Mar 7, 2012
Los Angeles: Downtown Deco
Los Angeles has been traditionally characterized in terms of a utopian image, at the forefront of the American dream of home and automobile ownership, or a dystopian image, with its clogged freeways, auto pollution, and fragmented series of disconnected communities. Its urban experience, described in Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies as “Autopia”, is conditioned by the inescapable reality of the road circulation system. However, in my recent trip there, I did not have a car, so experienced Downtown LA and parts of Hollywood and Santa Monica as a pedestrian but I also took advantage of the relatively efficient and cheap public buses. I was fascinated by Downtown’s many formerly glamorous Art Deco theaters and commercial buildings, an odd juxtaposition with the more recent and rather sterile corporate towers and hotels. I have included some images of these Deco buildings with brief descriptions below.
The Roxie Theater (above), completed in 1932, has obviously seen better days. This was the last of the Downtown Deco Theaters.
Although the Bradbury Building (above) was not constructed during the Art Deco era, I had to include it here as it was such an unexpected gem. Completed in 1893, this is one of Downtown’s earliest commercial buildings. Despite its modest redbrick facade, the interior atrium is spectacular, rising five stories to glass skylights above that create a light-filled void in the building’s center (two images below). Office spaces open onto this internal court, and decorative cast-iron staircases, elevators, and balcony balustrades highlight a late Victorian aesthetic ripe for contemporary steampunk recycling.
Below: Los Angeles Public Library, designed by Bertram G. Goodhue and Carelton Winslow, and completed in 1926.
Below: City Hall, completed in 1928. Originally designed as a focal point within a grander City Beautiful plan, it seems a little isolated from the rest of Downtown today, although the LA Times Building (below) is nearby. At 28 storeys, City Hall was the tallest building in Downtown LA until the early 1960s.
Los Angeles Times Building, designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann, and completed in 1935 (three interior images below). Kaufmann also had a hand in the design of the Hoover Dam, which was completed in the same year. Its exterior is a squat, stepped temple form, while the rotunda in the lobby features a large globe and murals by Hugo Ballin that depict both images of modern industry and communications, as well as pseudo-historical references to local history (the Native American, Missionary and Pony Express Rider). The detail at bottom below reminded me of futuristic automobile designs of the era by Buckminster Fuller.
Three Broadway Theaters
Orpheum Theater, designed by G. Albert Landsburgh, completed in 1911. This image from the LA Public Library collection shows the grand foyer of the Orpheum in 1932. Still operating as a theater today, their website has both contemporary and historical images of the interiors.
Los Angeles Theater (above), designed by S. Charles Lee, competed in 1931. Lee designed over 400 theaters, but this one, with a luxurious lobby inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, would last only one year before the effects of the Depression closed it.
Above: Tower Theater, designed by S. Charles Lee, completed in 1926. This image from the LA Public Library collection shows an interior shot of the Tower Theater.
Above are three images of the Eastern Columbia Building, designed by Claude Beelman, completed in 1929. It originally housed Adolph Sieroty’s two clothing stores, Eastern Outfitting and Columbia Outfitting.
Finally, the Oviatt Building. The vaguely Romanesque exterior of this 12 storey building (above), designed by local firm Walker and Eisen, is not as spectacular as the interior (images below). James Oviatt, who began in window dressing and opened his own haberdashery shop, became known as the menswear dealer and tailor to Hollywood screen stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore in the 1920s. After a trip to France in 1925 during which Oviatt visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, he was inspired to build a new store in the latest modern style. He commissioned French designer René Lalique to create glass fittings and fixtures including chandeliers, lamps, decorative panels, and display cases, for his new store. Apparently, Oviatt had thirty tons of custom-designed glass by Lalique was shipped to Los Angeles in 1928, accompanied by a French team of architects to supervise its installation. This luxurious interior served as a stage set for Oviatt’s equally luxurious clothing, while his penthouse apartment was similarly decorated with the latest fine French furniture. Historical images that depict the lobby’s former role as the entrance to a clothing store can be seen here and here.
With the exception of a few single buildings, not much remains of Victorian era Downtown, and there is little evidence of many people living in this part of Los Angeles now. The early 20th century boom can be seen with remaining examples of Beaux-Arts eclecticism, while the secondary boom of the 1920s can be seen in the many remaining Art Deco/Moderne theaters and commercial buildings. For me, the area around Broadway still evokes the Hollywood-inspired glamor and pre-Depression optimism of the 1920s. By the early 1930s, the blocks surrounding Broadway reputedly contained the highest concentration of movie theaters in the world. I presume the effects of the Depression followed by World War Two and post-war retreat to the suburbs effectively ended the glamorous era in Downtown Los Angeles, at least until the uninspiring high-rise boom of the 1970s and 80s. I will consider this aspect of Downtown in my next entry on the well known Westin Bonaventure.
All photos (except for the historic image of the Los Angeles Theater's lobby) by D.J. Huppatz.