Self Guided Architectural Walking Tour of Downtown Los Angeles, the beautiful hidden art deco streets of California
So many people only think of California as a state of beautiful beaches and equally as beautiful people. Architecture is rarely something people associate with Los Angeles but L.A.'s historic downtown district is full of some of the most incredible buildings found anywhere in the US. Compared to cities like Rome or even New York, L.A.'s 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, the downtown suffered a large financial recession that lasted for decades and only now is it seeing a new cultural renaissance
Start your walking tour at the steps to the 'Angel's Flight' on Bunker Hill. This funicular railway brings travellers up the hill to one of the most iconic landmarks in LA. Most notable for the many scenes film here for the movie '500 Days of Summer'.
The funicular was nicknamed "the shortest railway in the world" when it was built in 1901, and ever since, it has brought 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 tops of all the different famous buildings which decorate the Los Angeles skyline.
Grand Central Market
After a short walk back down from the top of Bunker Hill, stop off at the Grand Central Market. The original building was a Beaux Arts beauty, but over the years, modern renovations have since changed its appearance. Now, when you visit the Market, make a point to study the 1960's tile façade and the original 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 everyman. 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
The Bradbury Building is one of the most important architectural landmarks of the city. And while its exterior is gorgeous, it's the interior you'll want to ensure you see! Built in 1893, this office building is best known for the incredible skylit atrium, surrounded by gilded, ornate ironwork walkways, stairs and elevators. The building was made for gold-mining millionaire Lewis L. Bradbury and as such feels like it has been kissed by King Midas himself.
Wind your way towards the famous Alexandria Hotel. In the hay-day of cinema-making of 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 finishing 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 luster and soon was nothing more than squatting quarters for vagrants. Now, it has a new owner, and with fresh businesses coming back to the downtown, it might even see a new renaissance. It's illustrious Palm Court, built in the 1960's, is still one of the most awe-inspiring interiors in LA. The ceiling is an enormous mass of intricately designed stained glass, and walking in the room, you completely feel embraced by the beautiful coloured scene painted with glass above you.
Broadway-Spring Arcade Building
As you walk down South Spring Street, you come upon a giant slate coloured 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 building is actually two structures connected by a stunning, sky lit, 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.
Ninth and Broadway Building
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 details 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 floors above, you'll notice the filigree grapevine designs continuing between all the perfect placed windows, each stamped with an abstract art deco, geometric design.
The Jewelry District
The Jewelry District is a section of downtown Los Angeles where gold, diamonds and anything sparkly can be seen on display in highly curated window boxes. As you walk down the street, it seems as though every other shop is a jewelry store, all with identical window displays and signage.Annually this district brings in just under $3 billion in jewelry alone!
The most famous of these Jewellery retail outlets is the 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.
Head over to 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 structure represents a different period of architecture, and yet somehow they all seem to flow together in a cohesive way. The first building that was erected in 1906 was 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.
Los Angeles Library
The last stop on the tour was at the impressive Los Angeles Library. A stop off at the library might seem like an anti-climactic visit, but 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 for the community is firmly evident as you walk around and watch people interact with public 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. 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.
Fine Arts Building
The Fine Arts Building on West 7th Street was built in 1926 and is a love story to architecture. The Romanesque Revival face featured a two storey arch over the main entrance, intricately decorated with griffons, gargoyles and birds. The entire building is replete with ornamentation, and carved figures, to the point where it feels almost more like a church than an office building. On either side of the entry arch are two reclining figures, representing Architecture and Sculpture as human beings. Be sure to step inside, and admire the two-storey terracotta and tile tiered ceiling.
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.These gaudy and gorgeous edifices are aged to pure perfection. Their slightly tarnished and dirty facade only add to the magical historical quality they preserve within their bones.
The Los Angeles Theatre
The Los Angeles Theatre is no doubt the most extravagant of them all. Designed by legendary theatre architect S. Charles Lee in 1931, this building stretches up into the skies with European inspired designs that make you feel as though you have been transported into Paris, France. The baroque columns and sculptures that pour off the building reek of French finery. There is even a sunburst motif used throughout inspired by Louis XIV's castle of Versaille.
The Palace Theatre
The Palace Theatre is one of the oldest on the strip. It opened in 1911 and is one of 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.
Eastern Columbia Lofts
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 the word ‘EASTERN’ all in neon beacons you towards it. The Eastern Columbia Lofts is one of the best examples of true Art Deco architecture in the United States. Featuring all the keystones of Art Deco design, this building manages to seem cohesive while incorporating various elements from that period. From sunburst pattern to zigzags and chevrons, to simple geometric shapes and turquoise copper panels flanked in gold, every piece feel like it compliments the other.
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 into chic, modern condos, while retaining its original appearance. One of the more curious 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 true 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 structure is dripping with Gothic influences from Spain and was inspired by the Segovia Cathedral. 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 than it really is, lifting it’s grandeur right up into the sky.
If you’re prefer to go on a guided tour where you can ask questions and get a local’s perspective on the downtown, I would highly recommend FreeToursLA! This company offers a whole bunch of different tours, all of which put a new spin on this incredible city and allow you to see and learn things you've never seen or heard before!