7th and metro

What makes this tour important? If you’re one of those skeptics who wonders if L.A. really has a downtown, do this tour – on a weekday, if you can. You’ll see downtown at its busiest, most “corporate,” most city-like. Though short on museums and parks, this part of town is big on high-rises, restaurants and pedestrians.

Tour Essentials

Tour Starts: 7th Street/Metro Center station. There are three subway exits; look for the station exit marked “To Figueroa Street.” That exit puts you at the corner of 7th and Figueroa Streets, where the tour begins. See Map

Tour Ends: 7th Street/Metro Center Station

How to Get There: If you’re coming from any distance, there are 3 options:

By Rail: Take Metrorail! The tour starts at the 7th Street/Metro Center station exit, smack in the middle of downtown. From the platform, follow the signs to “Figueroa Street” See http://www.metro.net/ for rail transit maps, fares, trip planner and station locations nearest to you. Metrolink and Amtrak trains provide easy connections to Metrorail via downtown’s Union Station.

By Bus: See http://www.metro.net/

By Car: Parking is available but expensive at any time and any day, though flat rate fees are generally available in lots south of 7th Street on weekends. On Sundays, street parking is generally available and free. Of all WalknRideLA tours, this is one where taking rail to your tour is most recommended.

Tour Length: Just about 2 hours – a bit more if you take time to take in the views atop City Hall or relax in the pedestrian-friendly courtyards.

Optional Side Trips: There are just two…

  • Bonaventure Hotel & Bunker Hill: 30 minutes
  • Eastern Columbia Building: 30 minutes

How Much Walking? About 2 miles total – all of it over relatively flat terrain.

Tour Cost: Once you’re downtown, nothing.

When to Go: More than any other WalknRideLA tour, this one is best taken on a weekday. Sure, on a weekend you’ll see all the buildings listed, but you’ll get into precious few. Plus, there ‘s that issue of weekday energy – busy sidewalks and restaurants filled with suits, salespeople and shoppers – that’s almost totally lacking on weekends. That being said, better to see it than skip it! As with most WalknRideLA tours, the best time to begin the tour is mid- or late-morning between 10 am – 11 am with a mid-tour break for lunch or a snack.

Where to Eat: Click here for ideas and suggestions.

You Can Combine This Tour With:

  • Pershing Square Tour (Part 1 or 2): About 2-3 hours. Follow directions at the end of “The Tour.”
  • Pico/LA Live! Tour: About 1.5 hours. Follow directions at the end of “The Tour.”

 This tour is wheelchair accessible.

Some Background

For a little history on the 7th Street and metro Center – please click here.

The Tour
View 7th Street/Metro Center – Main Tour in a larger map

–> The 7th Street/Metro Center station has 3 exits: one to Figueroa, one to Flower and one to Hope. Follow signs “To Figueroa Street.” Ascend the two levels to the street corner at Figueroa and Seventh Streets.

On the way up the final escalator, check out the ceiling murals (“City Above,” Terry Schoonhoven, 1990). Among downtown’s major office buildings, look for the panel with the headless man; another shows a transient (the artist’s self-portrait).

7th Street was once downtown’s prime shopping venue. It’s still fairly busy with the 7+Fig and Macy’s Plaza here but it’s nothing like it was back in the 1920s – 1960s when most every major department and specialty store claimed a piece of real estate somewhere along the street. Robinson’s, Bullock’s, Dearden’s, Brock’s (the “Tiffany’s of California”), and Coulter’s rubbed shoulders, as did the shoppers. Before shopping malls there were streets like Seventh where it all came together. Shops and shoppers rubbed  shoulders with restaurants and movie theaters (7th had two: the State and Warner’s; Broadway intersected with a half-dozen more within a block or two).

When World War II ended, Los Angeles – like most every city across the nation – experienced a huge suburban push. Though L.A. was always a city of suburbs, this was different. By now, cars – not streetcars – were the preferred and affordable means of transportation. And all roads led not to downtown (like the streetcars) but to the regional malls. In the ’50s a new one seemed to open every month. Really, why battle traffic to the downtown Bullock’s, Broadway, Robinson’s or May Company whent their branches in Century City, Crenshaw, the Miracle Mile, Pasadena, the Valley, or Westwood were closer, had free and easy parking and just as much choice?

–> Look up at the tower above you.

Figueroa Tower. 660 S. Figueroa Street.  A. C. Martin Partners, 1989

Though maybe you’re too close to notice, French chateau meets Postmodern here on the corner. Locals may remember the bold mosaic murals that decorated the region’s Home Savings of America buildings. This was one of them, which explains the Italian glass murals by Joyce Kozloff entitled, “Gardens of Villandry and Chenonceaux” (1989). Look closely for the Angels and oranges – appropriate salutes to the city.

–> Walk a few steps down 7th Street and enter the building’s main lobby. Take the elevator to the 6th floor “Sky Lobby.”

Seven floors up doesn’t put you in the sky but the views from this Sky Lobby make it worth the short trip. Outdoors, flapping flags frame a balcony you can stand on, weather permitting. The lobby’s mural, titled “Latitude 34, Longitude 118 – a Southern California Panorama” (Richard Haas, 1990) confirms your downtown location. Incidentally, although the Statue of Liberty encased in Lucite near the elevator is way smaller than the 225-ton one in New York Harbor, both works were created by the same guy: Frederic Auguste Bartholdi.

 

–> Return to the first floor but choose the exit onto Figueroa Street. Turn right and walk up Figueroa.

Engine Company No. 28. 644 S. Figueroa Street. Krempel and Erkes, 1912

To your right is Engine Company No. 28. A restaurant today, it opened its wide doors in 1912 as a firehouse. That was the year the L.A. Fire Department’s horse ownership hit its peak at 160. The first motorized fire truck arrived two years earlier and by1921 the horses were gone. This station closed in the 1960s and given its prime location, faced almost certain demolition. Preservationists managed to save the structure, along with its tin ceiling and firehouse doors. Eventually it became a restaurant; diners at the  restaurant; diners at the back of the restaurant can see the fire pole that led from the second story dormitory.

 

 

 

Directly across Figueroa stands the Wilshire Grand Hotel. The hotel opened its doors in 1952; Ronald Reagan was Master of Ceremonies for the dedication. The Harbor Freeway had just been completed and the hotel was well-positioned to pull in the traffic. Over its 60 year history it has seen five names, opening as the Statler, then renamed the Statler-Hilton, then the Hilton, then the Omni and now the Wilshire Grand. The building picks up its design cues from one of Art Deco’s offshoots – Streamline Modern (think South Beach, Florida). Instead of a vertical emphasis favored by Art Deco, Streamline Modern went for the horizontal. Despite repeated renovations its horizontal “ribbons” of windows are clearly present.

Take a good look; it may not be here much longer. The hotel is slated for demolition in 2012 with two, LED lighted towers (40 and 60 stories) replacing it by 2015. Stay tuned.

Just up from the hotel is the Los Angeles Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Stop in for complimentary advice, brochures and maps.

–> Walk up to Wilshire Boulevard and stop at the corner.

 

Wilshire Boulevard, probably L.A.’s best-known thoroughfare, extends only three blocks to the right, but 16 miles to the left, ending at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.

The downtown portion you see here was once named “Orange Street.” Later it was linked up with a boulevard named for real estate tycoon Henry Gaylord Wilshire. Eventually, through similar link-ups and re-namings, motorists could travel Wilshire all the way to the sea. Until the completion of the 10 Freeway (Santa Monica Fwy) in 1964, Wilshire Boulevard was a prime vehicular route to the Pacific.

It’s a Fact…
In 1949, from downtown to the sea, Wilshire Boulevard could count 14 cafés, 7 grocery stores, 7 laundries, 2 shoe repair outlets, 2 banks, a nightclub and even a liquor store. Not impressed? We’re just counting the “drive-ins.”

–> At Wilshire Boulevard, turn left, crossing Figueroa Street.

To the right is the handsome, 53-story Figueroa at Wilshire structure (A.C. Martin and Associates, 1990). Its green cascades of glass pour down between its coral-colored granite sides giving it a decidedly “Retro Deco” look. The building rises on the site of the former St. Paul’s Cathedral, erected in 1924 and demolished in 1979.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

–> Continue past the Wilshire Grand Hotel entrance to Francisco Street. Cross Francisco Street.

1000 Wilshire. 1000 W. Wilshire Boulevard. Langdon Wilson and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, 1987.

