|When you’re in downtown Los Angeles, it seems like you’re never more than three feet from a significant building. This city is the perfect canvas for the world’s most creative and innovative architects. It’s dotted with beautiful skyline art. Together, those dots tell about 100 years of stories…|
The Figueroa Corridor
We don’t even have to leave our beloved Figueroa Street to find some of the city’s most architecturally important buildings. Let’s start due south of Hotel Figueroa, in Trojan turf at Exposition Park on the University of Southern California campus…
At Figueroa & Jefferson
The Shrine is kind of a big deal. It’s been home to all the major awards shows: the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars, some upwards of ten times. When it opened in 1926 with 6,700 seats, it was the largest theatre in the US.
It’s still the largest proscenium arch stage in North America, 90 years later, as well as the largest theater in Los Angeles (at 6,300 seats). Designed by John C. Austin and Abram M. Edelman, the Moorish Revival building is one of the city’s great examples of Masonic architecture. Austin was actually a 32nd-degree Mason, who also designed gems like the Hollywood Masonic Temple (now Jimmy Kimmel’s stomping grounds, the El Capitan), as well as having a hand in City Hall and Griffith Observatory.
All places that, if you’re visiting our fine city, will likely make your list. The exterior looks like an Arabian mosque with Moorish arches and white Persian domes. But when you step inside, it feels like you’ve teleported to a luxurious European opera house—which was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, who also did the El Capitan, plus the Orpheum and the Wiltern. These guys were like a greatest-hits dream team! And just in case there was any doubt about how important the Shrine is, I’ll leave you with its baller full name: Al Malaikah Shriners Ancients Arabic Order Nobles of Mystic Shrine. Mic drop.
BOB HOPE PATRIOTIC HALL
At Figueroa & West 18th
Up the road from the Shrine and also dedicated in 1926, the Romanesque Bob Hope Patriotic Hall (then simply called Patriotic Hall, duh) was and is a living monument to veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I. At the time, it was LA’s tallest building at twelve stories. During World War II, it was home to on-leave service members and those who entertained them—Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamar and Bob Hope (phew, solved that mystery). Designed by Allied Architects Association in the Italian Renaissance Revival style typical for civic architecture, the building features a symmetrical façade, rusticated ground level, strong division of floors, a colonnade and arched windows. Sometime during the 1970s, the Hall’s original murals by artist Helen Lundeberg mysteriously vanished, Scooby Doo style. They’ve since been replaced by artist Kent Twitchell, but—it’s not often you hear about art running away from home. About ten years ago, the city of Los Angeles poured $75 million into the Hall’s restoration, earning a Conservancy Preservation Award. And for that I salute you, BHPH.
VARIETY ARTS CENTER
At Figueroa & West Olympic
Caroline Severance—suffragist, abolitionist and founder-lady several times over—moved her family to Los Angeles in 1875, settling into a Victorian manse on historic West Adams Street. Along with her husband, Theodoric (I promise that’s his name), she founded the Friday Morning Club in 1891 when she was 71 years young. It was LA’s first women’s political club (and sweet Caroline would later become the first woman to register and vote in the State of California in 1911 at the age of 91). In 1899, she broke ground on a two-story clubhouse, which was ultimately razed after her death to make room for the five-story Italian Renaissance Revival building that stands today. The building had offices, lounges, a library, dining room, art gallery, 500-seat assembly room and 1200-seat auditorium. The club’s motto is still etched over the entrance: In Essentials Unity – In Non-Essentials Liberty – In All Things Charity.
Louis O. Macloon and his partner in all things, Lillian Albertson, leased that auditorium, called The Playhouse. On May 5, 1924, their first play Romance opened, starring Doris Keane with Will Rogers as emcee. In the house that night were Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille. That same year, Clark Gable is said to have made his acting debut in Romeo & Juliet. Throughout the ’20s, Hollywood screenwriters penned original plays that featured silent and talkie talent alike—early greats like Pauline Frederick, Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Mackaye (actress and former felon), Laurel & Hardy regular Mae Busch and horror-man Dwight Frye. In the ’30s, The Playhouse hosted badass lady speakers like Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Parker (swoon). Plus, comedy was always a constant: Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante all performed there, to name but a funny few.
Since then, the venue has changed names many times. It’s been the Times Theater, the Figueroa Playhouse and finally, the Variety Arts Center in 1977, so named by William Larsen of Magic Castle fame. In its heyday, the Friday Morning Club was a major hub for vaudeville in the United States. And though not many know it, vaudeville did just as much to establish Hollywood as the movie business—after all, the first slate of stars cut their teeth on a variety stage first, and the silver screen second. And to think, they were all just a stone’s throw from Hotel Figueroa.
LOS ANGELES CONVENTION CENTER
At Figueroa & Pico
WILSHIRE GRAND CENTER
At Figueroa & Wilshire
And not to be outdone, reigning record-holder US Bank Tower has just added an exterior glass slide that shuttles you from the 70th floor to the 69th, where you can take in the views from California’s largest open-air observation deck—if you dare.
