What makes this tour important? Los Angeles truly “arrived” in the 1920s. As a new, brash, and sometimes boastful city, LA embraced Art Deco’s fresh, forward-looking style. If you’re an Art Deco fan (and who isn’t) here’s your tour!

Tour Starts: Pershing Square, in downtown Los Angeles. The park is bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th Streets, right across Hill Street from Metrorail’s Pershing Square subway station. 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 and look for the purple campanile. 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. Enter the park and look for the purple campanile.
  • By Car: For this tour, parking is a cinch because Pershing Square is actually a giant, 1,800-car parking garage – with a park on top. Parking costs vary; weekend is $6.60 all day. From the garage, follow signs up to the Olive Street exit. Once above ground, look for the purple campanile.

Tour Length: Allow 3 to 4 hours, plus lunch or snack time, bathroom breaks, photo-ops, etc. Optional side-trips will add more time.

Optional Side Trips:

  1. Bunker Hill: 30 minutes.
  2. Eastern Columbia Building: 25 minutes.

How much Walking? Figure about one mile (excluding optional side trips) – most of which is over relatively flat terrain. Long distances are covered by subway travel but wear comfortable walking shoes, anyway.

Tour Cost: Once at the park, you’ll pay only for tour transportation on the subway ($4.50 total; $1.65 for 62+). We suggest you ride Metrorail to and from the tour (Pershing Square Station). Buy a Day Pass ($6.00; $1.80 for 62+) and you’re good to go.

It’s a Fact…

You may not fall in love with Pershing Square, but know this: it’s not really a park but an underground parking garage – with landscaping on its roof. In the early 1950s when the garage was built, palm trees were dug up and planted alongside area freeways. Some lucky palms even made it to the banks of a river at Disneyland®: the Jungle Cruise ride!

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. With the inclusion of both Side Trips (which we really, really recommend you take) you’ve done a lot.

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Background

No where on earth did the “Roaring Twenties” roar louder than in Los Angeles. The 1920s witnessed more than a doubling of the city’s population, from barely 500,000 to well over 1.2 million and earning the onetime dusty, frontier town title as the nation’s fifth largest metropolis. That rip-roaring decade of growth coincided with the emergence of a dramatic new architectural style – Art Deco – and has left Los Angeles an exceptional treasure of buildings dating from the era.

The 1920s were heady years for the city as developers erected temples of commerce that not only embraced a fresh, ultramodern look, but celebrated it. Buildings “premiered” like movies, with bright lights, chorus line dancers and appearances by Hollywood stars.

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This “modern” look (the term “Art Deco” wasn’t coined until the 1960s) was exciting and fresh, and to some, about as shocking as short skirts, women smoking, and jazz. Still, within a few short years, out went what many felt were the tired throwbacks to Greece and Rome – the solid and serious Beaux-Arts buildings of the day – and in came the streamlined, soaring and often brilliantly colored towers of modern times. Ornamentation now drew its cues from the more “exotic” civilizations of the Egyptians, Mayans, Aztecs, Assyrians, and Moors. Even African, Gothic and Tudor influences found their way into the designs of Art Deco architects.

Hop aboard the MTA subway and enjoy this self-guided, 3-hour tour as it explores LA’s vibrant Art Deco scene. From downtown, out Wilshire Boulevard and back, you’ll see the region’s finest ART DECO TREASURES!

It’s a Fact:In the 1920s when buildings in the Art Deco style were going up, they were called “modern” or “built in the modern style.”  The term “Art Deco” wasn’t popularized until forty years later when an English art historian, Bevis Hillier, published a book entitled “Art Deco of the 20s and 30s.” The label was derived from the acclaimed 1925 “Exhibition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” held in Paris.

The Tour

Before moving from Pershing Square, a quick architectural overview and basic time-line may help you see where Art Deco came from, what is was (and remains) and where it went. From the center of the park you have a 360-degree view where four, distinct styles spanning over a century of time can be easily identified.

