What makes this tour important? You’ll trace LA’s explosive growth from a regional banking, insurance and transportation center to one of the world’s most influential and certainly most “entertaining” cities. Plus, you’ll see both of L.A.’s downtowns: the historic and the high-rise!

Tour Essentials

Tour Starts: Pershing Square. The park, across from the Pershing Square subway station, is bounded by Olive and Hill, 5th and 6th Streets. The tour begins at the park’s center, near the purple campanile. See Map

Tour Ends: Pershing Square.

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

  • By Rail: Take Metrorail! The tour starts within Pershing Square, just across the street from the Pershing Square station. From the platform follow the signs to “Pershing Square.” Once at street level, cross Hill Street to the corner of Pershing Square and enter the park. 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/ for bus transit maps, fares, trip planner and stops nearest you.
  • By Car: While we don’t recommend you drive into downtown for your tour – or to any WalknRideLA tour – if you have to drive, parking is a cinch here. That’s because Pershing Square itself is actually a giant, 1,800-car parking garage – with a park on top. But that convenience doesn’t come cheap. On weekdays expect to pay $15 or more; the weekend cost is $6.60 all day.

Tour Length: This is the mother of downtown tours. If you do the entire tour, allow about 4 hours, plus time for eating or just relaxing and taking in the sights. The tour can easily be divided in two: Part 1, the “Old” downtown and Part 2, the “New” downtown. Do one in the morning and one in the afternoon or on another day.

Optional Side Trips: There are two…

  1. Paramount Theatre back entrance: 5 minutes.
  2. Main Street: 15 minutes.

How Much Walking? About 2.5 miles total – almost all of which is over relatively flat terrain. Angels Flight will make easy work of Bunker Hill but wear comfortable walking shoes anyway.

This tour (including Angels Flight) is wheelchair accessible.

Tour Cost: Once you’re downtown, nothing.

When to Go: 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. Weekdays present a more bustling downtown atmosphere and most buildings are accessible; Saturdays are quieter but a few buildings are closed; many buildings are closed on Sundays.

Where to Eat: Click here for ideas and suggestions.

You Can Combine This Tour With: No other tour. If you do both Parts 1 and 2, it’s a full day.

Some Background

For Some background on the area of the Pershing Square Tour click here:

The Tour

Standing in the middle of Pershing Square, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the “old” downtown is and where the “new” downtown is. In one direction (east) are the shorter, older-looking buildings. To the west are the taller, newer buildings.

Accordingly, the tour is something of a timeline, starting with the old and ending with the new. The first half (Part I) is spent touring to the east of Pershing Square: the “old” downtown. The second half (Part II) takes in the “new” downtown atop Bunker Hill – and some of older sections as well.

Here is a map of the Pershing Square tour:

View Pershing Square – Main Tour in a larger map

Stop OnePershing Square. Ricardo Legorreta, architect; Laurie Olin, landscape architect, 1994

Long criticized as being cold and unfriendly, it’s the park Angelinos love to hate: too many transients, too few trees, not enough grass, too much cement, no place to walk dogs, too many dogs (and their markers) – it seems everyone likes to take a shot at the park.

In all fairness, Pershing Square isn’t really a park; it’s an underground parking garage with landscaping on top. Over its 250-year history it’s been designed and re-designed, named and re-named over a half-dozen times. It’s current name dates to 1918 after the World War II general. A parking garage since the early 1950’s, today’s Pershing Square “topping” dates from 1994. Look for the surrounding symbolism: a bell tower; the round, fruit-like orbs; the water and the pool; the trees and statues; the cracks and the stars in the concrete. Read on for brief explanations.

The conversion from park to parking garage began in 1951. Even before it was a garage, the park’s look – even its names – have sometimes been controversial. Designated as “Block 15” in an 1849 survey just prior to statehood, the park took on various names, some official, some not; some printable, some not: La Plaza Abaja (Spanish), Lower Plaza (English), Sixth Street Park, City Park, St. Vincent’s Park, Central Park and today – for the general.

At least a half dozen people have had their hand in the park’s design, too, including a city mayor and none other than the esteemed architect John Parkinson. In fact, even the park-to-parking garage transformation which began in 1951 followed the design of yet another prominent architect, Stiles O. Clements of the firm Morgan, Walls and Clements. He designed the exteriors of the iconic Wiltern and El Capitan Theatres – legacies he’d likely prefer you recall over this, his parking garage.

Pershing Square at night – wysockeyphoto.com

If judged for its effort to help stem the decline of downtown’s core through the provision of more parking, the “new” park scored decidedly mixed reviews. Parking Pershing had – in spades. But its massive vehicular entrance and exit ramps cut the park off from pedestrians and probably hurt downtown’s appeal more than it helped. The area around Pershing Square continued to decay and top-side revamps haven’t helped a whole lot. Even the current 1994 version (architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin), though a huge improvement over what came before, isn’t generally well-received.

Still, while to know the park may not mean to love the park, it may help to appreciate that it’s loaded with salutes to L. A. history. Wander around and check it out. Notice:

  • The 125-foot purple carillon and its orange-shaped “bell” symbolizing our Spanish mission roots and our agrarian past.
  • The aqueduct flowing into the pool is a salute to the water delivery systems that quench our semi-desert clime.
  • The orange trees in the park’s center, like the orbs in the campanile and around the park, salute our citrus industry.
  • The earthquake “fault line” (in the corner towards the City National Bank Building) salutes our fractious land. “Did you feel that?”
  • The stars in the cement at the park’s center salute the constellations visible above Los Angeles.
  • The statues and monuments on the Hill Street side, over the years, have been moved around the park like pieces on a chessboard. They’re grouped together now. Beethoven, installed in 1932, salutes the since-demolished Philharmonic Auditorium across Fifth Street. The oldest monument in the park (1797) is a cannon brought across the continent from Boston’s “Old Ironsides.”
  • A small, easy-to-miss plaque, “salutes” John Pershing.

It’s a Fact…

Missing from Pershing Square is a time capsule planted in 1952 during the garage construction (photo, left) to be opened in 2052 – if they can find it. Also missing is a bronze plaque dedicated to Benny. He was especially fond of the park and loved to eat his lunch under its shade trees. Sadly, he died when struck by a car in 1934. Benny – a squirrel – was buried somewhere in the northwest corner of the park.


If you’re here from November through January, the north portion of the park is turned into an ice-skating rink. The season for ice-skating beneath palm trees is understandably a short one.

–> Look for the Art Deco building with the gothic-style tower. Walk towards it – the northeast corner of the park at the corner of Hill and 5th Streets.

Stop 2Title Guarantee Building Lofts. 411 W. Fifth Street (at Hill Street). Parkinson & Parkinson, 1930.

Note the names of the architects of this building. The father (John) and then later with his son (Donald), were among the busiest architects in town. You’ll see their names on most every WalknRideLA tour.

It’s classic Art Deco: a strong vertical emphasis; multi-level setbacks; highly-stylized, geometric ornamentation; and a spire (this one alluding to a gothic church tower. The building, once home to an insurance company, is now a home – to people. A 1999 adaptive re-use ordinance smoothed the way for the refurbishment of older, pre-1974 office buildings to new uses, most typically to lofts.

While standing here, we should mention another city ordinance, one that dates back to 1911. In that year the ciy restricted the heights of downtown buildings to 150 feet (a 1905 measure was even more strict: 130 feet). The restriction had nothing to do with earthquakes, fire protection or the height of City Hall (which wasn’t finished until 1928). It was all about sunshine, breezes and density.

You see, Los Angeles was going to be a “garden city,” a city unlike those back east. No towering cement montrosities were going to cast long shadows across LA’s streets. Instead, the city’s celebrated sunshine would fill the city making for happier, healthier (and more productive) workers. So it was written and so it was done.

But there was one little “loophole” – one you can easily spot standing here at the corner of Fifth and Hill Streets. Look up at the Title Guarantee Building Lofts and then across the street to the right at the Pershing Square Building. The former is Art Deco; the latter is Beaux Arts, completed in 1925. This means that both fell under the 1911 height restriction yet clearly, the Art Deco building is way taller than the Beaux Arts building. What gives?

What gives is this: the ordinance stated that no leasable office space could be built above the 150-foot limit; but elevator and other mechanical rooms were permitted to sit atop a building. Beaux Arts designs (like the Millennium Biltmore hotel, left) favored a flat roof with heavy, protruding cornices (eaves) so they built up to the limit – generally 12 to 13 stories – and stopped. “Mechanical” rooms were unobtrusive and largely hidden from street views. No problem.

But when Art Deco arrived a few years later, there was a problem. How in the world could they get their hallmark spires and towers and setbacks (check out New York’s Chrysler Buiding, 1930, on the right) and still have a building big enough to make money? The loophole provided the answer. They built their 12 and 13 stories of offices and then just kept going, incorporating the “mechanicals” within soaring clock towers, spires and flying buttresses (as with the Title Guarantee).

Notice that both buildings (this one and the Pershing Square Building) have about the same number of office floors. Notice also that the Art Deco building doesn’t stop at the top office floor but continues to climb – almost all empty space to crown otherwise unspectacular mechanical rooms. In some cases, LA’s Art Deco buildings sported “mechanical rooms” that carried them into the sky at twice the height limit.

–> From the corner, turn right and walk down Hill Street. The park should be immediately on your right.


Stop 3 International Jewelry Center. 550 S. Hill Street. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1981.

Welcome to the Jewelry District! To your left is the International Jewelry Center, one of the few post-World War II structures erected west of Hill Street. Notice that the glass and Sienna-granite façade has three unusual protrusions along its street side. This is to admit the preferred northern light, something important for the display of fine jewelry – and the cutting and setting of diamonds. Though maybe a bit overwhelming for the site, it was the country’s first major building erected to jewelry industry specifications.


