Art Deco Eastern Columbia Side Trip

Here’s a Side Trip to downtown L.A.’s most celebrated Art Deco building!

You’ve come this far, so why not? Even though Bullocks Wilshire and the Wiltern Theatre/Pellissier Building are often cited as LA’s hallmarks of Art Deco architecture, downtown’s undisputed icon is the Eastern Columbia Building. To see it, take this Side Trip. Other Art Deco gems are here (after all, this is the Jewelry District) as well as two historic department stores and several amazing Broadway theaters, too. Allow about 25 minutes for this Side Trip – more if  you’re in a jewelry-buying mood.

–> From the Oviatt, continue down Olive Street to Seventh Street. Turn left and continue east to Hill Street.

A) Jewelry Theatre Center. At the corner of Hill and Seventh Streets stands the elaborate Greek Revival-style Jewelry Theatre Center, formerly Warner Brother’s Downtown Theatre – and even before that, the Pantages Theatre. Look for the Warner Brothers “WB” shield above the entrance (a diamond now occupies the shield).

Built in 1919 for vaudeville shows, there’s still a theatre inside. If you’re curious, cross the street and wander back past the jewelry counters. You’ll quickly find yourself below the theatre’s proscenium arch. You’re also standing where Barbra Streisand stood for filming a portion of “Funny Girl.” Look up – the balcony seats are still in place.

B) St. Vincent’s Jewelry Center. Across Hill Street (northeast corner of Hill and Seventh) is the St. Vincent’s Jewelry Center, once home to Bullock’s Department Store. The original store went up on Broadway in 1907 and expanded to Hill Street in 1913. Notice the Art Deco-styled façade and marquee here on Hill Street. That 1934 update marked the entrance to Bullock’s Men Store. Just a half block down Seventh Street is the entrance to St. Vincent’s Court – and an interesting cluster of sidewalk eateries.

–> Cross Hill Street, turn right and cross Seventh Street. Continue down Hill Street.

C) Foreman & Clark Building . The first building across the street (#404) is the Foreman & Clark Building, a 1928 structure. Like the Harris & Frank Building, it’s a Curlett and Beelman product. Though not strictly Art Deco it combines both Beaux Arts (horizontal bandings) and Art Deco (vertical and with set-backs) massing. Note the Gothic ornamentation up top.

–> Continue down Hill Street and cross Seventh Street. Continue down Hill and cross Eighth Street.

D) Garfield Building. Another Beelman building stands at the northwest corner of Hill and Eighth: the Garfield Building. This 1929 structure combines Art Deco massing (vertical, setbacks, tower) but adorns itself with Art Nouveau ornamentation from previous decades. Art Nouveau (think Tiffany lamps) favored floral patterns and they abound here with flowers and vines.

–> At Eighth Street turn left and walk east towards Broadway.

E) Broadway Trade Center. You’re walking past the former May Company department store, now the Broadway Trade Center. Look for the “H” signs above the first floor level. Erected in 1908, the store was called “Hamburger’s Department Store” before acquired by The May Company in 1923. The building is the work of Alfred F. Rosenheim, who also did downtown’s Clune’s Theatre (later, the Cameo), and the Herman Hellman Building on Spring Street.

As Quoted…“The escalator, or moving stairway, leading from the main to the second floor, was a leading attraction, and its capacity of 34 a minute was the usual demand made upon it.” Los Angeles Herald, August 11, 1908 on the opening of downtown’s May Company department store – first in the West with an escalator.

F) Union Bank Annex. Look across the street to the left at the boxy, shiny, granite-clad structure labeled “Beaudry.” It’s the Union Bank Annex – a 1957 extension to the former Union Bank. The architect of this “International-style” building? Why, the talented Mr. Claud Beelman!

Though some architects may be associated with particular styles, Beelman’s works flowed smoothly from Beaux Arts to Art Deco and on into International. The fact is, most most architects didn’t follow trends; they created them. Always at the cutting edge – and to some critics, often over that edge – of new looks, new technologies and new techniques, architects worked tirelessly to convince their clients they weren’t just building their buildings, but their legacies.

It’s a Fact…..that although Broadway’s Tower Theatre was the first in town wired for sound, its opening featured the silent movie, “The Gingham Girl.”

It’s not a Fact……that the first motion picture with “talking” segments, “The Jazz Singer,” made its L.A. premiere at the wired-for-sound Tower Theatre. It sure makes for a nice story, though.

As you near Broadway, look for “The May Co.” in the terrazzo at the Eighth Street entrance to the Broadway Trade Center.

–> Stop at the corner of Eighth and Broadway.