  •  Victorian: You can’t see any Victorian-era buildings from where you stand because none remain. But back in the mid to late-1800s when this neighborhood was a suburb (downtown’s commercial hub was several blocks to the northeast) most homes reflected the popular Victorian style. As downtown’s core crept south those homes were replaced by churches and Victorian-style apartment buildings (the photo to the right depicts Hill Street, just across crom Pershing Square, about 1900). In turn, those structures were replaced with office buildings.
  • Beaux-Arts: The best example of this style is the Millennium Biltmore Hotel (image right). Look for its imposing, flat-roofed 12-story brick and terra cotta façade. The 1923 building epitomizes the neo-classic style with its majestic columns, “Romeo and Juliet” balconies and intricate cornices. To the eyes of late-1920s designers, it also began to epitomize “your father’s architecture.” As flappers, bootleg whiskey, raccoon coats and talking pictures came in,  this style went out.
  • Art Deco: On its arrival in the late-1920s, Art Deco was everything Beaux-Arts wasn’t: smooth, relatively uncluttered and unadorned, vertically imposing with multiple setbacks and typically crowned with a tower or spire. In New York, think Chrysler Building or Empire State Building. Here at Pershing Square, think Title Guarantee Building – the building to your north with the church-like flying buttresses and Gothic tower. Erected as an office building in 1930, it’s the Title Guarantee Building Lofts today. Art Deco moved into other sub-styles (Streamline Modern, Monumental & WPA Modern, Corporate Modern), eventually falling out of favor by the 1950s.
  • International and Corporate International: To a purist you’re looking for the glass boxes but the style has broadedned to include boxes and rectangles of visible concrete and steel. Peaking in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, this style is nothing if not honest, one that’s only recently regaining interest. Form follows function here – if it’s an office building made of steel, concrete and glass, then by golly, show the steel, concrete and glass! And don’t pretend it’s an Italian villa (Biltmore Hotel) or a Gothic cathedral (Title Guarantee). Honest or otherwise, by the 1970s we were growing bored of the box. From where you’re standing, the City National Bank makes a good example.
  • Postmodern: The catch-all label we give many of today’s buildings – again, this is a broad generalization of terms – keeps the steel, concrete and glass of the International style but adds curves, colors, spires and setbacks (sometimes in very Art Deco-ish ways). Look to the northwest, up the hill (Bunker Hill) towards the tallest buildings in view. Erected since the 1970s, they’re late-Corporate International, some bordering on Postmodern. You’re not looking at boxes anymore; you’re looking at curvilinear shapes, trapezoids and parallelograms. Buildings which reference their site, region or function are often termed Postmodern. You can’t see it from here but if you take this tour’s Bunker Hill Side Trip you’ll have a glimpse at Disney Hall whose exterior walls play a symphony of musical dips and crescendos. It’s an icon of Postmodern architecture.

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.

Okay. Now you’re an expert and you know that Art Deco fits in the architectural timeline somewhere between the Beaux-Arts and International styles. With that knowledge you’ll also understand why some early Art Deco buildings carry Beaux-Arts baggage and why a few later examples hint at the austere boxes to come as our tastes gravitated to the International style.

–> Fix your eyes on the Art Deco Title Guarantee Building Lofts at the northeast corner of the park. Walk towards that corner.

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

This corner offers a convenient place to compare the Art Deco and Beaux-Arts styles. On the left, the Art Deco Title Guarantee Building (1930) (now converted to lofts) offers a smoothly-faced, spire-topped tower where “verticality” rules. To the right, the Pershing Square Building (1925) presents an ornately-decorated, flat-roofed Beaux-Arts structure where horizontal solidity is emphasized. Art Deco’s preference for streamlining even pushed the fire escapes inside so as not to detract from its smooth, streamlined façade; those on the Pershing Square Building remain outside.

Notice also the Pershing Square’s Romeo & Juliet balconies – a signature of the Beaux-Arts style. They’re absent on the Art Deco building – or are they? Look again, behind the trees, just above the first floor. Placed low on the building, they don’t break the clean, smooth lines so favored by Art Deco stylists.

One more thing to point out at this corner: height limits. When these buildings went up they were restricted by a maximum height limit of 150 feet (see “It’s a Fact,” above). But clearly, the Art Deco building is taller than its neighbor across the street. A provision in the height limit specified that no leasable office space be built above the 150-foot mark, allowing architects to add the necessary mechanical rooms for elevators, heating and ventilation, etc. atop their buildings.

That provision meant little to the Beaux-Arts architects as that style favored a flat roof anyway (that rooftop lounge atop today’s Pershing Square Building is a recent addition.) From here, as you look to the right down Fifth Street, virtually every building dates from the Beaux-Arts era, each sports a flat roof and most max out at the 150-foot limit.