The picture (right) shows you what used to be here: the 3300-seat (largest in the city) Metropolitan Theatre, later renamed the Paramount Theatre. Sid Grauman leased the 1923 building – as was his custom – but Paramount took it over in 1929. The main entrance was on Sixth Street but because the Broadway theatres were on, well, Broadway, there was an entrance built to lure movie-goers in off that street, too. The theatre was demolished in 1962, replaced by a parking lot.

A planned high-rise never materialized; by the 1960s, downtown was re-locating to Bunker Hill and the Flower/Figueroa corridor. But – the alternate entrance and a faded sign on Broadway remain. Take the upcoming, 5-minute Paramount Theatre Side Trip and you’ll see all that’s left of the theatre.

It’s a fact…

The story goes that the Metropolitan/Paramount Theatre foundation was so solidly built that the frustrated demolition crew left much of it in the ground; an earlier demolition company had already gone bankrupt trying to remove it. Today’s Jewelry Center, happily, sits on a “rock.”

–> Continue down Hill Street to Sixth Street.

Straight ahead, at each corner across the street (606 S. Hill on the left and 607 S. Hill on the right), are “modernizations” of earlier, Beaux Arts buildings. The Western Jewelry Mart dates from 1911 but a 1967 remodel refaced it in the prevailing International style – a rarity on this street. The California Jewelry Mart Building dates from 1909 but in 1935 Claud Beelman updated it. Most famous for his Art Deco Eastern Columbia Building (1930) at Ninth and Broadway, his remodel was also Art Deco. It’s been “freshened” again since then.

–>Turn left and walk one block to Broadway.

To the right, notice the mid-block alley with its side entrance to the Los Angeles Theatre. This isn’t a “Broadway” tour (the Los Angeles Conservancy offers an excellent tour each Saturday) but we’ll peek at several of the 12 remaining theatres – the largest concentration of grand movie palaces found anywhere in the country. Some aren’t so grand anymore, but they’re still here!

To see the Paramount Theatre’s “ghost sign” and the faded facades of three other Broadway Theatres – one over 100 years old – take the following Side Trip.

Paramount Theatre Side Trip

Side Trip – Click here to go to the Paramount Theatre Side Trip

Return to tour

–> Turn (right if you didn’t take the Side Trip; left if you did) and cross Sixth Street. Walk down to the Los Angeles Theatre.

Ah, Broadway! During the 1920s and 1930s, this stretch of real estate, from the Million Dollar Theatre at Third Street to the United Artist’s Theatre just south of Ninth Street – is where the action was. Despite a growing competition from Hollywood Boulevard and later, Westwood and other outlying venues, Broadway was the epicenter of vaudeville and film entertainment. On busy evenings, upwards of 15,000 patrons could be seated within these opulent palaces. Matinees were busy, too, with Broadway and Seventh Street shoppers cooling their feet at the latest Garbo or Astaire flick.

It’s a fact…

Originally called “Eternity” Street, perhaps a hopeful choice for a road that continued north to a cemetery, Broadway’s name was later changed to “Fort” Street” after nearby Fort Moore. It wasn’t until 1889 that the thoroughfare was renamed “Broadway” and that was years before the city’s first movie theatre opened, “Thomas Talley’s Electric Theater” – on Main Street.

Stop 4 Los Angeles Theatre Los Angeles Theatre. 615 S. Broadway. S. Charles Lee, 1931

By most accounts, this theatre is considered downtown’s most opulent. The elegant fleur-de-lis terrazzo design in the sidewalk only hints at what’s inside. In 1931, the theatre opened with the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” Mr. Chaplin was in the audience as was Albert Einstein, then living in Pasadena. Although the theatre had a world-class sound system, the movie – a “silent” but with recorded music and sound effects – didn’t take full advantage of it.

William Fox, of Twentieth Century Fox fame, owned this property and had every intention of building one of his top-of-the-line Fox Theatres on the site. He also owned the Hill Street lot behind the theatre site of today’s Art Deco William Fox Building. But facing financial woes, a serious car accident, and a worsening economy, he never built the theatre. Instead, up went the palatial Los Angeles Theatre – in an almost miraculous five months. The January 30, 1931 opening choked the sidewalks and jammed the streets. But alas, it opened during the Great Depression and closed before the year was out. It re-opened soon after and since then had something of a roller-coaster ride, as did most Broadway theatres of the era. Make no mistake, theatres continued to open during the thirties but most, like the department stores, weren’t opening in downtown but in “suburban” locations where traffic was easier and parking more plentiful.

This theatre’s architect, Simeon Charles Lee, was just 31 on opening night. But it wasn’t his first theatre design – he was 27 when the Tower Theater, just down the street, opened in 1927. Westwood’s Bruin Theatre (1937) and at least a dozen other theatres around the country were his, as well. As elaborate as the exterior is (or was – a re-facing of the theatre’s north side is unfortunate), the French Baroque, Louis XIV interior is even more lavish. The expression, “anything worth doing is worth over-doing” is at home here in the theatre’s 50-foot-high lobby where crystal chandeliers, Corinthian columns, grand staircases (leading up to a “crystal fountain” and down to spacious restrooms and sitting rooms) sparkle. Here’s a short list of some of the theatre’s amenities. Match these to any of today’s stadium seating multiplexes:

  • A glassed-in, sound-proof nursery (a “crying room”) where ear-phone-equipped parents could tend their children and watch the movie.
  • An ingenious prism-and-mirror “periscope” system (this was before TV) whereby patrons relaxing downstairs could watch the movie upstairs.
  • An equally ingenious “seat occupied” system allowing ushers to quickly find available seating for last-minute arrivals.
  • An orchestra pit, full-size stage and backstage dressing rooms for live performances.

Owned and maintained by the Delijani family, the theater is available for filming; portions of “Batman Forever” were filmed here. Each spring, the Los Angeles Conservancy hosts its popular “Last Remaining Seats” program, screening classic movies in the two-thousand-seat theatre to sold-out crowds.

Directly across the street (#618-622) is the former site of Schaber’s Cafeteria, a delightfully fresh design completed in 1928 by Charles F. Plummer.

–> Continue down Broadway to the mid-block crosswalk.

Stop 5Palace Theatre. 630 S. Broadway. G. Albert Lansburgh, 1911.

Standing across the street is the Palace Theatre. It opened in 1911 as an Orpheum venue featuring live entertainment for 2,200 patrons. Fifteen years later, when the “new” Orpheum opened 2 blocks down the street, it was re-named the Palace. Still, it’s the oldest remaining Orpheum theatre in the country. Its designer, G. Albert Lansburgh, also designed Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre. Look above the Palace sign and you’ll still see the “Orpheum” name on the building. Major portions of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video were filmd here.

It’s a Fact…

The “O” in Orpheum is the same “O” that’s in “RKO” – Radio-Keith-Orpheum. RKO produced the wildly successful “King Kong” and the money-losing “Citizen Kane” as well as popular screwball comedies and the long run of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. Howard Hughes controlled the studio from 1948 to 1955.

–> Using the mid-block crosswalk, cross to the other side of Broadway. Now turn around and look down Broadway to the left.

To the left, just down the street is St. Vincent’s Jewelry Center, the original home of Bullock’s Department Store. Imagine, when it opened in 1907, streetcars and horse-drawn wagons and buggies ran up and down Broadway; automobiles were only just beginning to make their appearance – and only for the wealthy. The upscale Beaux Arts department store grew quickly, taking over adjacent buildings and eventually growing to a whopping 740,000 square feet. It was a good run for the chain as branches opened in mid-Wilshire (the iconic Art Deco Bullock’s Wilshire – see our “Deco by Metro” tour), Westwood, Pasadena and Palm Springs. But for this, the downtown flagship store, it all ended in 1983.

Beyond it, on the corner of Seventh and Broadway (look for the “Catedral del la Fe” sign – it’s a church, today) is the former Loew’s State Theatre. It opened in 1921, a design by Charles Weeks and William Day (they also did the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco) with 2,450 seats making it Broadway’s biggest. Despite its size it was one of the most profitable due in part to its enviable location at the crossroads of Broadway – entertainment and shopping, and Seventh Street – shopping. It was the first theatre on Broadway to feature a concession stand. The Gumm Sisters, including one Frances Gumm (aka Judy Garland), sang here.

On this side of Broadway just beyond the Palace is Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria (#648 S. Broadway), a fixture of Broadway since 1935. Clifford Clinton (hence the name “Clifton’s) opened his cafeteria in the middle of the Great Depression but succeeded in part because of his guarantee (still in effect, incidentally) that patrons could “dine free unless delighted.” If you’re hungry, go on in. It’s not fine dining, but it’s fun. You’ll be delighted. Recently purchased by Andrew Meieran, owner of The Edison, a popular basement bar in the Higgins Building a few blocks north, the restaurant is undergoing improvements which will include a return of the restaurant’s 1930s exterior.

–> Go back up Broadway towards Sixth Street.

To the right, at #612, is a former Desmond’s Department Store. The building dates to 1923 but the ornate façade was updated in 1933. As downtown’s commercial center moved, so did Desmond’s. The original 1869 haberdashery was on Los Angeles Street (where the Hollywood Freeway now runs), then moved southwest to Spring and Main, then southwest to Broadway near Sixth – and finally, clear out of downtown to a tony Miracle Mile locale on Wilshire Boulevard (at right). No, Norma Desmond, a fictional character on “Sunset Boulevard,” is no relation to the founder, Daniel Desmond.

On the corner, at #610, is the Walter P. Story Building, erected in 1910 and whose plate glass – $1000 apiece in 1910 dollars – were believed to be the largest west of Chicago.

–> Cross Sixth Street and turn right. Continue down Sixth to #217, on the left.