Quick – count the number of floors in this building.  Seven? Eight? Nope – not even close. A lot of architects will work to exaggerate height or floor counts but this structure, sometimes called the city’s first Post Modern skyscraper, worked to conceal its 22-story height.

–> Enter the building’s lobby.

Art Deco touches are everywhere. A plaza at the south side of the building offers a perch above Seventh Street with some prime views of downtown.  

–> Retrace your steps back out to Wilshire Boulevard. Turn left and walk to a point midway over the 110 (Harbor) Freeway.

If your visit is at mid-day, you’re likely looking at a freeway. Any other time the view might more resemble a parking lot. The first stretch of this freeway was completed in 1952 – a short segment running south from the Four Level Interchange (“Four Hour Interchange” as some affectionately call it) to Third Street. Segment by segment, year by year, the freeway grew but it wasn’t until 1970 that the entire highway was complete. From where you’re standing, it extends south 23 miles to San Pedro. You may notice the abandoned “pull outs” along the freeway – remnants of a failed attempt to provide bus stops along the busy route. You might also spot the Caltrans closed-circuit cameras – there are over a thousand of them in the state – that monitor vehicular movement.

Although there are a few tall buildings west of the freeway, efforts to expand downtown in that direction have been resisted. Though just a block wide, the 10-lane freeway carves a divide through the city that’s psychogical as well as physical. Cross that magical divide and you’re out of “downtown,” despite the “City West” designation. It seems apartments and lofts are having a better go of it in City West than offices.

It’s a Fact…

You can ride your bicycle on freeways in California – but only on some freeways. The state has over 4,000 miles of freeways and incredible as it sounds, you can ride your bike on a thousand of them. Those miles are almost exclusively in rural areas where there are no alternate routes.

–> Walk back along Wilshire Boulevard. Cross Francisco Street and at Figueroa Street, turn left and cross Wilshire Boulevard.

Feel free to walk around the Figueroa at Wilshire‘s plaza and into its lobbies – an impressive space. Security limits your wanderings inside but you’ll appreciate how the building relates nicely to its site. Outside, the tall water sculpture (“L.A. Prime Matter,” Eric Orr, 1991) mimicks the building’s cascade effect. WET (Water Entertainment Technologies) – the same outfit that built fountains all over town (and at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas) engineered this one. Light and fire used to shoot from the 32-foot-tall bronze towers at night.

–> Cross Sixth street and continue up Figueroa to the Manulife Plaza.

On the way, to the left, you’ll pass by the Jonathan Club. The architect team Schultze and Weaver designed the building, completed in 1924. They’re also designed this city’s Biltmore Hotel and Subway Terminal Building and New York’s Waldorf Astoria. It went up during the heyday of the Beaux Arts style, here reflecting an Italian Renaissance look. (Read more about Beaux Arts later in the tour at the Pacific Center.) Above the entrance hang the Stars and Stripes and the California State Flag.

The social club, ranked as one of the most prestigious in the nation, was founded in 1895 primarily by Republicans in support of presidential nominee William McKinley. Membership was resticted; the first female and African-American members weren’t admitted until 1987. Club perks include a beach club location in Santa Monica and a gas station down below – the latter a major plus during the 1970s gas rationing. Their restaurant also gets good reviews.

Standing in stark contrast to the club is their garage next door (#515 Figueroa Street), completed in 1954. It’s designed by Earl T. Heitschmidt in the Corporate Modern style popular from the late 1940s through the 1950s.

 It’s a Fact:

Often called the “Bear Flag,” the California State Flag was designed by William C. Todd, whose aunt was none other than Mary Todd Lincoln – wife of our 16th president. The bear symbolizes courage. A flag bearing a bear was first waved by couragious nationalists who declared the “California Republic” following the defeat of Mexican forces in 1846. The “republic” lasted all of about 23 days when California was annexed as a U.S. terrtitory.

–> Continue up Figueroa Street to Fifth Street.

On the left is the Manulife Building (AC Martin Partners, 1982) and its plaza. While on the subject of bears, here are three of them doing what bears do best: eating. The sculpture is by Christopher Keene (“Salmon Run,” 1982). Manulife Financial is a Canadian company, a factor in their selection of the Canadian sculpture as well as the subject matter.

On the right side of the street is the back side of City National Plaza. It’s interesting to compare its “boxy” look so prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s with the Manulife Building’s not-so-boxy look, courtesy of the latter’s variable set backs. You’ll get a better look at City National Plaza from the Flower Street side later in the tour. To the left, out across the freeway in the distance is the 12-story home of L. A. Center Studios. Born the home for Unocal the oil company back in 1957, the building sat empty when the firm moved to new headquarters in El Segundo in 1996 (they’ve since merged with Chevron). But in 1999 L.A. Center Studios arrived in town, took over the building, added six, 18,000 square foot sound stages and became the first downtown L.A. film studio in 70 years. Click here to see what the studio’s been up to since then.

 –> Cross Fifth Street to the northwest corner of Figueroa and Fifth Streets to the Union Bank Building.

Union Bank Building. 445 S. Figueroa Street. AC Martin Partners, Harrison & Abramovitz, 1968

This building makes for an excellent example of the modern skyscraper. But we’re pausing here not to comment on it’s style so much as it’s history. Here’s why: for one year, 1968, it was the tallest building in Los Angeles – taller even (by a whopping 62 feet) than City Hall, a building that held the title for 40 years. Plus, it had the height of Bunker Hill to add to its prominence.

That prominence was short-lived when 611 Place (then called Crocker Center and later named the AT&T Tower) arrived, topping it by 104 feet. But its most important “first” was being the first high-rise to atop Bunker Hill – part of the city’s massive urban development project. A glance up Figueroa Street confirms it wasn’t the last. The B/W photo above (by Julius Schulman) illustrates the short-lived mix of the old and the new atop Bunker Hill.

The Union Bank Building was also the fourth building in the city center to exceed 1911’s 150-foot height limit, lifted in 1957. City Hall (1928) was exempted from the ordinance by popular vote. The U.S. Courthouse (1940) was exempt from the municipal ordinance because it was a federal building. Then came the United California Bank Building on Spring Street (1960) – the first downtown structure to exceed the limit after it was lifted. Then came this one, the Union Bank Building. (The Transamerica Building, though completed in 1965, was way down on 12th Street, outside downtown’s core.)

Lifting the height restriction didn’t mean the sky was the limit on L.A. skyscrapers. That ordinance was replaced with floor area density restrictions, more in line with what most other cities had in place. Essentially, the more property you own, the higher you can go – but your building’s footprint on that property has to be smaller and smaller, the taller and taller you go. The result is what you see all over L.A.’s “new” downtown – tall, slim buildings and lots of open plazas around them – like this one at the Union Bank Building. If you’d like, go on up the escaltor that leads to the plaza. It’s a nice, tree-shaded area with some interesting fountains and public art.

–> Turn right and cross Figueroa to the Bonaventure Hotel.

Westin Bonaventure Hotel. 404 S. Figueroa Street. John Portman and Associates, 1978.


Have you seen the Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn 1977 classic, “High Anxiety“? You know, the movie where Brooks’ character, though suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights) has to ascend to the hotel’s top floor in a glass elevator, then pick his way to his room along the open hallway overlooking the immense atrium? Well, the movie wasn’t filmed here; it was shot at another John Portman-designed hotel: the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco. But it looks a lot like this one.  It seems today most every modern hotel features the obligatory atrium – heck, shopping malls and even cruise ships have them now – but back in the day they were dazzling innovations.

From the street it’s hard to take in much more than a lot of cement topped by cylinders of glass. From a distance the structure suggests a mighty, if stubby, Saturn rocket, four extra fuel tanks strapped to its side. But it’s the inside experience that is meant to stay with you. Whereas the trend today is to open interiors to the street, connect with pedestrians and draw them in, this building would have none of that. You arrive, walk in the door and bam! There it is, a soaring atrium to the sky with elevators silently sliding up and down its interior.

Some would add that you arrive, walk in and bam! You’re lost. Its open lobby and five cylinders necessitate a maze of ramps, balconies, elevator lobbies and hallways but purists to the cause maintain that’s precisely the desired effect: an unpredictable space that commands your attention.

Side Trip

Side Trip to Bonaventure adventure! Click here to explore the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Bunker Hill.

–> From the corner of Fifth and Figueroa Streets, turn right and continue to Flower Street.

The gray building straight ahead is the Citibank Center (Albert C. Martin, 1981). If it looks familiar mabye it’s because 20 years ago it opened the drama, “L.A. Law.” Despite the building’s relative boxiness, it features a substantial amount of public art and some comfortable gardens for the lunch-time crowd.

