Guide to Downtown L.A. Architecture
While in California, we took a brief tour of LA's historic downtown district. We decided to take the opportunity of being in downtown LA to see all the wonderful architecture that far too often, gets overlooked by beachy keen tourists. Compared to cities like Rome or even New York, their historic core is one of the least frequented parts of the city. And perhaps that is because so few people even know it is here. After the economic decline in the 1960's, downtown suffered a recession that lasted for decades and only now is it seeing a new cultural renaissance.
We met our tour guide from FreeToursLA at the base of Angel's Flight. The tour was free and open to anyone who showed up.We felt lucky to be the only ones who showed and therefore got ourselves a private tour! The Angel's Flight and Bunker Hill where it brings travellers is one of the most iconic landmarks in LA. Most notably, many scenes from the movie 500 Days of Summer were filmed up here.
It's was nicknamed "the shortest railway in the world" when it was built in 1901, and ever since, this funicular takes passengers a mere few meters up the steep hill from Pershing Square Metro Station to the top of Bunker Hill. From there, you have the perfect vantage point to see the tips of all the different architectural finishings of the buildings below. Currently, the property is under construction but hopefully, in the next few years will be refurbished and open to the public once more.
After a short walk back down from the top of Bunker Hill, we stopped off at the Grand Central Market. The original building was a Beaux Arts beauty, but over the years modern renos have since changed the appearance of the original building. Now, when you visit the Market, you'll notice the 60's influenced tile façade and its original forms can only be seen in the large, rounded archways at the entrance.
This little market full of smells, sights and sounds, has been open since 1917. The market was once a meeting place for both the rich and the poor of the city, and you could find everything from clothes to cabbage to goods for the home. Today, it is filled with delicious food for the every man. As soon as you step down the stairs in into the thick of things, your senses are engulfed in the smell of slow roasting pork, crispy tortillas and hot spices. Stop in at G&B Coffee for a dark brew or try one of their fizzy hoppy teas for something a little different. Chow down on gorditas and drool worthy tacos at Ana Maria's. And if you're looking for a trendy Sunday morning brunch spot, try Eggslut for their signature Eggslut sandwich, a jar-poached “coddled” egg atop potato purée
As we wandered, we dove deeper into the depth of Los Angeles' architectural history. We wove our way downtown and came across the famous Alexandria Hotel. In the hay-day of cinema-making in the 1900's, this monolith to Beaux Arts architecture and glamour was built. It cost $2 million to bring the lavish and luxurious designs and finishings that the New York elite were used to, across the country to sunny LA. The building's signature griffins still stand today, looming over the street, watching passers by going about their business.
Over the years, it saw visitors from all walks of fame. From President Theodore Roosevelt to Charlie Chaplin and even Mary Pickford. But as the celebs moved out of the downtown core, the hotel lost its lustre and soon was nothing more than squatting quarters for vagrants. Now, it has a new owner, and with new businesses coming back to downtown, it might even see a revitalization.
It's illustrious Palm Court, built in the 1960's, is still one of the most awe-inspiring sites in LA. The ceiling is an enormous mass of intricately designed stained glass, and when walking in the room, you completely feel embraced by the beautiful coloured scene painted with glass above you.
As you walk down South Spring Street, you come upon a giant slate colour building with tiny, uniform windows that cover its facade. Looking like a massive brick honeycomb. This is, of course, the Broadway-Spring Arcade Building. The arcade building is two buildings, connected by a beautiful, skylit, three-storey arcade.
When you walk in thru the arches, you're met with a splendid gallery of little, independent shops gathered below retro lights that line the gallery like little soldiers. Later on, after its initial construction, two Venetian style bridges were added to connect the lower levels of the two buildings, creating a very European feel to space.
Just down the street, you find the Ninth and Broadway Building. Built in the 1930's, this sturdy building is a dramatic piece of design and architecture. The most iconic piece is the two-storey tall terra cotta grapevine filigree that crawls up the front of the building. The art deco lettering that addresses the building is a charming nod to a time gone by.
But the ornamentation doesn't stop at the front of the building. As you look up at the myriad of storeys above, you'll notice the filigree grapevine designs continuing between all the perfect placed windows, each stamped with an abstract art deco, geometric design.
As you finish with the business district, you turn a corner, and suddenly every other building you come across is an opulent theatre. This, of course, is the Theatre District. I was beaming as we walked along. These gaudy and gorgeous edifices were pure perfection to me. And even their ageing facade only added to the magical quality they preserve.
The Los Angeles Theatre is no doubt the most extravagant of them all. Designed by legendary theatre architect S. Charles Lee in 1931, this theatre stretches up into the skies with designs that make you feel as though you have stepped into Paris, France. The baroque columns and sculptures that pour off the building reek of French finery. There is even a sunburst motif throughout the building that is inspired by Louis XIV's castle.
The Palace Theatre is one of the oldest on the strip. It opened in 1911 and is the remaining original Orpheum theatres in the U.S. This building seems as though any minute, swarms of youthful flappers in sequined gowns might emerge from its doors. Perfectly preserved in time, you can even read the old painted advertisements still etched onto the side of the building. One can imagine that these ads would entice customs to attend the shows featuring such acts as Harry Houdini, Fred Astaire, and a young Rita Hayworth.