Well, Art Deco architects saw things differently. They seized on the height-limit loophole and ran with it – upwards. To a style where set-backs and towers were the rule, so-called “mechanical rooms” morphed into massive clock towers, soaring spires or buttressed “bell towers.” In more than a few instances, an Art Deco building’s total height was more than double the 150-foot maximum. The now-gone Richfield Building (photo on right) sported a 220-foot “oil derrick” and base atop its legal-height 150-foot office tower.

–> Turn left and walk up Fifth Street towards the Biltmore Hotel. Cross Olive Street.

Take a peak into the Millennium Biltmore, if you’d like – an entrance is located mid-block along Olive Street. A full discussion is included in WalknRideLA‘s Pershing Square tour.

–> Continue up Fifth to Grand Avenue. Cross Grand Avenue and look to the right.

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.

–> Cross Fifth Street and enter the building.

As you near the building, check out 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. 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.

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. This lobby salutes hydro-electric power, a relatively new technology of the day. One is entitled “Transmission and Distribution” (Barse Miller, 1930) and “Whte Coal” (Conrad Buff, 1930).

As Quoted…”Back East, men drink water and fight over whiskey. In California, men drink whiskey and fight over water!” Attributed (unconfirmed) to Mark Twain, on visiting California.

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 and exit the building onto Fifth Street.

Note the historic pictures that line the hallway walls. They sold electric appliances in the lobby!   

Los Angeles Central Library. 630 W. Fifth Street (north entrance). Bertram Goodhue, 1926

To your right rises the Postmodern tower, the US Bank Tower; you spotted it earlier from the park. Across the street is the Art Deco-styled Los Angeles Central Library. Check out the dazzling pyramid on its roof. Original designs by noted architect Bertram Goodhue called for an ornate Spanish Revival building style. But changing tastes (and a tightening city budget) shifted the final 1926 design to reflect a far cleaner, more streamlined design. That’s the Seal of Los Angeles above the Fifth Street entrance.

Side Trip! See L.A.’s “first skyscraper” and the Walt Disney Concert Hall!

Want to go up Bunker Hill, glimpse the Walt Disney Conert Hall, view City Hall (LA’s largest Art Deco edifice), take in LA’s first skyscraper and ride aboard the country’s shortest railroad – Angels Flight? Take this side trip. Allow 30 minutes; more if you stop for lunch. To take this side trip -click here-.

ThreeLos Angeles Central Library (continued)

–> At Fifth Street, cross the mid-block crosswalk to the north entrance of the Central Library.

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 amouth 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 the structure; the architect designed your state capitol in the same style, beautifully blending sculpture (Lee Lawrie, sculptor for both buildings) with architecture. The hand-held “Torch of Knowledge” 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: Tuesday – Friday, 12:30 pm; Saturday, 11:00 am & 2:00 pm. For more information: click here.

 

 

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.

 

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!

–> Continue south on Flower Street, passing the handsome brick California Club.

The next two blocks were once home to three major oil companies: Richfield, Superior, and General Petroleum (later Mobil). All have since merged and moved.

Richfield Building. Flower Street. Morgan, Walls and Clements, 1928 (demolished, 1968)

Across Flower Street are the soaring twin towers of 505 Flower. Erected in 1972 as the ARCO Center, the towers replaced what has now been posthumously granted the “Art Deco” star of Los Angeles – the Richfield Building. Clad in black and gold terra cotta (oil = black gold) and topped with its signature, oil derrick-shaped “Richfield” sign – viewable from Santa Monica Bay – the iconic structure fell to the wrecking ball in 1968 (to the left is a model of the building which graces the entry of the Los Angeles Conservancy office). 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. The loss, particularly of the Richfield Building, was controversial and helped strengthen the preservation movement when the library was threatened 10 years later.

As Quoted…“The Rooftop Bar at The Standard, Downtown LA, offers an unmatched visual feast of surrounding skyscrapers and panoramic views of Downtown Los Angeles. The Roof encompasses a heated swimming pool, red Astroturf deck, dance floor, bar, outdoor fireplace, vibrating waterbed pods and a grassy knoll with sculptured topiary. Nightly DJs, excellent food and special events have established the Rooftop Bar as one of the most coveted nightlife destinations in downtown Los Angeles.”The Standard Downtown LA Website – 2010

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!