–> Cross Flower, turn right and cross Fifth to the L.A. Central Library. Continue down Flower to the steps that form the western entrance to the library.

Los Angeles Central Library. 630 W. Fifth Street. Bertram Goodhue, 1926

 

Landscaped by Lawrence Halprin (who also did the Bunker Hill Steps) and installed with sculptures by Jud Fine, Maguire Gardens presents a fitting entrance to the library. Collectively, the sculptures here are called “Spine” (1993). Think about it: the spine is an extension of the brain providing not just skeletal strength and support but also a conduit for learning. By extension, a book’s spine is likewise a vital component of learning.

Don’t miss the step risers leading up to the entrance; they represent the evolution of written language. The very first riser on the first step is blank: the unknown past. The others in this group represent archaic symbols. The next set move into the emergence of writing, the next to printed text and finally, the top bank of risers move into post-literate language (computer codes, scientific equations, etc.). Note that like the first riser, the top riser is blank: the unknown future.

To the right is the “Grotto Fountain,” also the work of Halprin and Fine. It’s a salute to civil liberties with the arch above quoting from Frederick Douglass (see “As Quoted, below) and the 14th amendment.  Also within the park is a replica of the World Peace Bell which hangs at the United Nations in New York City. This bell was cast from coins and medals donated by 103 countries and dedicated in 2001. There’s also a fountain on the north side of the park (Laddie John Dill with Mineo Mizuno, 1993) made of materials indigenous to the soil below ground as well as the buildings above.

Before 1926, the city’s library had bounced around town sharing its address with a saloon, City Hall, a drug store and a men’s clothing store making this 1926 edifice the first city-owned building erected exclusively as a library. L.A. had arrived!

But by the 1970s the library was running out of space. There appeared to be but two options: demolish the existing building and build a new, larger library; or move. Neither option appealed to the city. In fact, the threatened demolition of the library was the “pro-preservation” spark that led to the formation of the Los Angeles Conservancy and other local historic preservation groups.

A solution was found and here’s what happened: Because the low-rise library sits on a huge parcel of downtown land, zoning densities would have permited a huge skyscraper to rise in its place. But instead of that happening, the library remained low-rise, inked a deal whereby its property was annexed to small parcels nearby and it was on those parcels that skyscrapers were built – today’s US Bank and Gas Company Buildings. Overall density remained within allowable limits and everyone was happy – especially the library; it earned over $125 million for the deal, enabling the construction of its necessary expansion – a four-level subterranean extension.

Take a look inside. Be sure to continue through the lobby to the atrium because you’ll want to see that underground extension. That 1993 addition more than doubled the library’s size and in fact, there are more books below ground than above. The addition was named for Mayor Tom Bradley, a major proponent of the library’s reconstruction efforts.

The Rotunda (upstairs, second floor) is stunning. Dean Cornwell was the muralist contracted to create the four panels you see here, each depicting an important era in California history. Being from the east, it’s interesting to note that his version of the American Indian (feathered headresses and all) was far different than those who actually greeted the first Spanish explorers to California.

The one-ton chandelier overhead hangs below a sunburst. Within the chandelier are planets, a moon, the continents and 48 lightbulbs, each representing a state, being that it was installed more than 30 years before Alaska and Hawai’i joined the union.

If you’re from Nebraska you may find familiarity in the library. The architect, Bertrum Goodhue, designed your state capitol (image at right) before his L.A. Library commission. It’s in the same style and both blend sculpture (Lee Lawrie, sculptor for both buildings) with architecture.

In Nebraska, Goodhue capped the capitol with a dome. Here, he chose a pyramid, quite possibly influenced by the just-uncovered tomb of King Tut; black marble sphinxes guard a staircase within the library. The hand-held “Torch of Knowledge” atop the library’s pyramid (left) is a replica. The original, wobbled by the 1994 Northridge quake, stands safely inside.

The library has faced challenges far worse than that earthquake. Pre-reconstruction arson fires (April and September of 1989) destroyed 400,000 volumes – 20% of its collection – as well as all contents of the music department reading room. The set-backs were temporary; today’s collection totals over 6 million books, audio books, periodicals, DVDs and CDs – making this public library the third-largest in the country.

It’s a Fact…

The Los Angeles Public Library conducts 1-hour, free walk-in tours of the library and grounds. Current schedules are: Tuesday – Friday, 12:30 pm; Saturday, 11:00 am & 2:00 pm. For more information: http://www.lapl.org/central/tours.html

Restrooms are located near the north entrance hall.

–> Exit the library through the same door you entered. Turn left and take a look at the building’s south side.

Once again you can see how beautifully the architect and sculptor combined their talents. The piers – you could say they’re the Art Deco era’s equivalent of Beaux Arts columns – are capped by busts of significant figures through the years. In order, left to right are Herodotus (history), Virgil (letters, or writing), Socrates (philosophy), Justinian (statecraft, or government), Da Vinci (the arts) and Copernicus (science).

–> Return to the library’s west-facing entrance and descend the steps back to Flower Street. Look directly across the street.

City National Plaza (former ARCO Plaza). 515-555 S. Flower Street. AC Martin Partners, 1972

Consisting of two nearly identical towers (Paul Hastings on the right, City National to the left), the buildings are excellent examples of the Corporate International style so prevalent from the mid-1950s into the 1970s. The term “Corporate International” is apt; these office buildings could be placed anywhere in the world and feel right at home. Their function is to provide efficient space for efficient office workers in an efficient business world. Form follows function!

Impressive when  they went up, today many may find it challenging to love them. But we have to respect the purity and honesty of their style. There are no flashy columns or piers, no carved cornices or arches, no reference to Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Moors, dynastic China, the Aztecs, the Renaissance, or colonial Spain here. No non-functional ornamentation. There’s not even a reference to L.A.’s history or its site. These towers could be just as happy in Hamburg or Hong Kong. And that’s precisely the point.

But purity and honesty aside, we may find it even harder to love them if you knew what they replaced: the iconic black and gold Art Deco Richfield Building of 1928 (postcard, left). Demolished in 1968, all that remains on site are that building’s elevator lobby doors – now presented as sculpture below the Paul Hastings tower on the right. Also lost was the lesser-known Architect’s Building (Dodd & Richards, 1928), a handsome Art Deco structure standing at the southeast corner of Fifth and Figueroa Streets. But it was the loss of the Richfield Building and the threatened loss of the Library ten years later that helped form the forces of preservation we have today. Times and tastes change, trends come and go but controlled growth – a respect for the best of the past coupled with the economic realities of the present – seems the way to go.

Who knows? Future generations may be pausing here to study the magnificence of these Corporate International towers, thankful for those who worked to save them.

You can’t miss the orange sculpture in the middle of the plaza. Entitled “Double Ascension” (Herbert Bayer, 1973), it stands in stark contrast to the dark, dark green granite of the towers above. Austrian-born Bayer (1900 – 1985),  an advocate of Germany’s Bauhaus movement which transited into the Corporate International style, chose this site for this work. Some say that Bayer, a one-time employee of ARCO (he designed their logo and corporate branding) chose the name “Stairway to Nowhere” for the work. ARCO, owner of the 52-story towers, was not impressed and the name was changed.

Moving to the United States in the late 1930s, Bayer retired to Santa Barbara where a collection of his works can be seen at the Santa Barbara Museum.  The sculpture appeared prominently in the 1976 movie, “Marathon Man,” and more recently in the movie “Pretty Woman” and the TV series “Heroes.”

–> Continue down Flower Street.

Next door to the library is the California Club (Robert Farquahar, 1930), the second oldest private club in Southern Califorinia. Established in 1887, the California Club, like the Jonathan Club, admitted only men through its doors; women and African-Americans were not permitted membership until 1987.

The architect, also a club member, chose a warm-colored Roman brick to face the relatively streamlined Italian Renaissance Revival structure. Terraced roof greenery further softens the building – quite a strong contrast to the California Bank Plaza across the street.

California Club members have included the L.A. Times publisher Otis Chandler; the city’s first oil tycoon, Edward Doheny; and former mayor Richard Riordan. One member and California State Senator, Robert N. Bulla, proposed that the state be divided north from south, with the name “Los Angeles” given to the southern half. His 1907 proposal (there had been dozens before and since) failed.

–> Continue down Flower Street.

These two blocks, from Fifth to Seventh, were once home to three major oil companies: Richfield (later, ARCO), Superior, and General Petroleum (later Mobil). All have since merged and moved away. But with the exception of the Richfield Building, their buildings remain.