The mixture of Florentine architecture and retro 70's typography and colourful flare are wonderfully combined on the front of this theatre. Multicoloured, terra-cotta flowers are stamped on the sides of the window frames, while gothic fairy sculptures hang off the building like whimsical gargoyles. Even the old lamps still glow and are reflected on the wet streets.
Built in 1927, the Tower Theatre is a testament to the evocative Baroque Revival style. The exterior of the theatre was even modelled after the famed Paris Opera House. Tiny star shaped geometric designs are carved into the building's walls, making the whole thing seem like it's floating in space.
One of the most iconic features of the Tower Theatre, is it's giant Art Nouveau clock tower that reaches up into the sky, flanked by gilded columns and framing the neon sign that flashes its name to curious passers by.
Probably the piece-de-resistance of the entirety of downtown LA is the Eastern Columbia Lofts. From all the way down the street, you can see the bright, turquoise copper gleaming in the distance. On top, a giant clock and its name all in neon beacons you towards it.
The Eastern Columbia Lofts is one of the best examples of true Art Deco architecture from the United States. Featuring all the keystones of Art Deco design, this building manages to seem cohesive while incorporating all different elements from that period. From sunburst pattern to zigzags and chevrons, to simple geometric shapes and turquoise copper panels flanked in gold.
Although the building has been standing for years on end, it's appeal is timeless. The developer Kor Realty group optioned this property for condo development in 2006 and has since turned empty retail and business spaces to chic, modern condos, all the while maintaining its original appearance and design. One of the more curious design features is the four modernized flying buttresses that flank the clock tower on the top of the building. This style, once only found in gothic architecture, was appropriated here to great effect.
If you're looking for pure gothic architecture, go no further than the Ace Hotel. Originally known as the United Artists building, at 13-storeys tall, it was the tallest building in Los Angeles after it's completion in 1927. The building houses both residential apartments as well as a theatre on the first floor.
The terra cotta and plaster fronted building is dripping with Gothic influences from Spain and was inspired by the Segovia Cathedral in Spain. It's delicate tracery windows, and pointed arches, along with highly detailed carved capitals make this building look more like a church than a commercial space. The stone spandrels that line the facade give the building the appearance of being taller and reaching right up into the sky.
The Jewelry District is a section of downtown Los Angeles where gold, diamonds and anything sparkly can be seen on display. As you walk down the street, it seems as though every other shop is a jewellery store, all with identical window displays and signage. I can't see anyone buying anything from these rather sketchy seeming store, but annually this district brings in just under $3 billion!
The most famous of these Jewellery retail outlets is the 550 Building or International Jewelery Centre. This building reminds me of the train station in Melbourne, with its enormous domed roof as well as French Renaissance inspired ornamentation that climbs along the columns and frames the windows.
We finish our tour in the financial district and visit the PacMutual building. A set of three different buildings have been connected overs the years and now make up the place we call the PacMutual building.
Each building represents a different period of architectural design, and yet somehow they all seem to flow together in a conducive way. The first building that was erected in 1906 on the corner of Sixth and Olive Street. It was designed in the Beaux Arts style with decorative arches and flowery details. In 1921, a taller building was constructed in the same manner as the previous. This time, with more money in their pockets, they added Italian marble throughout the lobby and more terra cotta embellishments. The final building in this triad is a seemingly simple two story parking garage. Where the addition of a parking lot might have been an eye sore, this architect took it upon himself to disguise it in Beaux Arts flourishes and a glamorous tiled roof. Now looking at this building, only the signs that direct you to the parking lot will give this building away.
The last stop on the tour was at the impressive Los Angeles Library. While in other cities, a stop off at the library might seem like an anti climactic ending, it is not the case at all here in LA. The library was officially named a Historic-Cultural Monument, and its importance as a place of community, more than just a library is astounding, is firmly evident as you walk around and watch people interact with space. People wander the gardens and sit quietly reading or talking on the phone on all the different benches and seating areas in the courtyard as we arrive. It seems almost like a modern day town square.
The design of the library is not of that of the Art Deco period, nor of the Beaux Arts. This time, the architect went much farther back in time to get his inspiration. All the way to ancient Egypt. Egyptians were some of the finest architects But they were a culture that respected and sought to preserve their language and historical stories. Although not in a typical "library", they preserved their stores right in the walls of their home in hieroglyphs. So it is no surprise that this is where the architect drew his inspiration for the library. The central part of the library looks like a squared off pyramid with a brightly coloured tiled mosaics on the roof. The suns on either side of the roof reference the "light of learning". Along the facade are carved notable men of history. We have represented here men from the arts, Science, Philosophy and more.
Inside the library, we browsed around and found that they even hosted small exhibits from time to time on the first-floor alcoves. The exhibit currently on display when we arrived featured song books from the 1920-60's featuring music that had been inspired by the great state of California
After the tour was over, we sat and admired the skyline of LA's downtown before heading back out. It is an almost secretive place. Tourists have yet to flood in and destroy the charming quality of this place, but big business has also kept itself out of this area, therein preserving the original buildings instead of tearing them down for newer, uglier developments. It's not often you see so many buildings in such a small place that have been left, seemingly, frozen in time. For anyone with interest in architecture or history, this tour is unmissable. One of the best things we did over the course of the entire trip and one that I will surely be back to do again.