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

Next up is the former flagship office of the Superior Oil Company, completed in 1956 and designed by Claud Beelman of Eastern Columbia Building fame (see Side Trip to follow). A 2002 renovation created today’s smart and oh, so chic Standard Hotel – a creative example of adaptive reuse.

Although this “box” fits comfortably within what we call the Corporate Modern style, Beelman’s building reveals Art Deco roots with strong, protruding, vertical piers and recessed windows and spandrels (the panels above and below the windows).

Go on inside – the 1950s interior is largely intact. Check out the world clocks on the wall and the oil silhouette artistry behind you above the entry door. For some great downtown 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. Think about coming back after your tour is over. Those red “pods” (picture to the left) are for serious lounging!

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

 Look to the left – and then up. That’s the 62-story AON Building (1974, Corporate International style), the city’s tallest until the US Bank Tower took that title. 

–> Cross Sixth Street.

SixPegasus (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 yet 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. That floor plan flexibility came in handy for its conversion to a 322-unit apartment building 55 years later. 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 “Hello Hollywood” tour).

It’s a Fact…

Wilshire Boulevard, today’s broad, 16-mile avenue to the ocean is an assemblage of re-named roads and cut-throughs. From a short, mid-city stretch (named for the real estate tycoon, Henry Gaylord Wilshire), the boulevard was connected to Orange Street which ran eastward into downtown. It was paved westward to meet up with Santa Monica’s Nevada Avenue. In 1934 both segments were joined when a final link was carved through MacArthur Park.

–> Cross Sixth Street. Continue down Flower Street to Wilshire Boulevard.

Look left for One Wilshire (1966, Corporate International style – if ever the “box” description fit, it’s here). Though actually on Grand Avenue, One Wilshire sits at the very origin of Wilshire Boulevard. From here the thoroughfare begins its 16-mile journey to Santa Monica, terminating at the Pacific Ocean (see “It’s a Fact,” above).

Figueroa at Wilshire. 601 S. Figueroa (at 6th Street). AC Martin Partners, 1990

Look right for the handsome, 53-story Figueroa at Wilshire structure. Deco isn’t dead – not by any measure. The green, central portions of the building appear to cascade down from its octagonal tower, confirming an Art Deco inspiration (fix this look in your mind and bring it back when you take in Bullocks Wilshire in a few minutes). Later, if you’re heading back to Union Station, be sure to check out MTA’s headquarter office building located just east of the station. It’s a clear example of retro-deco, too!

—> Cross Wilshire Boulevard and continue down Flower Street to Seventh Street.

—> At Seventh Street turn left and walk a half a block down the street.

Rite-Aid Store (formerly Robinson’s Department Store). 600 W. Seventh Street (at  Grand). Noonan and Richards, 1915; updated by Edward L. Mayberry, 1934

By mid-block on 7th between Flower and Hope you should be able to identify a buff-colored, 7-story Art Deco structure (look for the Rite-Aid sign at its corner). It 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, replaced with its current Art Deco cladding.

Check out these “before and after” shots. It’s a reminder that even then, most buildings were of steel or reinforced concrete and wore their facades much like we wear our clothes. Strip off Beaux-Arts and slip on Art Deco and you’ve got a fresh, new look – and at a budget price, too – something that was especially important in the depression-era 1930s.

—> Retrace your steps back to the corner of Seventh and Flower Streets. Cross Flower and walk one more block to Figueroa Street.

NineWilshire Grand Hotel. Entrance at 930 Wilshire Boulevard. Holabird and Root, 1952

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 Statler Hotel, as did the General Petroleum Building and soon after, the Superior Oil Company Building, helped pull downtown’s core to the west, closer to the newly-completed Harbor Freeway. This building picks up its design cues from one of Art Deco’s offshoots – Streamline Modern (think South Beach, Florida). Instead of a stress on verticality, Streamline Modern preferred horizontality, clearly present here despite repeated renovations.

The hotel is slated for demolition in 2012 with two towers (40 and 60 stories) replacing it by 2015. Both towers will feature top-to-bottom LED lighting (the top 10 stories of each with name signs, the bottom 10 with ads, the middle floors with always-changing images. The permit process for the lighting remains a controversial topic around town.

To the left, down Figueroa Street, you should be able to see the 54-story JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton Hotel/Residences complex at L.A. Live.

–> Enter the Metrorail Station.

