Art Deco Los Angeles

John L. Dorman, The New York Times

The architectural treasures scattered throughout the city are no skyscrapers, but they still soar.

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.

The entrance rotunda of One Bunker Hill. Credit: Trevor Tondro for The New York Times

The entrance rotunda of One Bunker Hill.
Credit: Trevor Tondro for The New York Times

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.

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.

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.

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.

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