G) Tower Theatre. There at the corner rises the elegant little Tower Theatre. Broadway’s narrowest theatre, it opened in 1927 – the first built specifically for “talkies.” It’s also believed to be the first downtown theater to be “air-cooled.” The architect, twenty-eight-year-old Simeon Charles Levi (changed later to S. Charles Lee), also designed the Los Angeles Theatre two blocks up the street as well as the Bruin Theatre in Westwood – just a few of the 400 or so structures attributed to him.

–> Cross Broadway, turn right and continue down the street to the Orpheum Theatre.

H) Orpheum Theatre. The Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, Sally Rand, Judy Garland (Francis Gumm, back then), Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Jack Benny all performed here. So has Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. The Beaux Arts Orpheum Theatre (G. Albert Lansburgh, 1926)  is done up in a Renaissance Revival style with an unusual placement of the theatre to the side, rather than behind, the main entrance.

The Orpheum (that’s the “O” in “RKO”) moved around a bit downtown. They first operated a non-ciruit venue on Main Street in the early 1880s, opening a theatre on Spring Street (1888) and then moving onto Broadway into what is today’s Palace (1911). Today’s Opheum, the fourth and final in the city, opened in 1926 at the peak of the silent-movie era and made it through the talkies, wide-screen, 3-D, Cinemascope eras, finally closing in 2001 – but only for a while. Owned by Steve Needleman (the Needleman family has owned the theatre since 1964), a major restoration took place. Most agree that the venue hasn’t looked this good in 50 years.

Its organ, the “Wurlitzer, Style 240 Special, Opus 1821” (image right), was installed two days before Christmas, 1927. It remains the last original theatre organ on Broadway and one of only three in Southern California. Far above the organ are the 37 sound-proofed (?) live/work lofts: the Orpheum Lofts.

The Los Angeles Conservancy hosts their “Last Remaining Seats” program each year at this and other Broadway theatres.

–> From the Orpheum, look across Broadway to the left. 

I) Eastern Columbia Building. No doubt you’ve spotted this colorful building from far up the street – the Eastern Columbia Building. No matter the weather, the structure’s brilliant turquoise, blue and gold terra cotta will be striking. A neon clock, restored and relit in 2005, perches near the top of the building just below the decorative flying buttresses that brace a central smokestack. And it all gets better as you get closer.

Completed in 1930, the Claud Beelman-designed building featured a ground floor and mezzanine devoted to the owners’ flagship department stores: Eastern Outfitting, selling appliances and home furnishings (they got their start selling clocks) on one side of the central entrance hall, and Columbia Outfitting, purveyors of clothing, linens and accessories across the hall. The remainder of the building was devoted to offices.

Anchoring downtown’s southern limits, the turquoise building was – and is – visible for miles around. The gold color you see is real; it is gold dust – some $25,000 worth of it – a tidy sum in 1930 depression-era dollars.

The Sieroty family, owners of what was once 39 stores in the Southland closed the store in 1956 and within two years the lower floors had been converted to offices and the mezzanine level removed. A 2007 conversion has brought 147 loft condos to the 13-story building; some residences boast 14-foot ceilings. You can’t see from here but tenants have a rooftop pool, sundeck, cabanas, barbeque pit, fitness room – and incredible downtown views.

–> Before getting closer to the Eastern Columbia Building, take a look next door.  

J. Ninth & Broadway Building. Yet another design of Claud Beelman, this 1930 building (he was a busy guy!) offers some interesting exterior orna-mentation – mostly in the Art Nouveau style. Go inside and knock on the walls marble panels. What you thought was marble proves to be a faux marble finish. The ceiling used to be covered by a 1950s-era drop ceiling. And note the unusual use of roman numerals above the Art Nouveau elevator doors – and the original interior walls of the elevators.

–> From the Ninth & Broadway Building cross Broadway and get a closer view of the Eastern Columbia Building entrance.

Photo-op! The vestibule of the Eastern Columbia just has to be photographed!

While you’re here, try to guess the purpose of the eyelet-like protrusions you see above the first floors on the corner buildings at this intersection. Look carefully. They were installed to support steel cables that were strung across the street. From those cables hung the electrical wires from which streetcars gained their power. The streetcars are gone but…

Streetcars may be returning to downtown Los Angeles – soon! GoLAstreetcar is on track, as it were, to get things rolling again. Click here for more information about bringing streetcars back to downtown L.A. 

 The “Bringing Back Broadway” initiative is moving to revitalize Broadway. Click here for more information about the initiative.

–> Return up this side of Broadway, crossing Eighth and Seventh Streets.

–> At Sixth Street, turn left. Walk one block to Hill Street, turn right and walk one block to the Pershing Square Metro station at the corner of Fifth and Hill Streets.

Your Side Trip and Tour conclude at the station. 

We hope you enjoyed this Side Trip and the “Deco by Metro” tour!

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