Before going down below, don’t miss the mural overhead (Terry Schoonhoven, “City Above,” 1991), depicting skyline views from around downtown.

If you don’t already have one, purchase a ticket from a ticket vending machine (TVM in Metro-speak). Select the “One Way Ticket” option and insert $1.50. Currently, Metrorail operates on the honor system but the system is policed; no ticket and you can face a stiff fine.

–> Proceed through the turnstiles.

Currently, the “TAP” procedures at the turnstiles apply only to long-term pass holders).

There are two track levels; this upper level is for Blue Line and Expo Line trains headed for Long Beach or the Crenshaw/Westside region, respectively.

–> Descend one more level.

The lower platform level is shared by Red and Blue Line trains. To the right is the track that heads east to Union Station; to the left is the track for westbound and northbound travel. You want the track on the left; it’s marked “To North Hollywood” and “To Wilshire/Western.” Red Line trains going to North Hollywood alternate with Purple Line trains going to Wilshire/Western but it doesn’t matter which you take because both lines stop at Wilshire/Vermont – your destination. Trains run about every 4 to 6 minutes; schedules are posted on TV monitors overhead.

–> Board the train and travel two stops (about 4 minutes) to the Wilshire/Vermont Station.

–> Exit the train at Wilshire/Vermont and proceed to the street level.

It’s a Fact…The longest escalator in California – and reputedly the second longest in the world – is in operation at the Wilshire/Vermont station.

–> Once outside, proceed through the shopping area to the street corner at Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue.

Welcome to “Koreatown,” a vibrant, increasingly upscale neighborhood with an expanding list of boutiques, restaurants and night clubs. Once a posh district of expensive apartments, theaters and department stores, the area fell on hard times in the 1970s and 1980s; the LA riots of 1992 hit it especially hard. But its location – convenient to downtown and Hollywood by subway and surface streets – couldn’t keep the region down for long.

Just up the boulevard to the left stands the Bullocks Wilshire (now Southwestern Law School). Diagonally across the street sits the 5-story former I. Magnin department store. So here you have it: two easy-to-see Art Deco icons. We’ll go first to the Wilshire Galleria.

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? They were all “drive-ins.”)

—> Cross Wilshire Boulevard, turn right and cross Vermont Avenue and walk to the Galleria.

TenWilshire Galleria (formerly I. Magnin). 3240 Wilshire Boulevard. Myron Hunt and H. C. Chambers, 1938Through the 1930s the Art Deco style continued to change. Ornamentation became more and more restrained, perhaps as much a product of cost containment (this was the decade of the Depression) as any other. But the emphasis on strong, continuous, “streamlining” remained. By the end of the decade the overall look was bold, strong and almost austere when compared to buildings erected just a few years earlier. The I. Magnin store provides a good example of this change.

Also changing were shopping habits. Major department stores opened branches outside of downtown to cater to the “motorized shopper” arriving not by streetcar or by foot, but by automobile. Despite this building’s impressive street entrance most shoppers arrived through the rear entrance – a trend recognized a decader earlier by Bullocks Wilshire just up the street.

–> Go around back and you’ll see I. Magnin’s parking lot and “main” entrance.

If your visit coincides with shopping hours, go ahead inside. Despite substantial interior changes, the lobby features original Art Deco light fixtures and interiors.

–> Return back out to Wilshire Boulevard and turn left, walking back in the direction of Vermont Avenue.

–> Cross Vermont Avenue and continue two blocks east to Westmoreland Avenue.

ElevenSouthwestern Law School (formerly Bullocks Wilshire). 3050 Wilshire Boulevard. Parkinson and Parkinson, 1929

 

 

One of the first, and certainly the most magnificent department store on the boulevard, Bullocks Wilshire is significant for many reasons, not the least of which includes its iconic Art Deco exterior and the location of its main entrance.

Erected at the peak of the “classic” Art Deco movement, Bullocks Wilshire incorporates all elements of the style: soaring, vertical piers; stepped back “wedding cake” organization culminating in a spire visible from miles around; and relatively restrained (compared to the Beaux-Arts movement before it) geometric ornamentation. This building has them all.

For Wilshire Boulevard department stores it was a good run. But by the mid-1990s Bullocks Wilshire, I. Magnin, Desmonds, Coulters, Silverwood’s and the May Company had all closed their doors. Much as the downtown flagship stores had fallen victim to the conveniences offered by these suburban sisters, the Wilshire Boulevard shops, in turn, fell victim to yet another new shopping trend: regional shopping centers. Speeding the process were the continual migration of upscale shoppers to the Westside and the Valley, ever-worsening traffic congestion, and the riots of 1992.

