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Los Angeles has a reputation for discarding its history whenever it gets in the way of something new and glitzy. But in Downtown Los Angeles, many historic structures can still be found hidden beneath the skyline of glass and steel skyscrapers. Here are four landmarks from the Art Deco era of the 1930s: the Southern California Edison Building (1931), the Title Guarantee and Trust Company Building (1930), the Eastern Columbia Building (1930), and the Los Angeles Times Building (1935). Los Angeles Union Station (1939) is another Art Deco gem.
One Bunker Hill, originally the Southern California Edison Building, may represent Los Angeles Art Deco architecture at its grandest— and perhaps also at its most arrogant. It opened in 1931 as the headquarters of Southern California Edison Company Limited (that name is still carved above the building’s secondary entrance on Fifth Street). Edison later moved its headquarters away from Downtown; but it still provides electricity to most of Southern California outside the City of Los Angeles, which has its own municipally-owned Department of Water and Power.
It should not be surprising that the Edison Building was the first in Los Angeles to be heated and air-conditioned entirely with electricity. It was also specially engineered with a steel frame to resist earthquakes.
The limestone and terra-cotta exterior of the 14-story building features elements typical of the Art Deco style: Tiered set-back layers that suggest an entire city’s skyline, decoration with repeated geometric patterns, and bas-relief friezes allegorically depicting the purpose of the building.
The entrance on the corner of Fifth and Olive Streets is a rotunda decorated with three friezes by Robert Merrell Gage. Each panel uses a stylized Greco-Roman heroic male figure to depict aspects of the electrical system and modern (1930s) technology. A figure pouring water from an amphora onto a water wheel represents “Hydroelectricity.” A figure holding aloft a torch (with a light bulb in place of a flame) depicts “Light.” And a figure poised to turn on a switch personifies “Power.”
The rotunda leads to the main lobby, the only part of the building accessible to visitors. It’s worth taking advantage of that access, which lets you behold a monument to Art Deco at its most ostentatious. The lobby’s coffered ceiling is nine meters high. It’s dazzlingly ornamented with colored geometric patterns, and supported by two-tone marble columns with bas-relief decoration as capitals. The walls and floor are adorned with 20 different kinds of marble. And at the end of the lobby is The Apotheosis of Power, a large mural by Hugo Ballin that heroically mixes historical figures involved in discovering the science behind electricity with the metaphorical depiction of electricity as the power that uplifts humanity.
The lobby must have originally given the impression of a Greek, Roman, or Egyptian monumental temple, updated to then-modern styling and dedicated to the worship of Power in all senses of the word. But I do have to wonder whether this opulent display of Art Deco grandeur would have struck at least some of its original visitors as arrogant, at a time when so many people were destitute or living under forced austerity from the Depression.
The Title Guarantee and Trust Company Building, across from Pershing Square on the corner of Hill and 5th Streets, opened in 1930 as the headquarters of the long-gone eponymous title insurance company. The architects were John and Donald Parkinson, who would later design Union Station.
The exterior is the classic Art Deco terra-cotta with recessed windows and bas-relief sculptures and geometric decoration by Hollywood set designer Eugene Maier-Krieg. The distinctive tower rising from its top (12th) floor, with its Gothic-inspired buttresses, is purely decorative. But because the tower is unoccupied space, the Parkinsons used it to exploit a loophole in the City ordinance that restricted the height of Downtown buildings to 46 meters. The building’s total height is just over 73 meters.
The building currently contains loft-style apartments, part of the City’s ongoing “adaptive reuse” development plan to convert unused Downtown office space into residences. The South Korean investment company that bought the building in 2012 announced in August 2015 that the apartments would be sold as condominiums, but inexplicably canceled the plan in September.
It’s not possible to go inside the building without an invitation from a resident. But the security guards might let you peek at the surprisingly small elevator lobby on the ground floor. Above the elevators are six murals by Hugo Ballin depicting Los Angeles history, commissioned by the Parkinsons. Unfortunately, the murals are too dimly lit to either view properly or to photograph.
With its turquoise terra-cotta and clock tower, the Eastern Columbia Building in the historic Broadway Theatre District is possibly the most distinctive Art Deco landmark in Downtown Los Angeles. It opened in 1930 as a department store. It also served as the headquarters of the Eastern Outfitting Company (which sold home furnishings and appliances) and the Columbia Outfitting Company (which sold clothing), two chains under the same family ownership.
A facetious description of architect Claud Beelman’s work might be “Art Deco gone wild.” The building of course includes all the features that exemplify the style and the era: Glazed terra-cotta, layered set-back tiers, recessed windows, and columns that emphasize “verticality.” But Beelman glazed the terra-cotta turquoise rather than the usual earth tones. He accented it with profuse blue and gold trim in zigzag, chevron and starburst patterns, and then threw in some gargoyles. And he literally topped it all off with stylized flying buttresses. Visitors in the 1930s shopping for furniture or appliances— an activity that in those days was a special event, for which they dressed up— presumably would have regarded the building as the ultimate in stylish modernity.
The Gothic tower on the contemporaneous Title Guarantee and Trust Company Building apparently was not an original concept. Nor was the idea of including an unoccupied decorative tower to evade the City’s 46-meter height limit. The Eastern Columbia Building exceeds that limit by 35 meters.
The family that owned the Eastern and Columbia stores left the retail business in 1957, and converted their headquarters into leased office space. They sold their interest in the building in 1985, after which the new owner neglected the building’s Art Deco exterior and clock for nearly two decades. A real estate investment firm bought the building in 2004, and spent three years carefully restoring it— including the long-stopped clock— as part of an $80 million “adaptive reuse” conversion to 147 luxury condominiums now called the Eastern Columbia Lofts. The restoration won several awards, including a Preservation Award from the Los Angeles Conservancy.
The Eastern Columbia Building is closed to the public, to protect the privacy of the “carefully vetted” condominium owners who reputedly include several Hollywood celebrities. But the former department store once again invites shoppers: An emporium with the repulsive-sounding name of Acne Studios occupies much of the ground floor. At first I thought it was some kind of joke, but it’s real chain of high-fashion boutiques with stores in 14 countries. Acne Studios started in Sweden as an artist’s collective that made films and advertising, and later branched out into fashion. The “deliberately off-putting” name is supposedly an acronym for “Ambition to Create Novel Expressions.”
The Los Angeles Times Building, which opened in 1935, is a classic example of the Streamline Moderne architectural style. The architect was Gordon B. Kaufmann, who is best known for the Art Deco styling of Hoover Dam. The Times Building’s design won him a gold medal at the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, in Paris.
Streamline Moderne (also called Art Moderne) evolved from Art Deco, which was the architectural and design fad in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Perhaps in response to the continuing Depression, the colorful geometric decoration that gave Art Deco its name yielded to a simplified austerity. Smooth curved surfaces, rounded edges, and white concrete or stucco define the style. Two contemporaneous examples of Streamline Moderne in Los Angeles are Griffith Observatory and Hollywood’s Crossroads of the World.
Streamline Moderne began with the industrial design of cars and appliances, and later spread to architecture. That’s why buildings in that style often resemble giant versions of 1930s radios or toasters. Additions to the Times Building in 1948 and 1973 disrupted the original symmetrical “appliance” look, which may explain why it’s not on any of the official registries of historic landmarks.