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Los Angeles has a reputation as a place where everyone is eager to discard the past in favor of something new and glitzy. And where history matters only when real estate developers need romantic-sounding or cryptically distinctive names for strip malls and housing tracts. As with many snarky stereotypes, that reputation is at least somewhat deserved, particularly in the sprawling suburbs. But in Downtown Los Angeles, many historic landmarks can still be found nestled underneath the skyline of glass and steel skyscrapers. The Bradbury Building (1893) and Angels Flight Railway (1901) are two historic landmarks from the Victorian era.
(Other notable historic Downtown places
include the 1926 Central Library,
the 1928 City Hall, the 1923
Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel,
Union Station from 1939, and four
fine examples of Art Deco architecture and
decoration from the 1930s.)
The Bradbury Building is very easy to miss, even if you’re specifically looking for it. Located on the corner of Broadway and Third Street, across from the popular Grand Central Market food court, its exterior looks like an undistinguished generic old building. But once you enter it, you’re in another world that looks simultaneously antique and futuristic. That’s possibly because it represents a Victorian vision of the future, but more likely because it’s best known for its appearance in the science fiction film Blade Runner. The Bradbury Building has also played a featured role in many other movies and television series, usually as the offices of police and private detectives.
The building’s “back story” is worthy of a Victorian novel. Lewis L. Bradbury made his fortune from silver mining in Mexico, and then turned to real estate development in Los Angeles. In 1892, at the age of 69 and in declining health, he decided to build a grandiose monument to himself in the Bunker Hill neighborhood, then the poshest part of Downtown. Bradbury commissioned the prominent architect Sumner Hunt to design a five-story building, but rejected the resulting plans as too pedestrian.
For reasons lost to history, Bradbury felt that George Wyman, a junior draftsman in Hunt’s firm, had a better concept of what Bradbury was looking for. At first Wyman wisely refused the commission, as he had never designed a building. But the story goes that Wyman and his wife held a séance— a fad that enthralled America and Europe in Victorian times— using a planchette, an early version of an Ouija board. The planchette spelled out a message from Wyman’s deceased brother, telling him that taking Bradbury’s assignment would bring him either success or fame, depending on which version of the story you prefer.
Even without the séance, historians have doubts about this story. None of Wyman’s subsequent work was in any way distinguished. There’s also no evidence that he made any changes to the design Sumner Hunt originally submitted. If Wyman really did design the Bradbury Building, he was a one-hit wonder.
Wyman’s (or Hunt’s) design was inspired by a passage in Edward Bellamy’s extremely popular 1888 novel, Looking Backward. It’s a Rip Van Winkle story of a Boston man who goes into a hypnotic trance in 1887, and wakes up in the year 2000 to discover that the world has become a socialist utopia. Bellamy describes the interior of a typical twentieth-century public building as “a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above as suffused with light radiating from a high dome.... The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior.”
Wyman realized Bellamy’s luminous vision with a skylight ceiling that floods a 15-meter-high central atrium with natural light. (Could he perhaps have considered using state-of-the-art incandescent light bulbs, but rejected them as insufficiently luminous?)
Bradbury spared no expense for his monument, frescoing the walls in mellow-tinted glazed brick and polished wood. The floor is made of Mexican tiles, the staircase landings are Belgian marble, and the extensive filigreed ironwork was imported from France. Mail chutes and two vintage open-cage elevators service all five floors. When the discovery of an underground spring on the building site threatened the scuttle the project, Bradbury bought large steel girders to reinforce the soggy foundation. The final cost was over $500,000, equivalent to around $13 million in 2014 dollars. Unfortunately, Lewis Bradbury died in July 1892, a few months before the building was completed.