It’s a Fact…

“Bullocks Bronco,” a life-size plaster horse was available for Bullocks customers to try on their riding boots or outfits before purchase. The bronco was nicknamed “Barney.”

The store, after a series of acquisitions and mergers, finally closed in 1993. The nearby Southwestern Law School quickly snapped it up, eventually completing a $20 million restoration and reclamation. Light fixtures and even some columns which had been removed during previous updates, were located and re-installed. Today, the school occupies all floors of the building, including the 5th floor Tea Room, now available for private functions. On occasion, the Los Angeles Conservancy offers tours.

–> Walk to the building’s back entrance porte cochere.

The building’s architects were the father and son team of John and Donald Parkinson. Some of the city’s most notable structures bear the Parkinson & Parkinson name including City Hall and Union Station as well as the Title Guarantee Building which you saw earlier on this tour.

Though now a private institution, the law school’s security guard generally admits curious tourists (that would be you) into the main hall but requests that no photographs be taken. Respect their request.

–> Return to Wilshire Boulevard, crossing to return to the Wilshire/Vermont Metrorail station. Enter the station.

If you don’t have a Day Pass, purchase another one-way ticket.

–> Take the escalator marked “To North Hollywood – To Wilshire/Western” – it’s the right-most escalator – down to the station platform.

Purple Line and Red Line trains share this platform, alternating between one and the other. You want a Purple Line train going to Wilshire/Western – not a Red Line train going to North Hollywood. The monitors should show the times of each. If a Red Line train to North Hollywood comes in first – no problem; the next train will be a Purple Line to Wilshire/Western.

–> Board the train and travel two stops to the Purple Line’s terminus at Wilshire/Western. Exit the station to the street.

After you step off the escalator, turn around. Your view should be what you see in the photo at left: the Wiltern Theatre/Pellissier Building.

TwelveWiltern Theatre/Pellissier Building. 3790 Wilshire Boulevard (at Western Ave.). Stiles O. Clements, 1931

As with Bullocks Wilshire, the Wiltern (the combined “Wilshire” and “Western”) is a treasured icon of Art Deco styling. The overall structure, clad in eye-popping blue-green terra cotta, includes two components: a 12-story office tower and a theater.

The building was designed by Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls & Clements – the oldest architectural firm in Los Angeles. Clements is also famous for the El Capitan and Mayan Theaters, the Richfield Tower (demolished in 1968) and the Samson Uniroyal Tire Factory (now the Citadel Outlets visible from the I-5) and a dozen other, mostly Art Deco buildings.

The Pellissier Building is named for the French immigrant Germain Pellissier who grew barley and grazed sheep on the 160 acres he purchased here in the 1880s. When the building was completed in 1931 the neighborhood was still largely undeveloped, though sheep and barley had been replaced by billboards advertising the new hotels, apartments, car dealerships and theaters sprouting up nearby. The 9-story Wilshire Professional Building (also on this tour) had been recently completed and together they stood out like sore thumbs – though not for long.

It’s a Fact…

Businessman Germain Pellisier purchased the land upon which the Wiltern Theatre would be developed. Henry de Roulet, the grandson of Pellissier, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and became a real estate developer.  De Roulet decided to build the office building and theater at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue in Los Angeles.

The Wiltern Theatre, originally a Warner Brothers venue, was designed by Gustave Albert Lansburgh, just one of 50 or so he completed nationwide. Locally, the Palace (downtown), El Capitan, Orpheum, Warner (Hollywood) theaters and the Shrine Auditorium were his designs. Included within are murals by Anthony Heinsbergen whose works can also be seen all over town: City Hall, the Pantages in Hollywood, and the Hollywood Roosevelt, Park Plaza and Beverly-Wilshire hotels.

On October 7, 1931, the theater opened with “Alexander Hamilton” starring George Arliss. Warner Brothers was denied a permit to close the boulevard for the opening hoopla so to help convey movie stars, dignitaries and attendees into the theater they constructed a bridge – “The Bridge of the Stars” – over the road. When you’re given a lemon, you make lemonade.

–> Cross Wilshire Boulevard (the bridge was only temporary!) to the theater entrance.

