Friday, July 8, 2011

Architecture in Downtown LA - Part III

You Can't Fight City Hall

The most prominent building in downtown Los Angeles used to be the city hall. Gleaming white against the sky (at 454 feet), it has stood as a powerful symbol of the city since 1928. The structure has appeared innumerable times in movies and TV.  It has been destroyed in several disaster movies and was a stand-in for The Daily Planet in the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman.
Los Angeles city hall.
Prior to 1964, concerns about seismic design made it impossible for any building in Los Angles to exceed the height of city hall. With changes in engineering technology and public policy, it is dwarfed today by the U.S. Bank Tower (73 stories), Aon Center (64 floors) and many other banal office blocks. (At present, there are 509 high-rises in the city of Los Angeles.)

One might think that the city hall would be a weak relic amidst powerful downtown towers twice its height. The surprising thing is that it still dominates the part of downtown in which it stands. Set back in a landscaped buffer from the streets that surround it, starkly white against the sky, and rigidly art deco in profile: this building makes a big impression. The city hall is distanced a few blocks from the massive towers of "new downtown." It is not buried in Manhattanesque redevelopment and, for this reason, stands as proudly as it must have in 1928. For architecture buffs it is a worthy historic site.

Travel by Train

In fact, there are several survivors of old Los Angles that still grace the downtown district. A previous blog entry mentioned the well-preserved Bradley Building. There is also the original and venerable Catholic church, La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles, founded in 1814 and rebuilt in 1861. (Not to be confused with the architectural massif of Our Lady of the Angels.)  However, the crown of old buildings in downtown Los Angeles must rest on Union Station. Opened in May 1939, it is small compared to central stations in other major cities. It is, nevertheless, a grand example of transportation architecture. Today it is a hub for long-distance trains and for the city's commuter rail system.
Union Station.
The Future of Downtown LA

Well-preserved and still employed in its original purpose, Union Station is a fitting emblem for Los Angeles. Its Spanish-revival architecture recalls local history. The crowds in its great hall indicate a re-energized central city. This building is a perfect place to conclude our series on downtown Los Angeles. There could be plenty more to examine: Disney concert hall by Frank Gehry, the towers of new downtown, various condo restorations on Spring Street. However, Union Station is a positive note on which to close. It symbolizes the old and new coming together. It offers hope that no longer is Los Angeles "72 suburbs in search of a city," as Dorothy Parker famously quipped. It is, instead, a city striving to create a center for its far-flung suburbs. At first, in my little investigation of downtown LA, I ambled down Broadway and thought nothing has changed after decades of decrepitude. But one need only walk a little longer and a little further to discover that the core is still alive and there is hope for a fully viable center for the sprawl that is Los Angeles.
Union Station central waiting room.
All by MJK.

Architecture in Downtown LA - Part II

1. Figueroa Hotel.
My explorations of downtown Los Angeles took me past the Figueroa Hotel, 939 Figueroa Street. Surrounded by parking lots, it is a lonely survivor from old Los Angeles. Built in 1925, it is lavishly Moorish in a movie-set sort of way. It looks like a place that would be fun to stay in, however, on-line reviews on various travel sites are tepid at best. Do your own research if the place looks tempting.

2. Lobby, Figueroa Hotel.
If you are looking for more serious historic architecture downtown, the Bradbury building is the place to check out. It is impeccably maintained and fully occupied, a rarity on Broadway. I made a pilgrimage to this site when I was in architecture school. It is admired by architecture buffs for its light-flooded atrium, fine iron work, and forward-thinking interiors. This is advanced architecture for the year it was built, 1893. In the meantime, film buffs became aware of the building through its frequent use in movies and TV. Most memorably, the building is the setting for several scenes in the dystopian cult classic Blade Runner with Harrison Ford.
3. Bradbury building at 304 Broadway.
Local architect Sumner Hunt was first hired to design the building. He was unable to fulfil the lofty aspirations of the developer, Lewis L. Bradbury. The commission then fell to Hunt's draftsman, George Wyman who is credited as author of the building.
4. Bradbury building entrance.

5. Bradbury building atrium.

6. Historic American Buildings photograph.
The main floor of the Bradbury building is open to the public without charge.

Photo credits:
1. MJK
2. MJK
3. MJK
4. MJK
5. MJK
 6. Historic American Buildings Survey