 

Stop 6The Chocolate Shop. 217 W. Sixth Street. Interiors by Plummer and Feil, & Morgan and Walls, 1914

Step inside and give your eyes a moment to adust. Now a crowded mix of vendors, the walls of the former Chocolate Shop (later, Finney’s Cafeteria) are trimmed in Batchelder tile, with a Dutch motif. Ernest Batchelder may have had a sweet tooth; he also installed his tiles in the Hershey Hotel in Hershey, PA. His Pasadena tile company created designs for homes and buildings throughout the area; you’ll see more of his work at the El Dorado Lofts, later in this tour.

–> Continue to Spring Street.

Welcome to what was once the “Wall Street of the West!” During the 1930s, on this stretch of Spring Street, from Fourth down to Eighth Street, over 8 of 10 buildings housed financial institutions; most are still here!

It’s a Fact…

If Hollywood wants to film a movie scene depicting 1930s-era New York City or Chicago they can haul their stuff, staff and stars on down to Spring Street, Los Angeles. When financial institutions began abandoning Spring Street for Bunker Hill in the late 1960s they left behind a virtual Hollywood set circa 1935.

“SB Corner.” Three Barry Schy-owned buildings (see details).

On your left (#215 W. Sixth Street) is one of downtown’s most handsome Beaux Arts strctures, the SB Manhattan, formerly the Los Angeleles Trust and Savings Bank (Parkinson and Bergstrom, 1910). The building’s distinction is the treatment of its corner: note that the three Corinthian columns produce three “corners” that continue upward past three horizontal bandings and clear on up through the cornice. Maybe it’s a minor detail but look around: you won’t see any other downtown building with that touch. The white tile and terra cotta, and the third floor banding that incorporates mini-pediments over the windows are frosting on the cake. Details, details!

Today, the building is a loft conversion; one of many Barry Schy (he reversed his initials for obvious reasons) buildings downtown. Two others are also at this intersection. All feature rooftop pools, sun decks and fitness centers, not viewable from the street.

Looking left across Spring Street to #548 rises the SB Lofts (formerly Merchants National Bank, William Curlett and Son, 1913), also in the Beaux-Arts style and a look quite similar to the SB Manattan.

Looking right across Spring Street to #600 rises a structure unique to the neighborhood. It’s the SB Tower (formerly United California Bank). It doesn’t fit; it almost seems out of place. If you look up and down the street you’ll notice that all buildings – except this one – are of approximately the same height. You’ll notice that all buildings – except this one – are of the older Beaux Arts or Art Deco styles.

It’s a Fact…

A 1905 ordinance limited the height of downtown buildings to 130 feet (upped to 150 feet in 1911). Why the limit? – because of earthquake fears or fire safety concerns? Nope. The City Council agreed that a low-rise profile would promote a sunnier, more beautiful city – unlike the cramped and crowded cities back east where looming skyscrapers cast long, cold shadows over their dreary streets! The height limit endured until 1957 (in the 1920s voters approved a special exemption for City Hall). When downtown began growing again in the late 1960’s, its financial core shifted west to the Bunker Hill redevelopment area. So, with few exceptions, most buildings east of Pershing Square reach no higher than 150 feet; many to the west climb far higher – one exceeds 1000 feet.

Completed in 1961, it was the first downtown commercial structure to exceed the old height limit abolished in 1957. It’s also the only downtown commercial structure in this area to exceed that limit – something you can appreciate from this corner. It was also the last commercial structure of any height to go up in this area of downtown.

So what happened? Downtown’s core moved west. The abolition of the 150-foot height limit roughly corresponded to the demolition atop Bunker Hill. A “new” downtown was on the drawing boards for the hill and along the freeway-adjacent Figueroa and Flower Street corridors. By the early 1980s, virtually every financial institution had gone west – including the United California Bank.

That abandonment, as it were, gave this building it’s “first, only and last” titles. Built in the prevailing International style, not only its height, but its style make it stand out. The bank’s lower floor, faced in polished granite, was windowless but the loft owner punched holes through the stone (now painted green) to create mini-balconies for the lower floor loft residences; balconies were added to every upper floor, too. The style has been compromised but its adaptive reuse from offices to lofts is generally supported by preservationists.

Hayward Hotel. 206 S. Spring Street. Charles Whittlesey, 1905

Immediately to the right, across Sixth Street, stands the brick-faced Hayward Hotel. A total of three architects contributed to three successive expansions, including the addition of the ninth floor for traveling salesmen (the image to the left pre-dates that addition). That floor included two-room suites for the salesmen: one to sleep in and one to showcase whatever it was they were selling. The brick facade softens the building, partcularly when compared with the other structures on this corner. The big battle in the movie “Transformers” took place right here in front of the hotel.


And guess what? The Hayward Hotel sits on the site once home to the original Ralphs Grocery Store! (picture on the right). Erected in 1874, George and Walter Ralphs set up shop here, moved up the street in 1901 and by 1928 operated 10 stores. By 1936 there were 25 Ralphs, today there are over 300. But this was their first!

–> Cross Spring Street, turn right and cross Sixth Street. Continue past the SB Tower to #618 S. Spring Street.

The Stock Exchange Building. 618 S. Spring Street. Samuel Lunden, with John and Donald Parkinson consulting, 1929

Here’s a solid example of “Monumental Moderne” – a sub-set of Art Deco. The overall personality of the building presents a strong, massive, and steadfast impression – just what sometimes-nervous stockholders would expect. What no one expected was that three days following its 1920 groundbreaking ceremony the Stock Market crashed. The stock exchange remained here until 1986.

Check out the bas-reliefs (center: “Finance“; left: “Production“; right: Research & Discovery” by Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta) and the massive, 12-foot tall bronze doors. Behind the entrance, beyond your view, rises an 11-story office tower, also part of the structure. The Stock Exchange’s trading floor makes for a great dance floor but though dance clubs have tried, none have managed to make a go of it.

–> Continue down Spring Street to #634.

Banks-Huntley Building. 634 S. Spring Street. John and Donald Parkison, 1930

Yet another fine example of Art Deco. In contrast to Beaux Arts’ horizontal massing (like most the buildings on this street) Art Deco loves the vertical! Piers – those column-like protrusions between which windows sit – soar from street to sky. If permitted by security, go on inside and inpect the marble walls and floors of the elevatory lobby, the original elevator interiors and the outer lobby ceiling.

Across the street, at 621 S. Spring, is another fine example of Art Deco: E.F. Hutton Brokerage Company Building (1929), also by John and Donald Parkinson.

–> Retrace your steps up to Sixth Street. Cross and Sixth and continue up Spring Street.

 

As you cross Sixth Street, look to the right towards the Pacific Electric Building (Thornton Fitzhugh, 1904). Now a loft conversion, the Beaux Arts building addresses the “Chicago School” sensibilities: restrained ornamentation, large plates of glass incorporating the “Chicago window” (two double-hung windows bookending a large picture window), and an overall “light,” less ponderous look.

The building was once a hub of streetcar activity; its lower floor and basement housed platforms for arriving and departing trains to points city-wide. On opening, it was the largest buildng west of Chicago. Four years later, Cole’s Restaurant opened – and is still in business! They claim to have introduced their French-dip sandwich that year, too, though Philippe’s near Union Station might disagree. The top two floors was home to the Jonathan Club. Conveniently for the club, Henry Huntington was its president when the building was built.

As you walk up Spring Street, look up above the rooftops for the twin “KRKD” towers. Drop the first “K” and then say the remaining letters outloud. You’ll come close to pronouncing the building’s name below the towers. More on that later.

Walking up Spring Street, know this: Aside from the buildings themselves, virtually none of what you see – the lofts, the shops, the cafes, the pedestrians and their dogs – none of it existed ten years ago. It’s all part of a slow and steady transformation of LA’s “old” downtown from banks and department stores to residences.

Broadway Spring Arcade Building. 541 S. Spring Street. Kenneth McDonald and Maurice Couchot, 1924

So popular was a shopping arcade which cut between Spring and Broadway a stipulation was made that any new building considered for the site (such as this one) incorporate a similar arcade in its design. Here you have it: an arcade building. The structure is essentially two. 12-story buildings with an atrium – the arcade – between them, faced with an elaborate archway entrance. Whether viewed from Spring Street or Broadway, the building looks the same, archway and all. Sid Graumann provided three dance orchestras for the building’s 1924 opening and some 2,000 businessmen were invited; it’s assumed they brought their wives – or secretaries.

Now back to those towers…the letters “R,” “K,” and “D” spell out “Arcade,” call letters for the AM station broadcasting from the building from 1932 into the 70s.

Los Angeles Theater Center (formerly Security National Bank). 514 S. Spring Street. John Parkinson, 1916

You can’t miss the impressive Ionic columns on this Greek Revival-style structure. Behind those columns are the lobby for the adjacent theatres. Go on in. The light and spacious lobby is topped by an elegant but restrained white and gold stained glass skylight. To some, the space may look more like a railroad station terminal (note the large clock at the far side) than a bank lobby. Stairs and ramps provide access t the upper theatres.

Restrooms are available downstairs. You’ll pass through the bank’s vault door on route to the restrooms.

–> Continue to the corner of Spring and Fifth Streets.

Standing at the corner, you’re at the unofficial “Parkinson & Rowan Memorial Intersection.” Every building at this intersection was designed by, or in partnership with, John Parkinson and erected by the R. A. Rowan & Company.

Diagnonally across the corner is the Spring Arts Building (formerly the Citizens Bank Building, then Crocker Bank), 1910. To the right is the Rowan Building (pictured), also completed in 1910. On your left is the oldest building on the corner, the Alexandria Hotel (check out those griffins on the corners), completed in 1906. The left-side extension was added in 1911. Above your head is the former Security Trust and Savings Bank, also built in 1906.