Standard Hotel (former Superior Oil Building). 550 S. Flower Street (at 6th Street). Claud Beelman, 1956

 

A hotel – The Standard – now lives within the walls of the former Superior Oil Company Building, completed in 1956 and designed by Claud Beelman of Eastern Columbia Building fame – a Side Trip there is included on this tour. A 2002 renovation created today’s smart and oh-so-chic hotel – a creative example of adaptive reuse.

Do not adjust your monitor, the “Standard” sign is upside down – not the hotel!

Although this box fits comfortably within what’s called the Corporate Modern style, Beelman’s building reveals its Art Deco roots with strong, protruding, vertical piers and recessed windows and spandrels (the panels above and below the windows). But lacking set-backs, a tower or a spire (so much a part of the Art Deco style) the building is squat and square. Upside down or rightside up, it looks about the same!

Go on inside – the 1950s interior is largely intact. Check out the world clocks on the wall and the oil well silhouette artistry above the entry door (image, right). For some great downtown skyline views, walk around to the right to the main escalators. Go up one floor and board the elevator to the 12th floor roof-top bar – open for business from noon onwards; you may decide to return here after your tour. The red “pods” (barely visible in the picture above) are for serious relaxation.

–> From the Standard Hotel, walk to the corner of Flower and Sixth Street.

Pegasus (former General Petroleum/Mobil Oil Building). 612 S. Flower Street (at Wilshire Blvd.) Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket, 1949

The building ahead at the corner is another example of adaptive reuse. The 1949 structure was the home of General Petroleum and later, Mobil Oil. Designed by Wurdeman and Beckett, its innovative construction allowed for modular, movable, interior walls enabling office sizes and shapes to be changed – overnight. Fifty-five years later that floor plan flexibility came in mighty handy when it was converted to a 322-unit apartment building. It’s called The Pegasus, whose tenants have the use of a lap pool, sundeck, and a garden and fitness center. Mr. Becket went on to design the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood (see WalknRideLA‘s  “Hello Hollywood” tour).

It’s a Fact…

Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, has been the logo of Mobil Oil (now merged with ExxonMobil) since the 1930’s. The Mobil Oil Building was converted to residences but the logo lives on!

–> Turn left and continue east along Sixth Street to Hope Street.

AON Center. 707 Wilshire Boulevard. Charles Luckman, 1973

Look to the right – and then up. That’s the International-style (think: glass box), 62-story AON Building, the city’s tallest until the US Bank Tower took the title in 1990.

Count twelve floors up and you’re looking at where a late-night fire broke out in 1988 – a fire which engulfed five floors, raged for over 4 hours, injured 40 (mostly firefighters) and killed one hapless maintenance worker whose elevator doors opened onto the burning 12th floor lobby. Improved fire safety regulations followed the fire. Ironically, a sprinkler system was being installed at the time of the inferno.

A 2008 renovation altered the lobby level of the building, adding a glass curtain wall to admit more light into a new interior garden and coffee shop. Maybe it also helps make the 858-foot structure a bit more pedestrian friendly. But online comments suggest the new glassy entrance looks more like a Pinkberry yogurt outlet or an Apple store. You decide.

The name “Aon” is not an acronym – it’s actually a Gaelic word meaning “oneness.” However, this “oneness” building has had no less than five names: United California Bank Building, First Interstate Tower, Wells Fargo Tower, and 707 Wilshire Boulevard. Other buildings designed by or in partnership with Luckman include L.A.’s CBS Television City, opening in 1952, Boston’s Prudential Tower (1964) and New York’s Madison Square Garden (1968).

–> Cross Hope Street and continue to Grand Avenue.

To the left, up Hope Street, you should have a good view of the Central Library’s pyramid roof. Straight ahead to the left is 611 Place.  Here’s another building whose name changes have helped keep L.A. sign makers in business. Opening in 1969 as the Crocker Bank Tower (William L. Pereira, architect), it was briefly the tallest in the city at 620 feet and 42 stories. No doubt you’ve seen the Theme Building at LAX or the iconic Transamerica Building in San Francisco; they’re also Pereira buildings. He teamed with Charles Luckman to design the Disneyland Hotel  (1955) the CBS Televison City (1952) noted earlier.

The unusual, cruciform shape of the building adds distinction – as well as plenty of coveted corner offices – to the structure. To many locals it’s still known as the AT&T Building, its name for decades. Though renamed 611 Place, plans to convert the upper floors of the now-vacant building to residences appears stalled.

On the other corner (Sixth and Hope) is Library Court Lofts, a 2006 live-work conversion. What in 1922 was the private University Club was demolished and replaced with a savings bank in the mid-1950s. Today, that bank is home to 90 units with a “zen” bamboo garden and rooftop lounge.

Note the little Harten Building at #614, wedged in next to the Library Court Lofts. Designed by John and Donald Parkinson and completed in 1927, it’s one of the smallest buildings downtown and the smallest designed by the father and son team – arguably the biggest, most prolific architects of their time. It’s empty and available!

Next door is the Milano Lofts. The architectural firm Walker & Eisen designed the 1925 structure, then known as the Edwards & Wildey Building, after the construction firm “Edwards, Wildey & Dixon Fireproof Building Company” who built the building and had their offices here. The Renaissance Revival-style building  is clad in Granitex, a form of terra cotta that registers to pedestrians as stone.

Albert Walker and Percy Eisen designed over two dozen Los Angeles buildings, two more of which you’ll see on this tour. Today’s Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel (where Richard Gere employed Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” the Taft Building in Hollywood where Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers had offices and the Texaco Building where D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks opened their United Artists Theatre on Broadway – all were works of Walker & Eisen. You’ll see two more of their works coming up on this tour.

–> Cross Grand Avenue, turn right and cross Sixth Street. Walk left along Sixth to a point centered directly across the street from the Pacific Center’s entrance.

Pacific Center. 523 W. Sixth Street. Dodd and Richards, 1921

Except for a two-foot granite-faced base, most of what you see, from the arched entrance up to the columned upper floors of this 12-story Beaux Arts building is terra cotta. Carved blocks of “stone,” capitals, columns, pediments, decorative belt lines – all done in the very versatile material.

Beaux Arts is not so much a style as an organization. Think  of the tripartite organization of a Greek or Roman column: base, shaft and capital. Now look at this building. Its “base” consists of three floors, visibly strengthened by stone blocks. (Actually, those blocks are a terra cotta cladding, deeply-carved to convey the impression of strength – called “rustication”). Above the base rises an almost uninterrupted “shaft” of seven floors. Finally, at the top, a two-story “capital” crowns the building with dramatic Corinthian columns, recessed windows and a massive cornice.

The style within a Beaux Arts building varies; here we have Renaissance Revival, the most common in downtown Los Angeles. You saw a similar style at the the Jonathan Club, earlier on the tour. Look back at the Milano Lofts and you’ll see another Beaux Arts structure, also wearing Renaissance Revival clothes but with a slight Romanesque flair. Distinctive features include rounded arches, seen here above the 3rd, 4th, 10th, 12th and 13th floor windows; and a more frequent use of belt courses (those horizontal bandings that wrap around the building). Yet still, the Beaux Arts tripartite organization remains. You’ll see a solidly-Romaneque Revival building at the end of this tour: the Fine Arts Building. Other popular Beaux Arts styles we see in Los Angeles are Italianate and Spanish Colonial Revival. Beaux Arts arrived in Los Angeles in the 1890s, had a good run, but by the late-1920s was eclipsed by the latest rage: the all-new Art Deco (then called “Modern”) style.

Just about every design component of classical archtecture (that would include Beaux Arts) has a name so if you don’t know your astragal from your elbow, this glossary of classic design will help.

Back to the building: Look above that arched entry at the two allegorical figures. Between them stands a stately redwood tree, a symbol of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company, owners of the building. They moved to larger quarters in Newport Beach in 1972. The redwood represented strength and longevity – important qualities to the San Francisco-based company whose headquarters were destroyed in that city’s 1906 quake.

Arriving in L.A. in 1908 (the L.A. Chamber of Commerce had touted this city’s relative earthquake safety, in part due to its soft, riverbed sub-soils!) they built and moved into the short, six-story building you see on the corner to the right. It was designed by John Parkinson and his partner, Edwin Bergstrom and stood as the first commercial structure lining Pershing Square, which was then mostly surrounded by private homes and empty lots.