Actually, although the office building did fine, the theater proved something of a lemon, closing before a year had passed. Opening and closing several times during the depression-era 1930s it eventually returned to Warner’s hands, then later to Pacific Theatres. By the late 1970s the building was slated for demolition but developer Wayne Ratkovitch and architect Brenda Levin saved and restored it. A later renovation removed the thousand-plus seats on the orchestra level allowing a more flexible, tiered configuration from dance club to banquets to standing-room-only productions. The one thousand balcony seats remain in place.

Formerly catering to the Boomer and Gen-X crowds (the Rolling Stones played here in 2002) the Wiltern LG, as it’s now called, offers a busy schedule of up-coming rock groups that appeals to the increasingly younger demographic moving into the region.

The theater is not accessible without a ticket but the entrance (“the show starts on the sidewalk!”) gives you a taste of the interior.

–> Cross Western Avenue and walk west, passing below the Mercury Lofts Building.

Obviously, the Mercury isn’t an Art Deco building but it was designed by Claud Beelman, the same architect for the Superior Oil Company (now the Standard Hotel) you visited earlier on your tour. Completed in 1962 for Getty Oil, it’s a fine representative of the Corporate International style and a fine example of adaptive reuse.

It’s also a fine time to underscore the role architects play in our tastes for building designs. Although some architects get “stuck” in a genre now and then, most push the envelope on developing trends. As a result, architects of the 20th century typically found success in several styles; in forty years, Claud Beelman moved seamlessly from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco to Corporate International. Had he not died in 1963, he may well have gone on to design during the Postmodern era, as well.

–> Continue along Wilshire Boulevard to St. Andrews Place.

ThirteenWilshire Professional Building.  3875 Wilshire Boulevard (at St. Andrews Place). Arthur E. Harvey, 1929

Across the street to the right stands the Art Deco Wilshire Professional Building, designed by Arthur E. Harvey and completed in 1929.  As a neighbor of the over-the-top Pellissier/Wiltern, it’s often overlooked, and yet it presents a solid example of the Art Deco style. Seven stories shoulder a narrower, six-story tower; recessed, vertical bands of windows maximize its visual height and the geometric ornamentation – at one time boldly painted – is otherwise restrained. Fire escapes are “buried” within the building’s streamlined façade. Overall, the Wilshire Professional Building (like the Pellissier Building, a favored address for doctors and dentists) offers a striking appearance.

As often happens to older buildings, the ground floor design – the level most seen and used by passing shoppers and patrons – has been lost to “modernization.”

–> Return to the Wilshire/Western station. Proceed to the ticketing level.

If you don’t have a Day Pass, purchase a one-way ticket. This is the last ticket you’ll need to purchase for the tour.

–> Proceed down to the platform and board your train. Travel 5 stops (about 9 minutes) to Pershing Square.

This station is the termination point for the Purple Line so simply board the train when it arrives. Trains depart about every 10 -15 minutes.  

–> On arrival at Pershing Square, take the escalators or stairs marked “Pershing Square.”

If you’re short in time, you may end your Deco by Metro tour here. On arriving at street level (corner of Fifth and Hill Streets), cross Hill Street and you’re back at Pershing Square, the tour’s origination point. Otherwise, the tour continues with two more magnificent Art Deco buildings – plus another Side Trip option.

–> At street level, walk to the corner of Fifth and Hill Streets, turn left(south) and walk to Sixth Street. Cross Sixth Street.

At each corner, 606 S. Hill and 607 S. Hill, are “modernizations” of earlier, Beaux Arts buildings. The Western Jewelry Mart (#606) dates from 1911 but a 1967 remodel refaced it in the prevailing Corporate International style –  a rarity on this street. Across, at #607, stands the California Jewelry Mart  Building dating from 1909. In 1935 Claud Beelman (he’s all over these pages) updated it in the Art Deco style and its been “freshened” again since then.

–> Continue down S. Hill Street.

FourteenWilliam Fox Building. 608 S. Hill Street. Samuel Tilden Norton, 1932

Though not the finest example of Art Deco architecture, the building does offer some interesting details. Most important, is the name. Yep, that’s the same William Fox whose name lives on with the Twentierth Century Fox name. Founded in 1915, Fox Film Corporation invested heavily in sound movies and the Movietone sound system – and in the lawyers employed to protect their many sound production patents. A failed merger attempt with Loew’s, a serious car accident, over-extended debt and the arrival of the Great Depression combined to force Fox into a merge with the smaller – but richer – Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935. Later convicted and jailed for bribery, he died in 1952.