The Bradbury Building today is a National Historic Landmark, and the oldest
commercial building in Los Angeles. It’s also a fully functioning office building
with paying tenants, including the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internal Affairs
Group. The building was restored and renovated behind the scenes in 1991 to meet
modern building codes, at a cost of $7 million. Visitors are welcome and admission
is free, but vigilant security guards in the lobby are highly skilled in detecting
(and bellowing at) anyone who even thinks of venturing beyond the roped-off second
floor stair landing without an official invitation from a building tenant.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bunker Hill was one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Colonel James Ward Eddy, a lawyer, politician, and entrepreneur who lived there, saw a lucrative business opportunity in providing a convenient, non-strenuous way for Bunker Hill’s well-heeled denizens to negotiate the steep (33% grade) 96-meter hill between their homes at the top and the shops at the bottom. The Los Angeles Incline Railway opened in 1901, and charged a penny per ride. The archway on the lower station was inscribed “Angels Flight” (with no apostrophe), which quickly became preferred over the official name. It became the railway’s official name in 1905, when the second of its six operators bought it (and raised the fare to a nickel).
Angels Flight is a funicular railway, a conveyance for climbing short distances on hills or mountains. If a train and an elevator were to somehow enjoy an amorous liaison, the offspring would be a funicular railway. From the train it inherits a set of tracks. From the elevator it inherits the cable— “funicular” comes from the Latin funiculus, a small rope— that moves the cars, which operate as counterweights. Angels Flight’s two cars are named Sinai and Olivet, for the biblical mountains where, respectively, Moses received the Tablets of the Law and Jesus preached his Beatitudes.
“The shortest railway in the world” operated for nearly 60 years, as the fashionable homes of Bunker Hill gave way to slums. An urban renewal plan begun in 1955 would transform Bunker Hill into an ultra-modern business district of glass and steel that had no place for a creaky Victorian relic. Activism preserved Angels Flight for a decade after the City announced its planned demolition in 1959. But in 1969, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) hauled Sinai and Olivet off to a warehouse, thus affirming the city’s reputation for discarding its history.
The CRA announced vague plans to restore the railway within a few years, after the redevelopment of Bunker Hill was complete. But it took 27 years before the railway reopened in a new location half a block south of the original site. The new Angels Flight began service in February 1996, and operated until a fatal accident severely damaged it in February 2001.
That accident unearthed a scandal. Yan Lifts, the ski lift company the City hired to rebuild the railway, had “improved” the tried-and-true funicular design with a complicated system of motors on each car, connected by a gear train. When the gear train failed, the emergency brake system also failed due to poor design and lack of maintenance. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation concluded that the accident was a cascading failure of design, maintenance, and regulatory oversight. During the investigation, the owner of Yan Lifts absconded to Mexico to evade prosecution.
After a redesign, extensive testing, and intensive bureaucratic scrutiny, the restored Sinai and Olivet returned to service in March 2010. The railway closed for a month in 2011 to replace the wheels, which safety inspectors found to be excessively worn. It closed again after a derailment in September 2013. (There were no injuries; but firefighters had to rescue the passengers because the operators had failed to install a walkway for emergency evacuation, as inspectors recommended when the railway reopened in 2010.)
Investigating this derailment, the NTSB found that the operators had installed a wooden stick to hold down the start button, bypassing a safety system that had been repeatedly stopping the cars. The NTSB found other “urgent” systemic problems with wear on the wheels and tracks, and with the emergency stop system. They also noted flaws in the railway’s basic design. Although the trains occasionally run for testing, Angels Flight has remained closed since the accident. State and federal regulatory authorities have been understandably reluctant to approve a reopening.
On 1 March 2017, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced an agreement between the City, Angels Flight Railway Foundation (the nonprofit organization that owns Angels Flight), and a consortium of private engineering companies. Those companies will make the necessary improvements at their expense, in exchange for a share of the railway’s revenue for the next 30 years.
Angels Flight could reopen at the beginning of September 2017, though that’s an optimistic statement of intent rather than a promise. Until it does reopen, the 153 stairs next to the railway’s tracks are the only direct connection between Bunker Hill’s offices and apartments and the popular Grand Central Market food court.