The 1908 structure was expanded a few years later but a major came in 1936. In that year it took on the “Monumental Modern” (something of a sub-set of Art Deco) clothes you see today. The Parkinsons (John was by then joined by his son Donald) stripped off the Corinthian columns, lowered the first floor to make it more pedestrian friendly and re-clad it in the style of the times. But from the street, look carefully at the building’s left backside and you’ll find portions of the original construction intact. The image at left depicts the insurance building as it looked about 1930.

–> Return to the corner of Sixth Street and Grand Avenue.

–> Cross Sixth, turn right and enter the Pacific Center through the entrance above the redwood tree. (Weekend access is via the side entrance on Grand Avenue.)

Inside, the building is magnificent with its Tavernelle marble stairway and balcony balustrades. Notice the “PMLICo” (Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company) carved into the solid marble newell posts which point the way up to the mezzannine level. Take the marble staircase up to get a good look at Beaux Arts ornamentation. A tell-tale sign of most any Beaux Arts-era building is the popular egg-and-dart motif (see detail, right, center banding). When you see those eggs and darts around town (inside or out) chances are good you’re looking at a Beaux Arts building.

The Los Angeles Conservancy knows how to pick them! Their offices are on the 8th floor of the Pacific Center. All told, there’s 415,000 square feet of office space within the three interconnected buildings. Significant renovations in 1985 and again in 1992 have beautifully maintained this Beaux Arts showcase.

–> Exit the building to Sixth Street, turn left and continue down Sixth to the corner at Olive Street.

Up the street to the left is the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, visited on WalknRideLA‘s “Pershing Square” tour, as is the park itself. To the right is the magnificent Heron Building.

Heron Building (formerly the Pacific Finance Building). 510 W. Sixth Street. Dodd and Richards, 1921

Many rank this building as one of the most beautiful in downtown. Certainly it’s got a prime location, diagonally across from Pershing Square. Notice the Beaux Arts organization, here clad in a Renaissance Revival style. Be sure to check out the intricate brickwork, particularly within the top two floors.

Speaking of cladding, the major purveyor of fine terra cotta for L.A.’s downtown buildings was Gladding, McBean & Company; it’s not surprising that they had offices in this building and up top, a rooftop display garden so that prospective customers could view the terra cotta colors and textures in natural daylight- as they’d appear on their buildings.

The architect Richard Dodd’s background included work in glass and ceramics, no doubt a factor in the stunning façade seen here. He mentored aspiring talent, including Lloyd Wright (Frank’s son) and Julia Morgan, whose early association with Dodd helped realize her design for William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Building – presented on a Side Trip within WalknRideLA‘s “Pico” station tour.

Do you see the eyelet-like fixtures attached to the corner of the building’s second floor? You’ll see similar eyelets at that height on the corners of buildings throughout downtown. They’re remnants of the dense web of streetcar lines serving the region. From those eyelets, support wires were strung across the street and from them hung the catenaries (electrical supply wires) from which the streetcars pulled their power. The photo at right shows a southbound streetcar on Olive Street, soon to make its westbound turn at Sixth, right where you now stand. That streetcar route dates to 1874 (see the “As Quoted” below).

–> Turn right and cross Sixth Street, passing by the Heron Building.

Across the street to your left is the 24-story City National Bank Building (Dan Saxon Palmer & Associates, 1967) the tallest fronting Pershing Square. Because Olive and Hill Streets mark the easternmost border of the “new” downtown (most tall buildings in the city are on Bunker Hill or along the Figueroa and Flower Street corridors) this relatively short building stands out.

Before casting it off as just another “box” dating from the Corporate International-style era (think: UN Building), look again. There are actually two boxes here. One, the multi-story tower; the other, a two-story base shifted to the east of the overhead tower.

–> Continue down Olive Street to the Oviatt Building.

Oviatt Building. 617 S. Olive Street. Walker and Eisen, 1928

Italian Romanesque on the outside, the style is iconic Art Deco on the inside. At the building’s forecourt, sand-etched glass by Lalique (the elevator door panels and the doors leading into the restaurant) and Gaetan Jeannin (the street marquee and the few remaining panels in the original columns and ceiling) speak to the quality of the goods sold within the store. James Oviatt first worked as a window dresser for the Desmonds department store. At that store he met one of their salesmen, Frank Alexander, and together in 1911, they opened their own store, Alexander & Oviatt.

This store on Olive was the third Alexander & Oviatt (though Mr. Alexander passed away in 1921, Mr. Oviatt retained the original name) and decidedly the most upscale men’s store in downtown. Its main floor was devoted to menswear; most of the mezzanine to womens high fashion (the “Salon des Elegances”); and the third floor to Oviatt offices, tailors and fitting rooms. Floors 4 through 11 were rented to businesses and the top two were for the then-bachelor, James Oviatt’s private penthouse. The French firm Saddier et Fils outfitted the Art Deco-styled penthouse which consisted of a parlor, powder room, small library, bedroom, master bathroom, service pantry, dining room, bar and lounge and an outside deck. Just below was the main kitchen (a still-operating dumbwaiter connecting it with the service pantry above), guest rooms, baths and servants quarters.

The open forecourt you’re standing in was once crowded with eighteen display cases, showcasing the latest fashions and well-placed to lure shoppers in off the street. Wealthy clientele included such celebrities as Howard Huges, William Powell, and Leslie Howard. One Los Angeles Conservancy docent recalls a friend who in 1951, on her second day on the job as an Oviatt salesperson, noticed a display of handkershiefs, obviously mismarked at $125. She corrected the price to the more sane $1.25 only later to learn the hand-sewn Belgian lace items had been priced correctly. (That would put them at about $1000  apiece in today’s dollars.) It’s no wonder that to many downtown shoppers “Oviatt’s” was more of a museum than a store – a nice place to to look but not to buy. To those shoppers it earned the nickname “Alexander & Overcharge.”

In 1945 a former Oviatt salesperson, Mary, became Mrs. Oviatt. The bachelor pad became their primary residence though they maintained two horse ranches near Temecula, Mr. Oviatt being a huge horse-racing fan. The store did well through the 1950s but by the 1960s, as clothing styles changed and shoppers took to the new malls, business suffered. The store closed in 1967, some furnishings and fixtures sold off (Bullocks Wilshire has some of the Lalique light fixtures) but they retained the penthouse through Mr. Oviatt’s death in 1974 and his wife’s a year later.

Mr. Oviatt had leased the property from the Catholic Archdiocese and because a few land lease payments had been missed, the church aquired the property following Mrs. Oviatt’s death. The church didn’t know what to do with the property and plans were rumored that they’d demolish it for a parking lot. But in 1977 the development partnership Ratkovich, Bowers & Perez purchased the Oviatt for $400,000 (about the price of 400 of those Belgian handkerchiefs), brought in the architect Brenda Levin and the building went through a $4.5 million renovation. Today it’s regarded as one of the first and most successful historic renovations of its kind in the country.

The former haberdashery is the Cicada Restaurant and the penthouse is available for private functions. You may be able to take a peek into the restaurant (be sure to check first with the on-duty security officer); subject to the building’s event schedule, the Los Angeles Conservancy‘s Art Deco tours gain access to the 13th-floor penthouse.

–> Continue down Olive Street.

One of the several cafeterias from the Clifton’s chain occupied the site at #618 across the street. Like “Clifton’s Brookdale” two blocks east on Broadway, this one, nicknamed the “Golden Rule” cafeteria, entertained diners with organ music and singing wait staff.

At #643 (not pictured) is the 13-story Knickerbocker Club Building. (Kysor & Biggar, 1913). Though remodeled to a characterless form, the building is noted here because one of its architects was Charles Kysor, a son of the architect Ezra Kysor. Kysor senior designed the Pico House and the Merced Theatre (1870) seen on WalknRideLA‘s “Union Station” tour, St. Vibiana’s Cathedral seen on WalknRideLA‘s “Civic Center” tour and the first building on the USC campus, Widney Hall (1879) – coming soon on WalknRideLA‘s “Expo Park/USC” tour, in late 2011. He later partnered with Octavius Morgan who, after Ezra’s retirement, went on to form the team Morgan and Walls. Soon after, a Mr. Clements joined in and Morgan, Walls & Clements went into the history books as one of the city’s most respected architectural firms.

Charles, though not as prolific as his dad, designed this building, the Bryson Apartments on Wilshire Boulevard at Lafayette Park and the Stillwell Hotel which you’ll see later on this tour. (The Bryson has held up the best so we’re showing it here on the left.)

 –> Continue down Olive Street to the corner at Seventh Street.