If you’re into Beaux Arts architecture, this is your corner as each of the four buildings exhibit the style in splendor. Although Beaux Arts favors a heavy, highly-decorated cornice (eave) running along its flat roof, the Spring Arts Building is lacking a cornice, removed during a façade modernization. It looks naked without it’s “hat.”

–> At Fifth Street, cross Spring Street, turn left and enter the Alexandria Hotel.

Alexandria Hotel. 501 S. Spring Street. John Parkinson, 1906. Southern extension by same architect, 1911.

President Theodore Roosevelt slept here; Charlie Chaplin signed contracts here; President Woodrow Wilson spoke here; and it’s said that Hollywood’s first cowboy actor, Tom Mix – his bride in the saddle – rode his horse into the hotel and clopped upstairs to – where else? – the bridal suite.

The list of famous guests and visitors goes on and on: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian and Dorothy Gish, Cecile B. DeMille, Enrico Caruso, D. W. Griffith, Jack Dempsey, Edward VIII and Sir Winston Churchill of England and presidents William Taft and Woodrow Wilson of the White House – all were here before you.

Of course, it looked better then. When the Biltmore, just 3 blocks west, opened in 1923 the Alexandria began its slide from splendor to second-class status. When the Great Depression arrived the hotel went bankrupt, auctioned off its fancy marbles and fittings (some claim even the gold leaf embellishments, too) and by 1934, had closed its doors. The hotel reopened three years later, but since then historyhasn’t been kind to the Alexandria.

A 1950s remodeling added a mezzanine floor, reducing an impressive two-floor lobby to one story. Subject to building security you may be permitted access to the second floor a marble staircase is directly opposite your entrance) where the “new” mezzanine places you inches from the ornate ceiling. A ballroom is adjacent.

What you shouldn’t miss, however, is the Palm Court dining room (to the left of the main lobby). Not too long when the hotel catered to guests and athletes in town for boxing matches, a practice boxing ring was installed in the Palm Court – directly below its elegant stained glass skylight. Amazingly, only three stained glass panels needed replacement during a 1970s restoration. Only the Palm Court has attained a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument status.

Today, the former hotel offers low-cost residences.

It’s a Fact…

Following the Japanese attact on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the West Coast was on alert against a similar aerial invasion. Nighttime blackout rules were in place: streetlights, billboard signs and automobile headlights switched off, shades pulled, and exterior stained glass windows painted over in black. A false alarm “attack” in 1942 caused early morning mayhem as people rushed to their posts in darkened the streets. The so-called “War of Los Angeles” resulted in 6 deaths, all believed to be automobile accident-related.

–> Exit the Alexandria Hotel, turn left, continue up Spring Street and cross Fifth Street.

Across the street is The Rowan (floorplan example at left), a 206-unit loft residence completed in 1910. It was the headquarters for the offices of the R. A. Rowan Construction Company – a really busy outfit back in the day!

It’s the first of many Gilmore Associates properties you’ll see in the next few minutes. On a visit to Los Angeles, Tom Gilmore, a New Yorker, was stunned to see the number of historic but unused or under-utlized buildings in the city’s “old” downtown. He is credited with taking the city’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance and running with it – buying up buildings and creating the critical mass of urban residences necessary to build a solid “neighborhood.” That critical mass would be sufficient to draw in coffee shops and restaurants, flower shops, drycleaners, pet stores – and in turn, draw in more residences. He succeeded.

It’s a Fact…

In 1999 the city adopted the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, paving the way for the conversion of qualifying, pre-1974 historic and under-utlilized buildings to housing units. Since then, dozens of buildings have been converted, doubling downtown’s resident population.

You’ll pass by (#453) the former office building for the Citizen’s National Bank, later the Crocker Bank and now the Spring Arts Tower. The 12-story building (you may enter the lobby) was completed in 1915 – in just seven months.

Why the rush? Mostly jealousy. The Panama Canal had just been completed and San Francisco wanted to remind the world that it had fully recoverd from the 1906 earthquake and – most importantly, open for business. What better way than to host the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition? San Diego got into the act too, hosting its own “Panama-California Exhibiton” the same year to remind merchants that its superb port was a day closer to the canal than San Francisco’s.

Well, Los Angeles wasn’t going to be ignored. While not hosting an exhibition of its own, LA was determined to be on tourists’ and businessmens’ maps that year. And this bank was determined to be open in time to tout its new lobby and offices, threatening a $400/day penalty (paltry in today’s dollars) to the builders and sub-contractors if they missed their April 11, 1915 deadline. They made the deadline and crowds turned up to celebrate its opening.

The upper floors hold offices and gallery space for artists and related organizations. But it’s the Spring Arts Tower’s basement that’s getting the press these days. The Crocker Club offers not just banquette seating but “bank vault” seating.

 

–> Continue up Spring Street towards #433.

433 Spring Street (formerly the Title Insurance and Trust Company). 433 S. Spring Street. John and Donald Parkinson, 1928

Ah, the “Queen of Spring Street!” It’s an Art Deco masterpiece – the largest and most impressive of that style in the neighborhood. Note the strong “verticality” of the building, one of Art Deco’s hallmarks. The three terra cotta murals outside are by Hugo Ballin. From left to right they salute “Trust, Protection and Fidelity.” If you’re visiting midweek you’ll have access inside, so don’t miss the ceilings, both in the vestibule and in the main lobby.

Remember telephone booths? Two sets of them flank the upper lobby. Portions of the movie “Pearl Harbor” were filmed here – the building’s lobby played the role of “”hotel lobby”. Today, as the LA Design Center, the building offers trade showrooms for furniture and fixtures.

 

More about that vestibule ceiling. It was crafted by Gladding McBean – still a going concern after all these years. The brilliant gold, red and black patterns are stunning. The inside lobby is just as impressive. Here, the ceiling is the work of Herman Sachs who also did the ceiling mural at Bullocks Wilshire porte-cochere (see it on the “Deco by Metro” tour). The floor is of rich marble and elevator doors of bronze. Everywhere, the detailing is Art Deco.

So proud of their work the Parkinson’s moved their offices here on the building’s completion. It’s closed to the public on weekends (though often accessible on a Los Angeles Conservancy walking tour).

–> Exit the Building.

Across the street is the future site of a pocket park, something sorely lacking in downtown Los Angeles. In the past, downtown was primarily a place to work. Now, as a place to live, the core needs more open space and the residents of The Rowan and the El Dorado Lofts (also a Gilmore Associates property) no doubt welcome this green space. Their dogs will, too.

El Dorado Lofts (formerly the Hotel Stowell). 416 S. Spring Street. Frederick Noonan & William Richards, 1913

They just don’t come any prettier than this, do they? While most buildings, particularly the serious and stalwart financial structures of Spring Street, went with restrained and muted tones, this building sports a bright green and white façade. Its green glazed tile and white terra cotta trim and ornamentation looks fresh, even after 100 years!

As the “boutique” hotel of the day, the Stowell Hotel (it changed names to the El Dorado later) was favored by those wanting to shun the glitz and glamour of the much bigger Alexandria and Biltmore hotels. It had 275 rooms, each with its own bath. In the 1920s, $1.50 got you a single; a dollar more got you a double. The “expensive” rooms – likely those favored by Charlie Chaplin, a frequent guest – went for up to $4.00 a night.

Today, the El Dorado is a loft conversion with 65 residences. Portions of the film “Minority Report” were filmed at the El Dorado.

Every El Dorado Loft unit features at least one balcony: a converted fire escape platform, a terra cotta “historic” balcony, or a modern balcony (the ones you see above, overlooking the future park) – or combinations of the above. The “historic balconies” were not functional as such until the conversion took place and windows were converted to doors.

Remember the Chocolate Shop earlier in the tour? There’s Bathchelder tile here, too. In fact, when the building opened, its entire registration counter was faced in the decorative tile; much of the lobby’s tile remains today. The loft operators promise retail shops for the building’s ground and mezzanine floors; a downstairs restaurant (owned by Helen Mirren’s step-son) is scheduled, as well. (If the El Dorado Lofts sales office is open, go ahead and cross at mid-block and take a peek inside.)

–> Continue up Spring Street to the corner at Fourth Street.

The last building on your left, now part of the Design Center next door, was once a 13-level parking garage. Erected in 1928, the Metropolitan Parking Garage was later converted to offices and its façade updated. Downtown parking has always been in short supply:


–> Cross Fourth Street. Turn and look diagonally across at the Continental Building.

Continental Building. 408 S. Spring Street. John Parkinson, 1904

If you’ve seen the movie “500 Days of Summer” then you’ve seen this structure, described as “LA’s first skyscraper.” At 175 feet it truly was, standing way taller than anything else around. Not until City Hall was completed in 1928 could any businessman in town claim offices higher than those within the Continental Building. Even today the upper floor embellishments of this Beaux Arts structure remain imposing.

Part of Gilmore Associates 3-building “Old Bank District,” the Continental Building is now a 56-unit loft conversion. Although the first floor was altered long ago, the remaining floors look pretty much as they did when new.

It’s interesting to note that the architect, John Parkinson, was also on the City Council when the height restriction ordinance of 1905 was put in place. It’s likely a coincidence but his building did remain the tallest in this section of town for decades!

Herman Hellman Building (formerly the Banco Popular). 354 S. Spring Street. Alfred F. Rosenheim, 1903.

Herman Wolf Hellman was born in Bavaria, emmigrated here with his parents. He was just 15; his older brother Isaias, was 16. Herman went into the wholesale grocery business (his store was an ancestor of today’s Smart & Final chain). He married, built a house on this site (photo at right) but as downtown spread southward, he tore the house down and up went what you see today.

