gleye said. “A generation has to pass before things are appreciated. After modernism became the leading style, there were very few defenders of Art Deco.”
In place of Richfield Tower sprouted twin 52-story skyscrapers now known as City National Plaza. You can still get a hint of Richfield Tower from two tall zigzag elevator doors that were salvaged in the demolition and have been incorporated near a lobby entrance at the Plaza.
The one Art Deco building allowed to exceed height restrictions was City Hall. The architectural team of John C. Austin, Albert C. Martin and John Parkinson created a tall central tower, built with concrete mixed with sand from each of California’s 58 counties. It rises majestically. The building’s upper floors feature symmetrical setbacks, with an eccentric ziggurat top.
An open-air observatory on the 27th floor is free and accessible to the general public. From this perch, the city is devilishly inviting. If the visibility is good, you can see Santa Catalina Island. I was not as lucky. However, I did see Los Angeles Union Station, my next stop.
Union Station, the largest passenger train station in the Western United States, was completed in 1939. Approached from North Alameda Street, the station’s Art Deco, Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural influences are immediately apparent.
Marlyn Musicant, author of “Los Angeles Union Station,” said that the building’s Art Deco elements “come across so clearly, yet are subtle.”
The white entrance signs have an aesthetically pleasing Streamline Moderne look. In the main waiting area, the vaulted steel-truss ceiling, which gives the appearance of simple wooden beams, radiates a collegiate feel. The red-tiled roof, interior courtyard spaces, arched windows and white stucco create a distinct Mission Revival look.
“The architects wanted to go with a more Spanish influence,” Ms. Musicant added, “so instead of utilizing wrought-iron chandeliers, the designers went with bronze chandeliers.”
Union Station was designed to serve as a combined rail terminus for the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railways. With automobiles becoming the dominant form of transportation in Southern California, along with the advent of commercial air travel, rail ridership began to decline sharply in the mid-1950s. The station was becoming a place that, while still remarkable, was seemingly lost in another place and time.
“By the 1960s, Union Station was neglected and had fallen into a sad state,” Ms. Musicant said. “At one point, there were only 18 trains going out of the station each day.”
Beginning in the 1970s, increased Amtrak service gave Union Station some long-overdue energy. The building was restored in 1992, the same year that Metrolink, a regional rail service, began to operate in the station. Metro Rail, the rail system that serves Los Angeles County, has three lines with stops at the station.
At some train stations, a cold bench would be a prize, but not in Union Station, which reveals the romanticism of rail travel. Its waiting room has upholstered wooden chairs on the main floor. The travertine walls, doors with Moorish accents, and colorful glazed floor tiles have alluring patterns. The long exterior walkways and outside tower evoke Spanish Missions, while the courtyard areas maintain an aura of tranquillity.
As I headed back closer to Pershing Square, the Oviatt Building on South Olive Street came into view. The Art Deco building, named for the entrepreneur James Oviatt, incorporates Italian Romanesque elements, with tiled roofs, cornices, marble and a three-faced French-imported clock. With his business partner Frank Alexander, Mr. Oviatt opened the upscale Alexander & Oviatt haberdashery in 1912.
Inspired by a 1925 visit to the Art Deco Exhibition in Paris, Mr. Oviatt commissioned his namesake 1928 building, which housed his store on the lower floors, along with an ornate penthouse apartment where he lived. The penthouse, which also played host to many luminaries during Hollywood’s golden age, is now a popular venue for private events.
When the building opened, it featured work from the French designer René Lalique and the glassmaker Gaëtan Jeannin. Much of their original work is gone but the entrance arcade still radiates an Art Deco feel. The arcade, with unique etched-glass panels, immediately caught my eye. Intricate mailbox and elevator doors made from maillechort, an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc, were designed by Lalique.
The footprints of the retail past of downtown Los Angeles are one of the more interesting characteristics of the neighborhood. The area around South Hill Street and South Broadway near Pershing Square boasted some of the busiest and most fashionable stores in the entire region in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, urban decline and rapid population growth in the western edges of the city lured many customers away from downtown, but the buildings remained.
The area’s Art Deco legacy gave me a true sense of the walkable nature of downtown. In addition to residential and retail developments, there are various markets and restaurants that have sold ethnic food in the neighborhood for many years.
Robert D. Herman, a retired professor of sociology at Pomona College, stressed the importance of the work of the urban studies activist Jane Jacobs and her belief that “mixed-use” developments maintain the vitality and viability of cities.
“Uniformity and isolation will kill a neighborhood,” Mr. Herman said. “People in urban areas expect streets to be part of the urban environment.”
The buildings, though, are what draw your eye. On South Hill Street, the Sun Realty, William Fox, and Harris & Frank buildings are all part of the city’s jewelry district. The buildings opened between 1925 and 1932, and while many of the upper floors featured office space for various businesses, the lower floors all had well-trafficked jewelry stores. And just as I expected, the Art Deco elements were still there.
Private lofts now occupy the blue-green Eastern Columbia Building, the 1930 classic designed by Claud Beelman. Formerly the headquarters of the Eastern Outfitting and Columbia Outfitting companies, which sold appliances and clothing, respectively, the building sets the tone for decorative architecture in the city. The entrance extended inward, with a terra cotta sunburst detail that evoked optimism. Topped by a clock tower that loomed over the immediate area, the gold-trimmed building staked its position as a center of commerce.
There are many other hidden treasures downtown like the now-shuttered Roxie Theater, the only theater built in downtown Los Angeles solely in Art Deco style; the Title Insurance and Trust Building, now being converted into modern offices; and the beige terra cotta Ninth & Broadway Building, an anchor of the revitalized retail core. The Foreman & Clark Building, formerly the flagship location of the Foreman & Clark department store and recently acquired by a developer, and the Beelman-designed Garfield Building, now vacant, await new futures.
As I walked on South Broadway, I noticed an Art Deco building that at one time housed a F & W Grand-Silver Stores retail location and a Hartfield’s Department Store. Now being renovated, the handsome midblock six-story building in many ways represents the resurgence of downtown. Art Deco defined the heights that downtown Los Angeles sought to reach in its infancy as a major city. Generations later, those heights are being unveiled once again.
If You Go
Where to Eat
Perch (448 South Hill Street; 213-802-1770; perchla.com) is a rooftop restaurant and bar serving French fare with stunning views of the upper floors of the Title Guarantee and Trust Company Building, as well as the surrounding downtown landscape. Recent main courses included gnocchi with pesto, crème fraîche and squash ($19), and pan-roasted salmon, with smoked eggplant purée, vegetables Provençal and artichoke chips ($27). For a unique drink, try the Hemingway on the Beach, a mix of gin, Luxardo, lemon juice and Angostura bitters ($12).
Cicada Restaurant (617 South Olive Street; 213-488-9488; cicadarestaurant.com) is a refined Art Deco space inside the Oviatt Building, with dark wood paneling and zigzag motifs. Entree options recently included chicken breast with Marsala mustard sauce ($32) and wild black bass with roasted potatoes and a lemon virgin olive oil sauce ($40).
Inside Union Station, Traxx (800 North Alameda Street; 213-625-1999; traxx.la) is an ornate restaurant and bar. Have a glass of Clos du Val Carneros pinot noir and take a break from all the bustle.
Where to Stay
The Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles (929 South Broadway; 213-623-3233; acehotel.com/losangeles) is in a 1927 Spanish Gothic structure that evokes classic Los Angeles. From about $199.
What to Do
The Los Angeles Conservancy (laconservancy.org) offers several walking tours on weekends, including separate Art Deco and Union Station tours each Saturday ($15).