Speaking of Morgan & Walls, the Beaux Arts building here on the corner at right, Giannini Place, is one of theirs.Completed in 1922 as the Bank of Italy, it was named for one Amadeo Giannini who founded the bank. That financial institution went on to become today’s familar Bank of America; they operated a branch in this building into the 1980s.

The present owners, the Chetrit Group, are not among the most popular landlords in town. They own the 611 Place seen earlier on this tour, the Embassy Auditorium two blocks away and also on this tour, and the Hotel Clark near Pershing Square. All sit vacant (this one for over ten years) with precious little maintenance in evidence. The owners cite the current economic disincentives but area merchants and property owners remain skeptical. Because the building is so large it’s vacancy haunts the corner.

–> Look across Olive Street to the left.

Los Angeles Athletic Club. 431 W. Seventh Street. Parkinson and Bergstrom, 1912

This is the third private club seen on this tour and it’s also the oldest. The club was formed in 1880 when L.A., still a frontier town , counted just 11,000 residents. Putting this in perspective, San Franciso was already the nation’s 9th largest city with a population over 233,000. The L.A.A.C. soon adopted the motto “Health, Recreation, Grace and Vigor.” To that end this 1912 structure includes an indoor, 25-yard lap pool and cutting edge (for its day) resistance training equipment. It’s still the most fitness-focused club downtown with a full-sized basketball court, squash courts; and classes on tai-chi and kickboxing.

Members included the movie stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford (women were welcomed since 1914) and Rudolph Valentino. Likely, because of the excellent swimming pool, the atheletes Duke Kahanamoku (he was the lifeguard), Johnny Weissmuller (he trained for the Olympics here) and Esther Williams (she wanted to compete in the 1940 Olympics but they were cancelled due to the outbreak of war in Europe) joined up, too.


It’s a Fact:

On its founding in 1880, the Los Angeles Athletic Club charged a $5.00 initiation fee and monthly dues of $1.00. Its first president was James B. Lankershim, landowner, banker, businessman, builder and brother of Isaac Lankershim whose name was given to the boulevard in the Valley.

–> Look across Seventh Street to the left.

The former Ville de Paris Department Store (Dodd and Richards, 1917) was just one of dozens of shops and department stores lining Seventh Street, the “Fifth Avenue” of Los Angeles. Up through the 1960s, Seventh was the busiest retail corridor downtown but little by little, the big department store giants (Bullocks, J.W. Robinson, Coulters, Walkers) closed their doors. So did other downtown giants (The Broadway and May Company). Today, only Macy’s Plaza, across from the Figueroa Tower (first stop on this tour) and Deardon’s at Main Street remain.

Yet the street’s strategic location linking the Financial Core with the newly-emerging lofts to the east is compelling. Today, Seventh Street is emerging as downtown’s “Restaurant Row.” You’ll be tempted by a dozen eateries in the next few minutes so this may be a good place to catch a break on your tour.

 –> Look across Seventh Street straight ahead.

The Coulter Dry Goods Company, a downtown fixture since 1878, opened their flagship store here in 1917 (architect unknown). Coulter’s, like most other department stores, followed the shopping trends of its customers, opening branch locations outside of downtown – most famously along Wilshire Boulevard’s “Miracle Mile.”  Those branches eventually became the flagship stores as downtown revenues dropped.  Eventually even those boulevard beauties shuttered as shopping trends shifted to the giant malls of the Westide, Crenshaw, the Valley, Pasadena and elsewhere in the region.

Today, this building with its distinctive rounded corner, is part of the Mandel Lofts. Mandel Shoes occupied the adjacent site within the Charles Henning Building and their name is still embedded in the terrazzo at its former entrance,  giving the 55-unit residential building its name. And it sounds better than “Coulter’s Lofts”!

–> Turn right and continue to the corner at Grand Avenue.

On the right, across the street at #515 is the Brock & Company Building (Dodd & Richards, 1922). Brock & Company Jewelers – the “Tiffanys of California” – owned the entire building, locating its watch and jewelry counters on the ground floor. The second floor was devoted to fine china, crystal and silver. The third floor served as headquarter offices and the top floor was a jewelry workshop, its craftsmen benefitting from a rooftop skylight.

In the 1960s Brock’s retired, sold the building and eventually a Clifton’s Cafeteria branch moved in, opening as the appropriately-named “Silver Spoon.” It closed in ’97 and the building sat vacant for years.

Today there’s a trendy whisky bar, Seven Grand, on the second floor. A new restaurant, Mas Malo, has opened on the first floor. If your visit matches restaurant hours, drop on in and take a look at the original ceiling and murals, still intact through mulitple owners. Portions of the film “Fight Club” were shot here in this building.

At #527 is the Brack Shops Building (Austin & Pennell, 1914). Though some signage identifies the building as “The Collection,” the building’s directory and sidewalk brass letters call it the Brack Shops. The 13-story building still employs elevator operators; one with 45 years on the job, the other with 7 years. Almost half of the businesses within sell furs. The opening credits of the 1947 film noir classic “Possessed,” show its lead, Joan Crawford, passing the building.

At the corner to the left is the Brockman Building (Barnett, Haynes & Barnett, 1912). Rumors persist that silent film star Harold Lloyd hung from a clock atop this building in the 1923 film “Safety Last.”  Lloyd’s grandaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, maintains that a building at 910 S. Broadway (now demolished, across from the United Artists, Theatre) was used to stage the shot. We’re including it here, anyway, as it makes a great picture. Another great shot is the image at right: Grand Avenue and Seventh before the Brockman Building went up. There’s more about the Grand Theatre (in the background, right) coming up on the tour.

It’s a Fact:

Abraham Lincoln wore a Brooks Brothers coat at his second presidential inauguration in 1865. He was wearing the same coat the night he and his wife attended a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C..

Brooks Brothers, the exclusive men’s store, arrived town in 1939, taking up residence at the Pacific Mutual Building (today’s Pacific Center seen earlier on this tour). They didn’t stay long, moving to the Roosevelt Building on Seventh Street, then here to the Brockman in 1965, then to Figueroa and Sixth Streets in 1989. They’d hoped to move again, this time into the new $3 billion Grand Avenue project, but citing that project’s stalled development and an expiring lease, Brooks Brothers closed its downtown shop in March of 2010. They still have stores in Beverly Hills and Century City.

What eventually replaced it is the popular restaurant, Bottega Louie, opening in 2009. Those big Brooks Brothers store windows allow diners a great spot for people-watching. The building remains a classic example of the Beaux Arts organization.

Straight ahead is yet another hopeful sign of Seventh Street’s resurgence – not as a shopping corridor but as a restaurant corridor: Chipotle Mexican Grill. The arrival of the restaurant – and others like it – assumes they’ve all done their due diligence and anticipate their cash registers to be busy. That’s the Brockman Building reflected in the glass-faced building housing the restaurant’s new location.

 

–> At Grand Avenue, turn left and cross Seventh Street to the corner at Bottega Louie’s.

Across to the right is the former home of Robinson’s Department Store.

Robinson’s Department Store. 600 W. Seventh Street. Noonand and Richards, 1915; updated by Edward L. Mayberry, 1934

The buff-colored, 7-story Art Deco structure wasn’t always “Art Deco.” Built in 1915 for Robinson’s Department Store in the Beaux Arts style of the time, the building’s façade was stripped off and modernized in 1934, updating it to the more Art Deco-ish style you see today. Depression-era times were tough and re-facing was quick, relatively cheap and did the trick. The terra cotta still looks great almost 80 years later. 

Few department stores began as department stores. Most, like J.W. Robinson, had roots in dry goods, his first store opening in 1883. His 1915 department store was followed by others in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Panorama City, the Valley, Glendale and Santa Monica. Then, as with the banks and oil companies in town, things started getting confusing as chains merged, morphed or melted away. Locally, the Robinsons chain merged with May Company and most stores were re-branded as Robinsons-May. Then, Federated Department Stores, owners of Macy’s, bought them out.

–> Continue your walk down Grand Avenue. (Bottega Louie’s should be at your left; the former Robinson’s across the street to your right.)

On your left, just past Bottega Louie’s is the former J. J. Haggerty’s New York Cloak & Suit House (imagine the mouthful their telephone receptionist rolled out on each call). Mr. Haggerty owned department stores in Los Angeles. His homes included a “castle” (now demolished) on Adams Boulevard and a lush Italiate beach villa in Malaga Cove, now part of the Palos Verdes Swim and Athletic Club. This 5-story building was designed by architects Dodd and Richards.