At Figueroa Between West 4th & 5th
South Grand & West 2nd
The “veil”—a honeycomb-like casing that spans the gallery and filters in natural daylight—surrounds the vault. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, the 120,000-square-foot building houses two floors of gallery space and doubles as the headquarters for the Broad Art Foundation’s global lending library.
Built by billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad, the museum is part of a much grand-er plan to develop Grand Avenue into its own cultural district, which includes the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street and the Walt Disney Concert Hall next door…
WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL
South Grand & West 2nd
Inside, the lobby—a “living room for the city” bathing in light—creates a symbolic bridge between everyday life and the inner sonic sanctum. At the building’s core is a 2,265-seat, Douglas fir-lined auditorium with steeply raked seating surrounding an Alaskan yellow cedar stage. Here, there are no balconies, boxes or even proscenium arches—because former Executive Director Ernest Fleishchmann believed that those kinds of things got in the way of the experience. Wherever you sit here, you’ll feel like you’re directly in conversation with the orchestra.
In the courtyard, a small garden with a rose fountain creates a lovely oasis. Dedicated to benefactor Lillian Disney and made from broken pieces of Delft China (her favorite), the fountain is a source of beauty and peace. Gehry named it: “A Rose for Lilly.”
JOHN FERRARO BUILDING
South Hope & West 1st
South Grand & West 1st
CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY OF THE ANGELS
North Grand & Temple
Our Lady of the Angels lies at the heart of the city, alongside the Hollywood Freeway, which Moneo saw as LA’s “river of transportation.” The various buildings on 5.6 acres recall the Franciscan missions of California’s past. The church itself is a contemporary masterpiece with almost no right angles—and a concrete design so intricate that the margin of error was only 1/16 of an inch. Moneo used plain yet beautiful materials: colored concrete evoking the sun-baked adobe walls of the Missions, alabaster, wood, stone and bronze. You enter the building (on the south side, not the center) through huge bronze doors cast by sculptor Robert Graham. A 50-foot concrete cross “lantern” hangs at the front of the cathedral, illuminated at night through glass-protected alabaster windows.
Elsewhere, the main building on the grounds features works of art from local artists (something we appreciate). The outdoor plaza is an oasis with three fountains: the Gateway Pool, Jerusalem Fountain and Meditation Garden Fountain. You see, Moneo wanted people to find something more than worship in this space—and if you visit, you just might too.
LOS ANGELES CITY HALL
West Temple & North Spring
South Broadway & West 3rd
Wyman most likely executed Hunt’s original design, though we’ll never really know the full truth. The slightly Romanesque exterior is terra cotta brick, and rather unremarkable. The interior, however, is mind blowing. It’s a soaring 50-foot Victorian atrium, which had never before been attempted. But air conditioning had just been invented, which allowed for spaces of this size. The sky-lit atrium also boasts perhaps the first open “bird-cage” elevators, made of wrought iron and powered by steam. The interior may have been inspired by Edward Bellamy’s sci-fi book Looking Backwards, which describes a futuristic building with “a vast hall full of light received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome.” How fitting that the Bradbury Building would later become the darling of sci-fi fans everywhere, thanks to Blade Runner. Because when I think future, I think 1893.
ANGELS FLIGHT RAILWAY
South Hill & West 3rd
LOS ANGELES THEATRE
South Broadway & West 6th
Designed by S. Charles Lee in 1931 (who was inspired by San Francisco’s Fox Theatre), the million-dollar Los Angeles rivaled French Baroque palaces with its six-story lobby and 2,200-seat auditorium. And in 1931, French Baroque was an interesting choice—it was ten years past its moment during a time when Art Deco was all the rage. The façade features huge Corinthian columns adorned with angels, urns and vines, while the Palace of Versailles-based interior boasts mirrors, chandeliers, a crystal fountain and murals that recall Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Los Angeles also had engineering marvels like electric seat-indicators, soundproof “crying rooms,” a ladies’ lounge with sixteen private compartments each in a distinct marble—and a lower lounge where guests could watch the film playing in the main room via a periscope-like system of prisms.
The Los Angeles theatre opened on January 30, 1931, with the world premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The lavish theater attracted Hollywood’s lavish: Professor & Mrs. Albert Einstein, King Vidor, Cecile B. DeMille, Darryl F. Zanuck, Hedda Hopper, Marion Davies and Gloria Swanson. Outside the theatre, more than 25,000 fans gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse. But timing is everything, and “lavish” didn’t gel with the Great Depression, which was in full swing when the theater opened. The old girl changed hands many times after going dark—and finally closed as a movie house forever on April 28, 1994. But in another time, she’ll live forever.
EASTERN COLUMBIA BUILDING
South Broadway & West 9th
And now, my friends, my little tour has come full circle. Pop up West 9th Street about five city blocks, and you’ll be back at Hotel Figueroa. Our tour has spanned more than 100 years of design and what feels like 100 stories, too. Because this is LA, dammit, and even our buildings have stories to tell.‘Til next time,