The building included Pennsylvania Railroad offices, a bank, law firms (Herman installed a 4,000-volume law library for their use) and on the ground floor, a Stock and Grain Exchange. The Main Street Side Trip visits the building’s interior.

If you’ve got 15 minutes, you can squeeze in the following Side Trip to Main Street. You’ll see Los Angeles’ oldest, continuously-operating hotel; the city’s first incorporated (and more importantly – successful) bank and Tom Gilmore’s first loft conversion which helped spark an ongoing transformation of L.A.’s Historic Core.

–> Continue up Spring Street.

On your left is a parking garage – the garage for the Broadway-Spring Center. What can you say about a parking garage? We can say this: it could’ve been worse. First, the scale of the building matches the height of surrounding buildings. Second, the horizontal massing, the office window-like openings and the “cornice” on top fit well in the neighborhood. And finally, there’s a nice little piece of public art above the entrance: “Spirit of Growth” (Tony Sheets, 1989). Check out the panels. There are four themes running here: Archtitectural history (Stock Exchange, Arcade Building…), Economic history (citrus groves, movies…), Transportation history (cars, trolley and your upcoming ride on Angels Flight…), and Ethnic diversity.

Before entering the garage, note the Ronald Reagan Building across the street. It houses state offices and on completion in 1989, was the first building to go up on the street in almost 30 years. Originally to be named the Ronald Reagan “State Office Building,” to honor the president, the abbreviation wouldn’t quite do the job.

–>At the public entrance, turn left and walk into the Broadway Spring Center arcade. Continue to the interior park.

Biddy Mason Park. S. Spring Street. Betye Saar, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1990

Early settlers often spoke of long train rides to Los Angeles; earlier settlers spoke of the bumpy, dusty stage coach journeys into town. But Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818 – 1891) walked to Los Angeles – all the way from Utah, no less. She arrived a slave and died a relatively wealthy property owner (the park’s site approximates he homestead at #331 S. Spring Street).

Her owner brought his family here in 1851, unaware that California had just been admitted as the nation’s 31st state – a free state. Though “technically” free, it took her time and money (5 years) to have a court declare her a free woman. Working as a nurse and mid-wife she saved her money and in 1866, bought her house. The park’s timeline, “Biddy Mason Time and Place,” says it all.

–> Pass through the park to Broadway.

Don’t miss the “Water Columns” (Eino, not dated; Burton and Spitz, Landscape Architects) along the way.

–> At Broadway, turn right and proceed up the street just about to the corner.

The Ross Cutlery on the right is believed to be the store where O.J. Simpson purchased a knife. Enough said. To the left is the spectacular Million Dollar Theatre.

Million Dollar Theatre. 307 S. Broadway. Albert C. Martin, exterior; William Lee Woollett, theater, 1918.

Opening in 1918 with the premiere of the silent Western, “The Silent Man,” the screen stars (William S. Hart as ‘Silent’ Budd Marr, Vola Vale as Betty Bryce, and Robert McKim as Handsome Jack Pressley) were eclipsed by the stars and industry tycoons among the capacity crowd of 2,345. In the audience were Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky, Thomas Ince, “Fatty” Arbuckle, D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford!

Remember the Paramount, the now-demolished theatre you didn’t see earlier on the tour? This one, designed by the same Mr. Woolett, survived. The exterior, in the basic Beaux Arts organization, features Churrigueresque flourishes (Joseph Mora, sculptor) – lavish, almost over-the-top ornamentation. In this case, the theme runs something like “Wild West Meets Hollywood.”

Look closely and see if you can find the:

  • Texas longhorn skulls (with horns!)
  • Gargoyle-like bison heads
  • Eagles & cherubs and cherubs feeding eagles?
  • Bare-breasted dancers
  • Mandolin players
  • Leg-dangling woman

The theatre’s lobby has been altered – most of it hidden above a false ceiling – but the theatre itself (visited on Los Angeles Conservancy “Broadway” tours) remains mostly intact. From its center dome hangs a beautiful chandelier – salvaged from the Paramount! To avoid sight-line interferences from columns, the balcony was supported by a 110-foot-wide girder. Steel would have worked nicely but because of World War I shortages, the span was constructed of reinforced concrete – believed to be the world’s first such application of the technique. City safety officials were skeptical but a stress test – using 1.5 million bags of sand – convinced them of the beam’s strength. Now, almost a hundred years later, that girder is still on the job.

Sid Grauman, as was his custom, leased the theatre – and it did well. The 1925 silent “Ben-Hur” played here for 6 months but eventually Grauman’s focus shifted to Hollywood Boulevard. Years later, the theatre remained popular as it transitted from English to Spanish language films in the 1950s. It closed in the late 1980s. An update completed in 2007 has returned the theatre to regular use – though not as a first-run movie venue. The office building above housed the Southern California Edison Company and the Metropolitan Water District (hence the signage visible from the south).

It’s interesting that the Million Dollar Theatre, one of Broadway’s – if not downtown’s – most embellished buildings stands across the street from one of the city’s most subtle and restrained: the Bradbury Building.

Bradbury Building. 304 s. Broadway. Sumner Hunt, possibly assisted by George Wyman, 1993

The oldest building on the tour, it was to be Lewis Bradbury’s legacy building. A wealthy and somewhat eccentric real estate man, Bradbury was already in failing health when he commissioned contruction of the building. Unfortunately, although he approved the design, and no doubt witnessed its ongoing construction (he lived nearby on Bunker Hill), he never lived to see its completion.

His building is gorgeous. Once inside the five-story building, note the subtle colors and textures, how the natural light softens and yet highlights those subtleties. The wall tiles are glazed below, unglazed above, their colors changing only by the effect of the glaze itself. In fact, there are really just browns and blacks in the space: brown and buff-colored Mexican tile on the floor, brown wall tiles, brown oak banisters above black wrought iron (French-made) railings.

The elevators, operated by building security, are hydrulic, now electrically operated but originally by steam drawn from basement boilers. Roof panels in the glass ceiling used to open to allow warm air to escape, drawing and circulating cooler air through the offices below.

As a lobby poster proclaims, the film “Bladerunner” was filmed here. So too were dozens more including “Double Indemnity,” “D.O.A.,” “Good Neighor Sam,” “Chinatown,” “Lethal Weapon,” and the recent “500 Days of Summer” where Tom meets Autumn after losing Summer. TV shows include “The Outer Limits,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Quantum Leap,” “Mission Impossible,” “Pushing Daisies,” and lots more…music videos, too.

Myth and mystery abound as to just who it was who designed this icon. It was almost surely not the design of 32-year-old George Wyman, a draftsman at the office of the renown architect Sumner Hunt, even younger – just 27. In a nutshell, the story goes: Bradbury preferred the design of the lowly draftsman over that of the accomplished architect. Wyman, unsure if he should accept the offer and appear to be stealing his boss’s commission, consulted a Ouija board (or early version thereof). The board told him to “take the Bradbury and you will be successful.” And so he did.

Nice story, but an unlikely one. Hunt went on to design or share in the design of other area buildings (Irvine-Byrne Building diagonally across the street, Automobile Club of Southern California, Southwest Museum, Lummis house and others) while Wyman went on to design – after completing an architecture correspondence course – very little; a few homes here and there. The story about his (Wyman’s) inspiration being drawn from his reading of the utopian novel “Looking Backward” about building designs of the future is equally suspect.

Truth or tale, Sumner or Wyman, no matter. The Bradbury is a downtown gem. Ira Yellin, one of the first in the city to recognize the value of downtown’s historic treasures, purchased the buildng in 1989 and oversaw its restoration two years later. He chose Brenda Levin Associates, whose restoration projects include the Oviatt and dozens more in the city. Mr. Yellin had also purchased Grand Central Market (coming up) and the Million Dollar Theater Building. He’s honored just outside the Bradbury’s door – the intersection of Third and Main was designated “Ira Yellin Square” following his death in 2002.

–> Exit the Bradbury Building, proceed to the corner of Third and Broadway (“Ira Yellin Square”) and cross to the Million Dollar Theater.

From here, across the street, you’ll have a better view of the Bradbury.


Look closely at the “dull exterior.” OK, it doesn’t have the “bang” the interior hits you with, but like its interior, the Bradbury is an exercize in subtlety that is best appreciated when slowly absorbed.

From here you’ll also have a better view of the details of the Million Dollar Theatre exterior.

–> Continue up Third Street to the west, walking below the Million Dollar Theatre’s longhorns, bisons and dangling legs. Continue to the corner at Hill Street.

To the right, across from the Million Dollar Theatre is the Pan American Lofts, formerly, Irvine-Byrne Building (Sumner Hunt – remember him? – 1894), one of LA’s earliest expressions of the Beaux Arts style. Yes, the “Irvine” in the name stems from the building’s owner, Margaret Byrne Irvine, widow of James Irvine of Irvine Ranch fame.

“Inverted Clocktower.” Southeast corner of Third and Hill Streets. Tim Hawkinson, 1994

To your left you see another parking garage. But it’s what you don’t see – a clocktower – that causes the pause here. OK, look up and imagine a Roman-style clock tower on this corner site. Imagine a parking garage built around it so tightly that the garage’s walls pressed deep into the clock tower’s recesses – into its windows, into its mortar gaps, into its clock face. The clock tower was then torn down and what you have left is what you see: a “negative” of the vanished clock tower imprinted on the walls of the garage. Notice that even the numerals on the clock face are reversed, though the hands are correct so as not to confuse passing motorists.

Of course, there never WAS a clock tower. Cool, eh?

–> Turn left and walk down Hill Street towards the entrance of the Grand Central Market.