Also on the left are parking lots. No ordinary lots, these. At what was #730 once stood the 6-story, 900-seat Grand Theatre (image at right). During its 38-year history the theatre had nearly as many names: Walker, Nielsen, Brooks, back to Walker, Mozart, Strand, Grand Avenue, Fine Arts, Orange Grove, Actor’s, Grand International, and finally, Grand. The theatre was designed by Eisen & Son, the son being one Percy Eisen, architect of a long list of downtown gems, including the Oviatt.

Opening in 1908, the Grand was one of the city’s first theatres built to show “moving pictures.” But being three blocks from Broadway – what soon became downtown’s entertainment corridor – the Grand later shifted to foreign films, mostly Swedish and Polish language flicks. The theatre was demolished in 1946 to expand Robinson’s parking lot.

–> Continue down Grand Avenue to Eighth Street. Cross Eighth Street.

Side Trip! See downtown’s Art Deco masterpiece – the Eastern Columbia Building!

–> Continue walking down Grand Avenue.

On the right, at 801 S. Grand Avenue, is Sky Lofts (formerly the Chase Manhattan Plaza, AC Martin & Partners, 1985). The building claims to be the city’s first retail/office/residential building. From the first floor up, it’s just that: retail on the street, floors two through 11 are offices and floors 12 through 22 are reserved for 132 condos. You can tell where those condos begin – their windows (unlike the office windows) can be opened.

The South Park Lofts at #816 S. Grand Avenue carries an interesting little history. First off, here’s yet another parking garage designed by Curlett and Beelman, this one an “elevator garage” (no ramps) opening in 1924. Although Stoakes Garage was just that, it was beautifully disguised as an 8-story Beaux Arts office building. It was so beautiful that it eventually earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. With a purchase of $1 or more, Bullock’s shoppers got two hours of free parking here.

The garage was converted to offices in the 1980s and then, in 2002, to residential lofts. Here’s some irony: as with many downtown loft conversions, one of the the prime tenant issues is – you guessed it – a lack of convenient parking!

The Stillwell Hotel (838 S. Grand Avenue, Charles Kysor and Noonan, 1912) doesn’t have the curb appeal of say, the Millennium Biltmore, and reviews are decidely mixed. But for the budget-minded guest, the location is pretty good. The hotel was named by its original owner, C. F. Stillwell but years ago someone by the name of Hank came along and opened Hank’s – a bar. See “As Quoted,” below.


The Los Angeles Cemetery Association once owned the Stillwell. During their tenure, out-of–town mourners could attend the funeral in the basement, the wake in the dining room and then retire to their rooms upstairs. Well, there you have it. Moving along…

Thanks to those parking lots you’ve got some nice views to the left as you walk down the street. Even if you didn’t take the Eastern Columbia Building Side Trip you can spot it from here. You can also spot the Commerical Exchange Building and if you look carefully, find where the building was sliced up. (Read the Side Trip text for some background). The Gothic spire in the distance is the “steeple” of the United Artists Theatre on Broadway, now an evangelical church. Enlarge the photo at right to read the wall.

Trinity Auditorium (aka Embassy Hotel/Auditorium). 831 S. Grand Avenue. Fitzhugh Krucker and Deckbar, 1914

Over the years, this 9-story Beaux Arts building has served a number of purposes (some of them concurrent): convention hall, church, offices, men’s hotel, roof garden, library, philharmonic auditorium, student dorms and today, as a reminder of tough economic times. As with 611 Place and Giannini Place, this structure, owned by the Chetrit Group, is vacant.

USC used the building for off-campus housing and since they moved out in the mid-1990s all sorts of plans have been floated for the 140,000-square-foot giant: the “Ganesvoort Hotel,” the “Palace Hotel,” an unnamed hotel with a skybridge across Grand Avenue linking it to new condos – also not realized. Understandably, it’s a tough space to fill, what with a 1,500-seat auditorium and some 330 guest rooms.

The first performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was here at the Trinity Auditorium in 1919. The following season, the orchestra moved uptown to a new home at the Philharmonic Auditorium across from from Pershing Square. They remained there for 44 years moving their musicians up to Bunker Hill in 1965 when the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center was completed. The next move, 39 years later, was just across the street to the newly-completed Walt Disney Concert Hall, eight blocks north from where you stand. The auditorium was re-named when the building became the Hotel Embassy.

From the 1940s and on into the early 1980s, the Embassy Auditorium hosted mens bodybuilding contests; in 1979 the first Women’s World Bodybuilding Championship was staged here. In 1975 the “Austrian Oak” (aka Arnold Schwarzenegger) showed up at the Embassy to critque that year’s Mr. Universe contest. He had some experience, having won that competition several times and the even more prestigious Mr. Olympia title six times. He went to win seven “Mr. O” trophies.

So, what to do with the Trinity? For now, the answer seems to be “nothing.”

Notice all the apartments and condos going up in the area. You’re approaching the neighborhood called South Park, so named because you’re south of downtown’s core and near the park, Grand Hope Park, just up ahead on your tour. More of the South Park region is visited on WalknRideLA‘s “Pico” tour.

–> At Ninth Street, turn right, crossing Grand Avenue. Continue on Grand Avenue one block to Hope Street.

Across the street to the left is Grand Hope Park. Bordering the park is the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) – usually pronounced “Fid-em.”  The private college grew from just two downtown classrooms in 1969 to a student body of 8,000, a faculty of 500. FIDM includes three other campuses, one each in Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco. This one is the largest. Most buildings on the campus were designed by John Jerde Partners (1994), the same firm that brought us Horton Plaza in San Diego and the Westside Pavilion and Universal City Walk in Los Angeles.

The Grand Hope Park is all those things: sort of grand, an ever hopeful sign of downtown rejuvenation and it’s definitely a park – one that invites a stroll. If you’re curious about what’s beyond the clock tower (Lwwrence Halprin, 1993), go on in and stroll around the grounds until you feel at home. Public art, most of it well-marked, is everywhere.

–> Continue along Ninth Street to the next block, Flower Street.

Where were you on July 20, 2007? L.A. history books will likely list the day as a benchmark in downtown rejuvenation. That’s because it was The Day When Ralphs Returned – and it was about time. Ralphs’ first store (image at right) opened at Sixth and Spring Streets in 1873. Stores were added and by the 1950s there dozens of locations all over the Southland. But none were downtown anymore; the last one, at Seventh and Figueroa, closed in 1950. So, after more than 50 years, Ralphs is back – and in terms of revenue per square foot it’s proven to be one of their most profitable anywhere.

It’s a Fact:

Ralphs was the first supermarket chain west of the Mississippi to install laser scanners at their checkout counters. The year was 1974; by 1980 all their stores had the devices.

 

Clearly, Ralph’s customer base is above (Market Lofts) and around you. Though the store has underground parking for 125 cars it seems a fair guess that a lot of their customers walk to the store. Imagine that, in L.A., no less.  Skyline Condos (600 W. 9th, Daniel Dworsky, 1985) is right across the street; Concerto (900 S. Figueroa Street, Douglas Hanson, 2008) is just ahead on Figueroa.

Like most everywhere in the country, the times have been tough on the downtown housing market. Some developments were nixed before a shovel of soil had moved; others were stalled and some soldiered on, converting from condos to apartments, the property owners taking losses.  Short sales abound; at this writing nice studios can be had for $250K – some with a giant supermarket downstairs!

–> Continue one more block to Figueroa Street.

Just as the street curves a bit to the left you can look straight ahead to the 39-story TCW Building (AC Martin Partners, 1991). As you do, you’ll be peering through Eugene Sturman’s “Homage to Cabrilo Venetian Quadrant” (1985). On October 9, 1542, the 16th century explorer, Juan Cabrillo, anchored his two ships in Santa Monica Bay, about 16 miles west from where you stand. The artist felt that because Cabrillo’s explorations were likely emboldened by navigation aids developed by Venetians, homage should be paid to both.

Try to stick around – a 100-year time capsule is buried beneath the work’s dome, to be opened in 2084, contains a Trivial Pursuit computer game, a Jane Fonda workout tape, a porn tape, current newspapers and magazines, a Fernando Valenzuela autographed baseball glove and other relics of the day. For all his efforts, Sturman’s work promptly earned him a “Lemon Award” from the Downtown Breakfast Club.

With TCW (Trust Company of the West) on the west side of Figueroa and the 23-story International Building (Herbert Nadel Architects, 1985) on the east, the buildings mark the southern boundary of L.A.’s Financial District – and the southern boundary of your tour.