But his building, with its distinctive, mauve-colored spandrels,  survives. The favored setbacks and tower of Art Deco massing is missing and the exterior fire escapes don’t flatter the façade, but go on inside (no pictures, please) and check out the lobby. There’s an “eagle motif” at work here – US Postal Box, of course, but also over the elevators. The chandeliers are not original but the inlaid wood pattern in the rear lobby door is.

Fox had purchased the land behind this building, facing on Broadway, for a new, typically over-the-top Fox Theatre. But his financial troubles forced him to sell the lot which soon after became the Los Angeles Theatre, designed by S. Charles Lee. It was Mr. Lee who once said, “the show starts on the sidewalk” and the sidewalks in front of this theaters usually glistened in colorful terrazzo rather than cement.  Well, in this lobby, Williaim Fox placed terrazzo in front of his elevators – possibly to match that in front of the Fox Theatre he never built?

FifteenLos Angeles Jewelry Center (former Sun Realty Building). 629 S. Hill Street. Claud Beelman, 1930

There’s no missing the vibrant, green terra cotta building across the street! Today it carries the title of the Los Angeles Jewelry Center; when completed in 1930 it was known as the Sun Realty Building. You’ve seen the architect’s work earlier at the Standard Hotel, and if you opt for the upcoming Side Trip, you’ll see it again at the iconic Eastern Columbia Building.

Perhaps to compensate for its mid-block location, this building’s color makes it a stand-out. Also standing out are the building’s bronze spandrels (remember? the panels positioned vertically, between the windows?). They’ve only recently been cleaned and polished. With time, they’ll once again “patina” to a green shade that blends rather than contrasts with the terra cotta.

The building fully embraces Art Deco’s signature components: vertical piers with deep-set windows, repeated setbacks culminating in a tower (it’s up there – you can only see it from a distance), and geometric ornamentation. Plus, like the Wiltern Theater/Pellissier Building – it sparkles!

It’s a Fact…
Each year LA’s 14,000 Jewelry District employees working for almost 5,000 businesses make around $3 billion in sales.

Speaking of sparkle, by now you’ve had to notice you’re smack in the middle of LA’s “Jewelry District” – touted as the nation’s largest concentration of wholesale and retail jewelers. The six to ten-block area promises savings ranging from 30% to 75%. To save even more money, focus on the deco instead of the diamonds.

Wholesale Jewelers Exchange (former Harris & Frank Building). 635 S. Hill Street. Claud Beelman, 1925

The building immediately to the left of the Los Angeles Jewelry Center is the Wholesale Jewelers Exchange (originally the Harris & Frank Building housing Harris & Frank – a clothing store). Claud Beelman, then in partnership with Alexander Curlett, designed this Art Deco structure completed in 1925. It’s one of the earliest examples of the emerging Art Deco style to appear on the streets of Los Angeles. Though the upper windows are in the Tudor style, the overall effect is that of a Gothic castle. Look for the gargoyles and the third floor “turrets” and their narrow slits through which medieval archers could aim and direct their bows and shoot arrows at their invaders.

–> Return up Hill Street to Sixth Street. At the corner, turn left, crossing Hill Street and continue on Sixth Street (Pershing Square will be across the street to the right) to Olive Street.

–> Cross Olive Street and turn left, walking to the Oviatt Building.

SeventeenOviatt 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’s 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 now 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.

Unless you opt for the Eastern Columbia Side Trip (read on) your tour ends here at the Oviatt Building.

–> To return to the Pershing Square Metro station, retrace your steps back up Olive Street to Sixth Street.

–> Cross Sixth Street and continue up Olive past the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

Though not an Art Deco building, who can resist at least a peak into the Beaux-Arts Biltmore?

–> At Fifth Street, turn right and continue to Hill Street and the Pershing Square Metro stationOr…

  

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

You’ve come this far, so why not? Even though Bullocks Wilshire and the Wiltern Theatre/Pellissier Building are often cited as LA’s hallmarks of Art Deco architecture, downtown’s undisputed icon is the Eastern Columbia Building. To see it and to take this Side Trip – click here-.

Hope you enjoyed your “Deco by Metro” tour!