Grand Central Market. 317 S. Broadway. John Parkinson, 1897; Harrison Albright, 1905

Technically, you’re at the market’s back door, but no matter – the market extends an entire block deep beneath two buildings; one (1897) on Broadway, the other (1905) on Hill. The older building is called the Homer Laughlin Building after the man who had the building constructed: Homer Laughlin. Coulters Dry Goods occupied the space. Ever hear of the Homer Laughlin China Company (est. 1871)? Same guy! They remain in business today and own the popular Fiesta® Dinnerware.

When the 1905 building went up, Coulters moved out and the Ville de Paris department store moved in, filling the ground floor of both buildings. They moved to Seventh Street & Olive in 1917 and the market moved in that same year. Obviously, it’s proved popular. And where else can you buy fresh seafood and diamond rings under the same roof?

Restrooms (fee required) are located downstairs.

–> Continue down Hill Street to the mid-block crossing opposite Angels Flight. Cross to Angels Flight.

Angels Flight. Hill Street. Colonel J. W. Eddy, 1901

At about 335 feet, it wasn’t the “shortest railroad in the world” as billed. That title was already owned by another funicular, a 296-foot run up a hill in Dubuque, Iowa. But no matter, this little train was an instant hit. A 1908 update brought enclosed cars to the tracks – the same ones you see here today: Olivet on the south (left) and Sinai on the north. As a funicular, the system operates something like an elevator; the weight of the upper car helps “pull” the lower car up. The actual energy required to run the railway is quite low making Angels Flight one of the original “green machines” in operation.

The fare was intially 1¢, then upped to a nickel after the 1908 update. To avoid “monopolizing” the hill’s ascent, the city stipulated that Eddy include steps. The “B.P.O.E.” sign down here and the ticket booth up top were part of the 1908 improvements, donated by the “Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks” whose local lodge was atop Bunker Hill, about where the Wells Fargo Building stands today.

Angels Flight, which used to climb the hill to just along the south of the Third Street Tunnel, was dismantled in 1969 to make way for the demolition of the Bunker Hill tenament houses – the once-stately homes of LA’s rich and famous. By then those former homes were looking more than their age, though a few were saved. Two that were moved to Heritage Square just north of town were soon lost to arsonists. None remain anywhere in the city. When the the funicular was reconstructed it was shifted a half-block to the south to its present site – but the same 33% grade was maintained. Notice that the cars themselve are built at that same 33% pitch.

It’s a fact…

Funicular Inflation! Opening on New Year’s Eve of 1901, Angels Flight fare was just 1¢. The fare was increased to 5¢ 1908 and remained at that level until closing in 1969. Opening again in 1996 (and again in 2010 after a second, 9-year closure) the fare had jumped to 25¢. At that rate, the fare may be top $6.00 by the year 2100!

Here’s a switch: these wooden cars once carried wealthy residents of Bunker Hill down to their work in the office buildings you saw earlier on the tour. Today, many residents living in those same buildings – now converted to trendy lofts – commute up to their jobs in the skyscrapers atop Bunker Hill, which you’re about to visit.

Part I of the Pershing Square concludes at this point. If you want to break for lunch or a snack there are options all around. Follow your nose back to Grand Central Market or, if you continue, up atop the hill at the Water Court. Even if you conclude the tour here, you can ride on up (you pay your 25¢ at the top) and then ride back down later.

–> To end the tour here and return to Pershing Square, continue walking down Hill Street. Cross Fourth Street and continue to Fifth Street and the park.

If you’re headed for the Pershing Square Metrorail Station, first of all – Bravo! and thanks for riding the train to your WalknRideLA tour! Also, a convenient station entrance is adjacent to Angels Flight.

On route to Pershing Square you’ll pass the Metro 417 Lofts – once called the Subway Terminal Building (Schultz and Weaver, 1926). The word “subway” was used because an underground rail station occupied the building’s basement. From that station riders could board streetcars which traveled a short tunnel under Bunker Hill before emerging and continuing to points north and west: Glendale, Burbank, Hollywood and Santa Monica. The station was closed in 1955. The tunnel is no longer operative as supports for the Bonaventure Hotel now block its underground passage. It’s a private loft building today but the door may be open and you may access the richly-appointed lobby.

 

 


–> Board Angels Flight.

As you go up, look to the grayish building below and to the left – the Metro 417 Lofts. Can you tell which windows are real and which are painted on? Are the window painters real or painted on? Soon after the 1926 building (Schultz and Weaver) was purchased in 1979, the owner, David Hart, commissioned muralist Jeff Greene to execute the project, which was completed in 1986. There 62 trompe l’oeil windows wrapping the building; the two painted painters were the idea of Hart’s wife, Barbara.

–> Welcome to California Plaza’s Water Court!

California Plaza & Water Court. Bunker Hill. California Plaza Phase One: Arthur Erickson Architects, 1985; Phase Two: same architect, 1992

California Plaza and its Water Court is a popular lunchtime spot for office workers and a favored locale for evening and weekend concerts, too. The water feature is by WET Design, a Los Angeles-based company. They’re the same creative folks who may have wowed you at the “Fountains of Bellagio” in Las Vegas. Stick around if you can and keep an eye on it as geysers become floods – sometimes rushing towards the plaza seating areas, only to disappear at its edge.

OK, while you’re up here, take in the views! This is downtown LA’s hill – Bunker Hill – its highest point. Out in the direction from which you came is the “old” downtown you just toured. From that east-facing railing you should be able to spot the Art Deco City Hall off to the left. See more of it in WalknRideLA‘s “Civic Center” tour. In the distance to the right stands the buff and gold-colored, Beaux Arts-styled Continental Building you saw earlier – LA’s first “skyscraper.” Now you’re seeing it as Tom and Summer saw it in “500 Days of Summer” – they sat in one of those same park benches below you. A third building in the California Plaza complex was never built. It was to be the tallest of three, at 65 floors, and was to rise from the park you’re looking at. Downtown was already overbuilt and the “Phase Three” plan was scrapped.

Way off to the right, at the southern edge of the upper plaza is a great view down Olive Street. In the mid-distance, just off to the left is Pershing Square where you started your tour. The Millennium Biltmore is the brick building off to the right. Look for the Oviatt Building’s clock tower just past it.

Towering above you are the two corporate skyscrapers that dominate the plaza. The Omni Hotel, MOCA and the Coburn School of Performing Arts are also within the plaza area but are best toured in WalknRideLA‘s “Civic Center” tour. California Plaza Phase Two – with the Dolittle & Touche name up top is tallest of the two – and the third tallest buildling in the city. It rises 750 feet, 54 floors. One California Plaza is shorter at 578 feet and 42 floors. Their dazzling, curvilinear shapes and two-colored reflective glass are attractive and distinctive. For years they were also almost empty, opening just as a glut in downtown office space hit downtown in the early 90’s.

There’s a broad range of public art in, around and even under (on Olive Street, which runs below) the plaza.

–> Walk across the upper level of Water Court to Grand Avenue.

Another WET Design fountain (“Spiral Fountain,” 1992) offers a little less intimidating temptation to get in there and get WET.

As you squish on over to the street, look to your right and you should be able to spot the Walt Disney Concert Hall down the street in the distance – nothing else on the hill looks quite like this building. It, along with MOCA, the Coburn School of Performing Arts and the Music Center are all visited in WalknRideLA’s “Civic Center” tour. You’re welcomed to check that tour out now, but there’s plenty more to see in Part II of this “Pershing Square” tour.

–> Cross Grand Avenue to the Wells Fargo Center.

Now would be a good time to define “modern” architecture, that is, were there an agreed definition of what it is. Truth be told, “it” isn’t an “it.” Modern architecture encompasses a broad range and blending of styles. But for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to take it down to just two basic looks:

  1. International: Think of glass, steel and concrete variously assembled into a boxes or rectangles and you’ve got the makings of the International style. “International” is a good fit as buildings in this style would feel totally at home whether in Tokyo or Toronto; there’s little or no reference to local topography, climate, or culture – not even references to Greece, Rome or Egypt, etc. as in the Beaux Arts or Art Deco styles. The deal is this: new materials and techniques freed building designs from arches, columns and thick support walls. Steel and reinforced concrete skeltons enabled towers to soar skyward so celebrate them and show them, for Pete’s sake! An early example (some would say a pure and rare example) is New York’s Lever House (image at right). Though we’re still building in this style, we’re also trending to Postmodern.
  2. Postmodern: As International was a reaction to earlier styles, Postmodern is something of – though not a total rejection of – International. “Wit, ornament and reference” have been cited as catchwords of Postmodern and they’re choices. A few other words may help here: “bored with the box.” Postmodern is way more fun than International; it celebrates whimsy, plays with ornamentation and where possible, references the building to its site, function or culture. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, for instance, offers a “symphony” of swoops, dips and crescendos. Similarly, the Team Disney Building in Burbank (shown at right) by architect Michael Graves, obviously references its owner and function.

Clearly, up here on Bunker Hill, the International style dominates. But look again, notice that boxes and rectangles mix with paralellograms, cylinders and curvilinerar structures, clear evidence of “late” Internationalism” – or “early” Postmodernism?  

Wells Fargo Center (originally Crocker Center). Bunker Hill. Wells Fargo Tower (54 floors), KPMG Tower (45 floors). Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1983

Here we have parallelograms. Remember that we just saw curvilinear towers at the California Plaza. Take this to its Postmodern extreme and you’ve got the Walt Disney Concert Hall – a design whose abstract skelton was enabled through use of computer software.

The Center, both inside (a three-level atrium connects the two towers) and out, provides interesting public art. All sculpture are identified and dated. A Wells Fargo Museum (Monday – Friday only) is located off the Water Court level in the base of the Wells Fargo Tower. The exhibit includes a original Wells Fargo stagecoach and a 26-ounce chunk of California Gold Rush gold!