Straight ahead, across the street, is the The Original Pantry, serving feel-good food since 1924. But they haven’t always been here; until 1950 they were one block west at Francisco Street. Construction of the Harbor Freeway offramp caused them to move a block east to their present location. On the day of the move, lunch was served at the old location, dinner at the new. Inside, the food favors the carnivore and the caffeine crowd (you can order a gallon of coffee for $7.25), but lines outside attest to its popularity. Today’s owner is the city’s former mayor, Richard Riordan. Cash only!

In the distance to the left rises the JW Marriott at L.A. Live! and Ritz-Carlton Hotel complex. The Marriott occupies floors 4 – 12; the Ritz-Carlton floors 22 – 26. Upper floors (27 – 52) are devoted to the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton. The two top floors are for mechanical rooms; a helipad sits above it all. You’ll see more on WalknRideLA‘s “Pico” tour.

–> Cross Figueroa Street, turn right and walk up Figueroa towards Eighth Street.

801 Tower. 801 S. Figueroa Street. The Architects Collaborative, 1992

Gates on the left mark the entrance to the plaza at the foot of the 24-story postmodern 801 Tower. At night, from a distance, the crystalline-green glass “turrets” are especially attractive but for daytime pedestrians, it’s the plaza that draws attention.

None of this, the plaza, the building, the entire city – would be here were it not for the Los Angeles River. In a nutshell, the river brought the water which brought the settlement of Los Angeles. Pulling water from that river was a system of channels (ditches) which irrigated the fields in the little Pueblo. The main, or mother channel, was the Zanja Madre and it’s this plaza that is dedicated to the ditch. Completed in 1992 by Andrew Leicester, the main feature is the waterway. Water flows from mountain streams into a reservoir and from there into the Zanja Madre, eventually re-entering the earth (where the turtle is). The columns near the sidewalk were seen in the 1995 film “Batman Forever.”

The 801 Tower was one of the last major office buildings completed in the Financial District. Most agree the corridor along Figueroa was, in fact, overbuilt – even for the 1990s growth years. Only recently, some  20 years later, is the downtown vacancy rate dropping to a point where prime office space is becoming scarce.

–> Continue up Figueroa Street, crossing Eighth Street.

7 and Fig. 725 S. Figueroa. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1985

There are three components within this block-long complex: two office buidlings and a shopping center. The first is the magnificent 777 Tower (César Pelli, 1991), the city’s 6th tallest building. With over a million square feet of office space, the award-winning, 53-story building sheathed in white metal makes quite a statement here on the corner. The 3-story lobby is clad in rose-colored Italian marble but building security prohibits photos. A good number of film shoots have used the site including “Solaris,” “13 Going on 30,” “I Heart Huckabees,” and “In Good Company.”

Just outside, along Eighth Street, look for the “Puddles” (Peter Alexander, 1994) in the sidewalk. They’re part of the complex’s art-and-poetry-themed public art installation entitled “Poet’s Walk.” They’re lit at night.

–> Continue up Figueroa to the entrance to the shopping center.

Next door is the shopping center itself, 7 and Fig (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, with Jon Jerde, 1985). On opening, the center had two major department stores anchoring its west side: Robinson’s and Bullock’s. But the center’s anchor stores became victims of merges and consolidations; eventually it lost both anchors altogether.

To this, add the issue of pedestrian flow. Its layout forced shoppers at the multi-level center through an inconvenient and circuitous maze of escalators and walkways. Rather than keep the shoppers moving past the shops, it kept the shoppers out of the center.

A remake is underway to address that problem – and to also open the center’s core to Figueroa Street. Target has inked a deal with 7 and Fig, giving the center an anchor again. Scheduled completion of the center’s remake is due in 2012.   

The second skyscraper on site is the Ernst & Young Building (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1985). After you’ve explored the shopping center and checked out some of its public art (there are seven installations here – kids will like David Gilhooly’s “Pigeons Acquire Philosophy” (1985) with pigeons pecking around a fried egg) be sure to walk around to the Seventh Street entrance to the Ernst & Young Building.

Corporate Head” (1992) is probably one of the most-photographed works of public art downtown. Terry Allen, the artist, teamed with Philip Levine, the poet, to create this little sensation. Be sure to read the poem on the briefcase.

–> At Seventh Street, turn right and cross Figueroa Street.

818 Building (formerly Barker Brothers). 818 W. Seventh Street. Curlett and Beelman, 1926

The building – a furniture store – marked the western-most expansion of downtown’s retail giants. Expansion continued, of course, especially following World War II, but it all happened outside of downtown. Barker Brothers moved from this building in 1984 and have since gone out of business. 

It’s believed the 400,000-square-foot building’s design, solidly Beaux Arts, was inspired by the Strozzi Palace in Florence, Italy, (image below left) therefore its Renaissance Revival features. Within each side of the building’s Seventh Street entrance are reminders of its past: “Floor Coverings” and “Fine Furnishings.”

A pipe organ was installed in the atrium and during its heyday shoppers were entertained by those pipes. Barker Brothers filled in the atrium in a 1950s modernization but it has since been restored to its original grandeur.

–> Continue  down Seventh Street.

To the left, across the street, is the Fine Arts Building. You’ll see more of the building (and go inside if your visit is on a weekday) but for now, pause to take in the view. The Romanesque Revival building, already a little dated for office buildings in 1926, was nevertheless appropriate for this one: a showcase of the fine arts – arts that achieved near perfection during the Renaissance. Note the two reclining nude sculptures (Burt Johnson, 1926); “Architecture” on the left, “Sculpture” on the right. The sculptor carved the works in place and though he was just 37, he was in poor health; special lifts were used to raise him to job.

Across the street is Macy’s Plaza (Charles F. Luckman, 1973). Since 1896 The Broadway Department store occupied the southwest corner of Fourth and Broadway. In 1973 they moved here and in 1996 – on their 100th anniversary, theybecame Macy’s. The center was touted as being the country’s first urban “suburban-style” shopping venue. Back then, such centers tended to turn their backs on the street, re-creating their own street scene within. Today, those centers are re-opening to the street and their pedestrians – a real challenge for this center given its limited street frontage. Yet the glass wall and welcoming marquee do the best possible.

Above the three-level shopping center is the 32-story Sheraton Hotel. Opening as a Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1973, the hotel featured a revolving lounge up top – all the rage at the time. The lounge, “Polaris,” no longer revolves but the views are still there. It’s available only for private meetings and events.

–> At Flower Street, turn left and cross Seventh Street.

 To the right is the solid-looking Roosevelt Building (Curlett and Beelman, 1927). When it opened, the building was one of the largest in the west, and included a four-level underground parking lot for around 400 cars – something very handy for the 200+ condo units that now occupy the structure. If you’d like, walk over and check out the elaborate entrance and the marble mosaic floors in the lobby.

–> Turn left again and walk up Seventh Street to the Fine Arts Building.

Fine Arts Building. 811 W. Seventh Street. Walker and Eisen, 1926

Step inside (weekdays only) and allow a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the light. The building was a cathedral to the artist, craftsman and designer. An estimated 27,000 people attended the Fine Arts Building grand opening but sadly, few returned to buy the goods. Within two short (pre-Despression) years the building was sold to an oil company. It’s an office building today.

Burt Johnson, who created the reclining figures outside, also created the figures within the lobby’s fountain. They’re his kid’s, 3-year-old Cynthia and 5-year-old Harvey. The display cases lining the walls showcased the works of the tenant artists. Almost all the terra cotta work was crafted by Ernest Batchelder, a Pasadena-based artist. As with the Romanesque exterior, “art tile” was on the wane when Batchelder secured this commission – yet it’s perfectly at home here. Notice the subtle blue colors within the arches and within the terra cotta.

Anthony Heinsbergen painted the ceiling and beams. In Los Angeles his other works can be seen at City Hall, the Wiltern Theatre, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel. His son Tony oversaw the refurbishment of his father’s work during the 1983-84 restoration directed by Brenda Levin (who maintains an office here).

Retail space to the left is now Dublin’s – an Irish Whiskey Pub. To the right was a former Pig ‘n Whistle candy shop. McDonald’s moved in following the building’s renovation but vacated the space a decade ago. But what goes around comes around; Pig ‘n Whistle, having re-opened their Hollywood Boulevard restaurant in 2001 are reportedly ready to ink a deal on this, their former downtown location. Stay tuned.

–> Continue up Seventh Street to Figueroa Street. At the corner is the Metro/Seventh Street station entrance.

You’re back where you started! Thanks for joining us on the WalknRideLA “Metro/Seventh Street” station tour.