Photo Op! Find the sharpest corner of either buiding. Stand in just the right spot below it and the building appears to be paper-thin.

–> Continue through the Wells Fargo Center plaza area to Hope Street. Cross at the mid-block crosswalk and turn right. Walk to the Bank of America Building at #333 South Hope Street.

Bank of America Building. 333 S. Hope Street. Albert C. Martin and Associates, 1974

Here’s an International-style building that blends concrete and glass creating a monolithic structure that soars upward to the sky. The 55-story building sits at a 45-degree angle to its lot and the open plaza gives it a certain “sits alone” distinction. That plaza surrounding the building is worth a walk-through; it presents a soft, park-like contrast to the tower that looms above. It also offers a surprise: at its center is a waterfall spilling into a lower level plaza you probably didn’t know was there. The building, in fact, extends nine floors below the upper plaza level. Public art fills the garden and plaza, including a significant piece by Alexander Calder (“Four Arches,” 1974).

–> Walk back to Hope Street, turn right and continue on Hope Street to Fourth Street.

To the right, in the near distance, is the Westin Bonaventure Hotel (John Portman, 1978). Five circular, glass-faced cylinders (the tallest, in the center, offers a 35th floor, revolving cocktail lounge) give the building the look of a Saturn rocket sitting on its launch pad, ready for lift-off. If you’d like to check out its interior, there’s a skywalk entry to the building’s sixth floor just past the Ketcham Y. M.C.A. But once inside, remember your route. The interior walkways, pods, bridges, circular towers and stairs create a maze. You’ll be in there until next Wednesday if you don’t pay attention.

The building’s a favorite of Hollywood, having appeared in at least a dozen major motion pictures, including “In the Line of Fire,” “Rain Man,” “True Lies,” “Nick of Time,” “Blue Thunder,” “Forget Paris,” and “Strange Days.”

Cardio machines at the Ketcham Y.M.C.A (Albert C. Martin and Associates, 1986) overlook an attractive garden, the Morgan Adams Jr. Sculpture Garden. “Fittingly,” the sculptures, mostly athletic figures, are themed to promote a healthy lifestyle. All are titled, with author and date. Check them out if you have the time. The skywalk bridge offers some great photo ops up and down Flower Street, too.

Look beyond the garden, beyond the “Y” and beyond the Bonaventure Hotel and you’ll spot the Union Bank Building (Albert C. Martin and Associates with Harrison and Abramovitz, 1968). The building holds two significant “firsts”- the first to top City Hall in height and the first to be built here in the “new” Bunker Hill redevelopment zone. In fact, it went up when they were still tearing things down (see the Julius Shulman image, right).

–> Cross Fourth Street and continue down Hope Street.

To the left is the 26-story Mellon Bank Building (Welton Beckett Associates, 1982). At first glance it seems to be part of the Wells Fargo Center towers, what with its parallelogram shape and use of brown granite yet it’s not in any way connected to the center. The sculpture, “Ulysses,” (Alexander Liberman, 1988) dominates the street in front of the building. Its striking white color contrasts nicely against the brown buildings nearby and offers a nice complement to the other “Alexander” sculpture up the street: Calder’s orange “Four Arches.”

It’s a Fact

“Ulysses” replaced an earlier work called “Amaryllis,” described by some as “turd-like.” Because public art was often commissioned to artists working thousands of miles away and deposited upon generic plazas, it was often derided as “plop art,” – maybe it once was an especially appropriate description in this case?

–> Continue down Hope Street to pause at the top of the Bunker Hill Steps.

To the left, looming above you, is the city’s – and the West’s – tallest office building, the 75-story USBank Building. More on this building in a few minutes. The building off to the right is the Citibank Center (Albert C. Martin, 1981). If it looks familiar it may be because it opened the weekly show, “L.A. Law.” Despite the building’s relative boxiness, it features a substantial amount of public art and some comfortable gardens that are real hits for the lunch-time crowd of office workers that converge on the area each day.

Straight ahead, beyond the pyramid peak of the Library is the 62-story AON Center (Charles Luckman, 1973), tallest in the city when completed; it ranks Number Two today. A 1988 fire on its 12th floor injured 40 and killed one maintenance employee. Though built before a 1974 ordinance required fire sprinkler systems in new high-rises, the building was in the process of installing a system when the fire broke out. Following the fire, all high-rises – new and old – were required to install the sprinklers.

US Bank Building. 633 W. Fifth Street. Henry N. Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, 1990

You can’t see it from the street but up on its roof is the highest helipad atop any building in the world. Local codes require helipads on the roofs of all downtown Los Angeles hig-rises. At 75 floors (73 office floors; two for mechanical rooms), the tower joins City Hall, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Staples Arena as the most recognized structures in downtown Los Angeles.

OK, so you’re probably thinking: “What happens if there’s an earthquake?” What happens is that special seismic “curtain-walls” allow each floor to move somewhat independently without compromising the building’s structural strength. Built to withstand a tremblor of 8.3 on the Richter scale, it survived the 1994 Northridge quake (6.7) in fine shape. Sadly, it did not survive the alien attack in the 1996 movie, “Independence Day.”

It’s a Fact…

The by-appointment-only Educogym on the 57th floor of Los Angeles’ USBank Tower bills itself as the highest gym in the country.

Though the tallest in the Western United States, the USBank Building only manages a 40-something ranking in the world. Still, its multiple setbacks, near-white cladding and spike-sided “crown” are impressive – especially for a city long thought to lack a “real” downtown! Lights within the crown shine white at night; the Christmas holiday season adds red and green; purple and gold shine bright if the LA Lakers make the playoffs.

OK, it’s time to head down “The Steps.” Everyone loves the Bunker Hill Steps, especially when they’re going down them.

Bunker Hill Steps. Connecting Hope Street and Fifth Street. Lawrence Halprin, 1992.

This outdoor staircase provides a pedestrian connection between Bunker Hill and the city below. Only 102 steps separate top from bottom yet the pace changes from the relative quiet of Hope Place (the little cul-de-sac near where you now stand) and the always-busy Fifth Street below. “The Source Figure” (Robert Graham, 1992) is the title of the bronze sculpture in the upper fountain. There’s symbolism here, of course. The female figure symbolizes human fertility; water symolizes nature’s fertilty. “Water” runs a common theme in local art here in LA, no doubt because we have so little of it in our semi-desert clime. More on that at One Bunker Hill, coming up soon. Look for the crabs at the Source Figure’s feet, bringing some to call the sculpture, “Woman with crabs.”

It’s a Fact…

Lawrence Halprin passed away in 2009. The landscape architect designed the sculpture garden you may have just visited at the Wells Fargo Center, the garden you’re about to visit at the LA Central Library, the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco.

It’s Another Fact….

Robert Graham, sculptor of the African-American “Source Figure,” frequently worked with Lawrence Halprin. He did the four figures within the Halprin-designed Wells Fargo Center garden and collaborated with Halprin in the FDR Memorial. Graham also sculpted the headless and footless figures in Exposition Park at the Olympic Gateway and the Madonna at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angeles. Both Halprin and Graham (who was married to Angelica Huston) passed away in 2009.

–> Walk down the Bunker Hill Steps to Fifth Street.

As you descend the steps (or escalators if you visit on a weekday) note the sails covering the sitting terraces off to the left (John Neary, 1992) and the weathered walls and arches to the left (John Goodman, 1992).

–> Cross Fifth Street at the mid-block crosswalk and walk to the north entrance to the Los Angeles Central Library.

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

Take a look inside. If you do, be sure to take the stairs from the entrance hall up past the black marble sphinxes to the stunning, main level rotunda. If you’re wondering where all the books are (it’s a library, after all) take a walk to the left (east) and you’ll make a discovery: more books are located below ground than above, thanks to the subterranean addition completed in 1993. The addition was named for Mayor Tom Bradley, a major proponent of the library’s reconstruction.

–> Return back to the library’s Fifth Street entrance.

By the 1970s the library was running out of space. They saw 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 edifice 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. The low-rise library sits on a large parcel of land, sufficient under density allowances to permit a huge skyscraper to rise in its place. The library inked a deal that annexed nearby property (the present-day USBank and Gas Company Buildings) into one, giant parcel. The library remained in place and its substantial amount of “unused” density was instead used by the skyscrapers across the street. Overall density remained within allowable limits and everyone was happy – especially the city. The library received over $125 million for the deal, enabling the construction of its necessary expansion – a 4-level subterranean extension.

Still, there were challenges. Pre-construction 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.

If you’re from Nebraska you may find familiarity in our library; the architect designed your state capitol in the same style, beautifully blending sculpture (Lee Lawrie, sculptor for both buildings) with architecture. The hand-held “Light of Learning” atop the pyramid is a replica. The original, wobbled by the 1994 Northridge quake, stands safely inside.

It’s a Fact…

The Los Angeles Public Library conducts 1-hour, free walk-in tours of the library and grounds. Current schedules are: Monday – 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 entrance hall.

–> Continue west on Fifth Street to Flower Street. Turn left on Flower and continue past the library’s garden – the Maguire Gardens.

This round-about way to the garden (designed, incidentally, by our Bunker Hill Steps friend, Lawrence Halprin in collaboration with the firm Campbell and Campbell) was done for a reason. The step risers leading from near the street to the library’s west entrance constitute a historical progression of language and learning from hieroglyphics to Einstein. The top-most riser is blank – a hopeful sign that learning continues! Jud Fine did the wonderful fountains, entitled, “Spine.”

–> Enter the library from the west entrance, pass through the lower rotunda, turn left and exit back out onto Fifth Street.

The Bunker Hill Steps should be straight in front of you; the USBank Tower, in all its glory, rises above.

–> Turn right and walk to the corner of Fifth Street and Grand Avenue.

It’s a Fact…

Soon after California’s statehood in 1850 most street names in downtown L.A. were converted from Spanish to their English equivalents. For instance, Loma became Hill and Primavera became Spring. Given that Caridad was then dotted with private residences, its translation to “Charity” didn’t stand well with its home owners – nobody wanted to be “living on Charity.” Instead, the street took on the far more elegant name of “Grand.” What’s more, it was further elevated to “Avenue” status – the only avenue in downtown’s core.

One Bunker Hill (former So. California Edison Building). 601 W. Fifth Street (at Grand Avenue). Allison & Allison, 1931

The building on the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Grand Avenue is the Southern California Edison Building (now One Bunker Hill). At night, these folks didn’t turn their lights out when they went home; they turned them on. On a clear night the roof-top “Edison” sign could be seen from miles around.

As you stand before the building, you should be able to see two of the three outdoor bas-reliefs (by sculpture Merrell Gage) above its entry portico. The center figure appears to be holding a torch in his hand. As you cross the street, look more closely – it’s a light bulb! The three allegorical panels salute, from left to right: hydroelectric energy, light (hence, the light bulb) and power.

–> Cross Fifth Street and walk to the corner portico of One Bunker Hill.

The entry and lobbies offer numerous salutes to hydro-electric power, a relatively new technology of the day. The building’s interior boasts some two-dozen kinds of marble on the floor and walls, and an interesting blend of Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. If you’re admitted into the elevator lobby (access varies by day and time) be sure to check out – but not enter – the elevator interiors if and when their doors open.

The enormous mural at the west end of the lobby is entitled “Power.” The muralist is Hugo Ballin and if you’ve been to the Griffith Observatory – another Art Deco gem – you’ve seen his work lining its lobby rotunda. Can you find Ben Franklin in the mural? The gentleman in the top hat is William Gilbert, the 16th century English physician credited as the “father of electrical engineering.” As did the bas-reliefs above the entrance, the mural salutes hydroelectric power.

The building was one of the first in the west to be all-electric – heat, and air-conditioning – the latter an expensive rarity for 1931. But then again, they were the electric company! Southern California Edison moved to larger offices in Rosemead.

–> Continue below the mural, down the stairs to the left and exit the building onto Fifth Street.

On the way out, note the historic pictures that line the hallway walls. They sold electric appliances in the lobby!

–> Turn left and walk back to the corner of Fifth Street and Grand Avenue.

Straight ahead, on the left, is the Gas Company Tower (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Richard Keating – primary architect, 1992). Earlier, we pictured one of the earliest examples of the International style, the Lever House in New York City. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill also produced that structure. On looking at the Gas Company Tower, you can see how the style has evolved from the smooth and glassy rectangular “box” to a far more carved, sometimes almost curvacious façade treatment.

If you were flying above the tower’s 52 floors you might better appreciate the “flame-shaped” crown (a helipad rests within that ellipse) that recalls a primary function of the Gas Company Tower’s major tenant, the Southern California Gas Company: providing gas to its customers. And you may recall that a primary difference between the International and Postmodern styles is that the latter often provides a “reference” to the building’s site, function or culture. So here you have it – the beginnings of the Postmodern style.

Look to the left, behind the building. On the south wall of the Pacific Telephone Building (Woodford & Bernard Architects, 1961) is a mural entitled “Dusk,” by Frank Stella, completed in 1992. At a whopping $1 million, you’re looking at what is believed to be the most expensive outdoor painted mural on earth. And at 35,000 square feet, it’s also one of the largest murals in the country – certainly the largest in downtown LA. So, for its size and price tag, it’s worth a closer look. We’ll take a look in a minute.

Diagonally across the street from where you stand is the Biltmore Tower, obviously not part of the original Biltmore Hotel – nor does it pretend to be. Completed in 1987, it stands on the site of the long-ago demolished 1,654-seat Biltmore Theatre (1923-1964, image at right) – a popular venue for Broadway shows playing in the city. When plans for the Music Center on Bunker Hill were revealed, the theatre knew its days were numbered.

The tower, 9 floors for parking and 15 for offices, blends with the original hotel without trying to duplicate its style. Notice that the bricks closely match (it’s believed they were able to match 5 of the 6 original colors) and the quoins – those decorative blocks of concrete running up the corners – closely match, too. Even the bay window treatments closely match. What doesn’t match are the hotel’s flat, Beaux Arts roof, the heavy cornices and notably, its height. The tower appears peaked (a helipad is hidden within), relating best to the Library’s pyramid, nearby. This is yet another Postmodern touch – in this case, referencing a building to its past and relating it to surrounding structures. More on the hotel, itself, coming up.

–> Cross Grand Avenue and walk left just far enough to get a better look at the mural.

Stella originally declined the commission feeling that a mural of this size would best be viewed from far away, not squeezed between two buildings. Obviously, he changed his mind. The title of the work was lifted from a chapter title in Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. The mural theme is of motion and travel; note that the montage is “posted” with tape and push pins. Interestingly, Stella predicted the mural had a life span of just 10 years. Maybe its “back alley” location is helping preserve it?

The water feature below the mural is yet another clever installation of WET Design.

–> Walk back down Grand Avenue to the corner at Fifth Street. Cross Fifth and continue past the Biltmore Tower. Look left and enter the Millennium Biltmore Hotel through the porte-cochere.

Millennium Biltmore Hotel. 506 S. Grand Avenue. Schultz and Weaver, 1923, 1928

The stained glass ceiling in the Reception Lobby (formerly the “Music Room”) starred in the movie, “Poseidon Adventure,” just one of dozens of films this hotel has on its credits list. The room also served as John F. Kennedy’s campaign headquarters during the 1960 Democratic National Convention held in the city that year.

But this space, just off the drive-in entrance, isn’t where guests used to checked in. Before 1984, the hotel’s main entrance was off Olive Street, right across from Pershing Square. Back in the day, most guests arrived town by train. LA’s various train terminals – as were downtown’s financial, shopping and theater districts – were east of Pershing Square. So it made sense to orient the hotel’s entrance to the east.

By the 1960s, most of the Biltmore’s guests were arriving town by air or by car; LAX was to the west as was that main downtown freeway artery, the Harbor Freeway. So it made sense to re-locate the lobby to Grand Avenue. It took a while to make the switch but that’s just what the hotel did, moving Reception to the Grand Avenue side and adding a vehicular entrance and additional parking within the newly-built Biltmore Tower. (But the Beatles, arriving in 1964, didn’t come in from Grand or Olive or by any street, for that matter. They came through the roof, arriving by helicopter atop the hotel to avoid the push of paparazzi and the crush of screeming fans down on the sidewalks.)

–> Take a look around!

The former Reception Lobby (now the Rendezvous Court) is still there, marking an elegant entrance for guests and looky-loos coming in off Olive Street. You’ll exit the hotel through that space so you’ll see it in a minute. But first, be sure to check out the bar just off the Reception Lobby. As with most public rooms in the hotel, famed Italian muralist Giovanni Smeraldi (his works also adorn the White House and the Vatican) and his assistant, Anthony Heinsbergen, were responsible for the exquisite designs.

Function rooms off the Galleria include the Crystal Ballroom where eight Academy Award ceremonies have been held (1931, 1935-39, 1941-42) which is entirely appropriate as it’s the very room where the awards’ host, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was founded.

It’s a Fact….

(…Or maybe not a fact). Statuettes weren’t presented during the early years of the Academy Award shows. It’s rumored that during one of the ceremonies held within the Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom, the Academy’s art director Cedric Gibbons sketched the “Oscar” design on a Biltmore linen napkin. Nobody knows for sure why the 8.5-pound figure was nicknamed “Oscar.”

The Beaux Arts hotel, detailed with magnificent Renaissance Revival flourishes, opened its doors in 1923. Los Angeles had arrived: not only was the city about to eclipse San Francisco in population, it now had a hotel on par with any in the nation. What’s more, a 1928 addition added another 500 rooms to the 1000-room hotel making it the biggest west of Chicago. The same architects who designed the Biltmore went on to design New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1929.

–> Locate the mid-Galleria entrance to the elevator lobby, passing through that lobby to the staircase overlooking the former Reception Lobby, now the Rendezvous Court.

The three-story Rendezvous Court features plaster “beams” intricately carved and painted in brilliant reds, greens and golds (that’s real 24-carat gold you’re looking up at). The chandeliers were imported from Italy as were the travertine marble walls. Historians note that the room itself was modeled after the Spanish royal hall where Christopher Columbus was “debriefed” by Queen Isabella following his first journey to the New World. No longer a busy lobby, the Rendezvous Court is now a comfortable lounge, and the venue for afternoon tea.

It’s a Fact…

The Millennium Biltmore’s movie career is enviable (all this, and it’s “hosted” the Oscars, too)! So here, listed alphabetically, are just some of the hotel’s relatively recent films: A Star is Born, Alien Nation, Bachelor Party, Beverly Hills Cop, Blow, Blue Streak, Bugsy, Chinatown, Daredevil, Dave, Ghostbusters, In the Line of Fire, Independence Day, King Kong (1976), National Treasure, Ocean’s 11, Pretty in Pink, Pride & Prejudice, Prom Night, Rocky III, Rumor Has It, Spider-Man, Splash, The Buddy Holly Story, The Italian Job, The Nutty Professor, The Sting, True Lies, Wedding Crashers.

–> Exit the Millennium Biltmore’s Rendezvous Court at Olive Street. Walk left to the corner of Olive and Fifth Streets, cross Olive and re-enter Pershing Square.

Your Pershing Square tour concludes where it began: Pershing Square. The Metro Pershing Square station entrance is at the corner of Hill and Fifth Streets, one block from the hotel. Thanks for touring with WalknRideLA!