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Downtown Los Angeles Superlatives

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Picture of ATT Microwave Tower from Pershing Square Photo of U.S. Bank Tower at dusk Picture of U.S. Bank Tower (horizontal)
Picture of US Bank Tower and Biltmore Picture of Library Tower between the Biltmore and Gas Company buildings
Picture of Edison Building and US Bank Tower Photo of US Bank Tower looking north on Fifth Street
Picture of US Bank Tower window Photo of U.S. Bank entrance
Photograph of U.S. Bank Tower, from Maguire Gardens
Picture of US Bank Tower sails Photo of U.S. Bank sails
Former Wilshire Grand Hotel reflected on bank facade

The forest of steel and glass in Downtown Los Angeles includes many distinctive modern buildings. Among them are two architectural superlatives: The tallest skyscrapers and the largest hotel. A third superlative isn’t architectural: It’s the largest (and most eccentric) independent bookstore in California. (As Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Los Angeles Central Library can probably share the superlative of “most interesting building,” they each get their own pages.)

The U.S. Bank Tower (also called the Library Tower) was the tallest building in Los Angeles from 1989 until 2017. At 310.3 meters— 75 stories, if you count the two underground parking levels— it was also the tallest in California, the tallest west of the Mississippi River, and even the tallest structure between Chicago and Hong Kong. The Wilshire Grand Center, 800 meters away if you walk, now surpasses its height by 25 meters.

The tower had other world-class superlatives. It had the world’s highest helicopter landing pad— the Los Angeles building code require helipads on all skyscrapers, for evacuation in an emergency— until 2010, when a skyscraper in Guangzhou, China surpassed it with a helipad 439 meters high. (The Wilshire Grand Center has an exemption to the helipad requirement.) But it still has the world’s highest corporate logo sign.

When it was built, the Library Tower was the tallest building in a seismically-active location. It was engineered to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 on the Richter scale, larger than any “Big One” the infamous San Andreas Fault has been known to unleash. But the tower should also prevail against anything the spaghetti-tangle of smaller faults under the Los Angeles Basin might produce.

New York architect Henry N. Cobb designed the tower as a postmodern interpretation of a classical Greco-Roman column, with a distinctive glass “crown” as the capital. The crown is illuminated at night, in colors that change to commemorate holidays or special events.

The building has had three names since it opened at in 1989. It was originally called the Library Tower. The historic Los Angeles Central Library, directly across the street, suffered severe damage from two arson fires in 1986. To fund its costly restoration, city officials sold the Library’s “air rights” to a consortium of developers. That sale provided an exemption from restrictions on building height, clearing the way to begin construction of the skyscraper in 1987.

In 1990, First Interstate Bancorp leased enough space in the tower to earn naming rights for the building. Naturally, they renamed it “First Interstate Bank World Center.” Then they installed a large First Interstate logo on the crown, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest corporate logo. The logo also earned much criticism for the damage it did to the building’s aesthetics.

That name (and logo) lasted until 1996, when Wells Fargo bought First Interstate Bancorp. That transaction sent the much-maligned logo to the scrap heap, along with the First Interstate name itself. As Wells Fargo already had the naming rights to a nearby high-rise, they relinquished their acquired claim on the tower.

The building’s official name reverted to the Library Tower until 2003, when U.S. Bank leased enough of the building to again qualify for naming rights. Thus the current official name— and the new logo on the tower’s crown that reclaimed both the Guinness Book record and the criticism. But locals still call it the Library Tower. They probably have the right idea, given the apparent transience of banks and their naming rights.

The Library Tower was designed with neither an observation deck nor any other provision for the general public to enjoy the view. I don’t know whether that was an oversight, or an intentional feature to preserve the tower as an exclusive sanctum for the High-Powered People who do their Important Business in it. When the Singaporean investment firm Overseas Union Enterprise Limited (OUE) bought the tower in 2014, they announced a $50 million renovation project to add an observation deck and restaurant on the 69th and 70th floor, some 300 meters high. As only half the building was occupied with offices of High-Powered People, the new owners needed other ways to monetize the building’s height and status.

“OUE Skyspace LA” opened to the public in June 2016. The cost of admission was commensurate with its height. For $25 you could buy a ticket for “timed entry” on a particular date. (I don’t know if OUE’s “friendly Skyspace Ambassadors” hustled out visitors out who lingered too long.) For another $15 you could buy a “flex” ticket that allowed entry at any time on your chosen date. With either ticket you could pay another $8 for the “Skyslide Experience,” a ride on a 14-meter glass slide between the 70th and 69th floors outside the tower. Like so many tourist attractions, OUE Skyspace temporarily closed in March 2020 due to the global pandemic. It permanently closed without explanation in October, a month after a New York real estate developer bought the building.

Anyone can still peek into the tower’s lobby, walk around the glass columns at the entrance to the building, and even take advantage of the shade provided by John Neary’s 1990 installation, Sails, all for free.
Picture of Bunker Hill Steps Picture of Source Figure at the top of Bunker Hill Steps Picture of installation at the bottom of Bunker Hill Steps Photograph of Source Figure pedestal with crabs

Also freely accessible to the public are the Bunker Hill Steps on the northwest side of the Library Tower. They’re the work of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who also designed the Central Library’s Maguire Gardens across the street. They’re sometimes called the Spanish Steps. That’s not, as some believe, a tribute to the many Spanish-speaking people in Los Angeles. Rather, Halprin was supposedly inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome. If that’s true, these steps are a lot cleaner than what I remember of the Roman version.

A fountain at the top of the Bunker Hill Steps sends water cascading down a series of waterfalls in the center of the steps. In the fountain, a naturalistic sculpture of an African-American woman stands atop a column. Her face is serene, and her hands are cupped in a gesture of welcome to people climbing the 103 steps. But most visitors miss her greeting because they ride escalators alongside the stairs.

The sculpture’s official title is Source Figure, referring to the fountain as the source of the waterfalls. Because the pedestal on which the column and sculpture stands in the fountain includes four sculpted crabs brandishing their claws (perhaps to discourage wading in the fountain?), the sculpture is unofficially called Woman with Crabs. Source Figure is the work of Robert Graham, a sculptor perhaps best known in Los Angeles for the controversial gateway he added to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the 1984 Olympics, which features two headless torsos of male and female athletes.

At the bottom of the Bunker Hill steps, in the wall separating it from the adjacent Citigroup Center, is an enigmatic concrete installation. It’s enigmatic because I haven’t been able to find any information about it. It’s not even mentioned in Ruth Wallach’s comprehensive Public Art in Los Angeles Web site, which offers detailed information about the other art around the Bunker Hill Steps.

Picture of Bonaventure Hotel Photograph of Bonaventure Hotel from Bunker Hill Steps, with reflections Picture of Bonaventure Hotel from Bunker Hill Steps Picture of Bonaventure Hotel with the Shoshone sculpture at 444 South Flower building Picture of Bonaventure lobby Photograph of Bonaventure lobby Reflections seen from the Bonaventure elevator Concrete circles in the Bonaventure atrium Picture of Bonaventure reflected in a window of 444 South Flower

If you walk northwest on Fifth Street from the Library Tower for a block and turn right, you might think you’ve stumbled into a matte background painting from a twentieth century science fiction movie. Four mirrored glass cylinders cluster around a central core, with smaller glass cylinders occasionally scurrying up and down the white concrete gantries attached to the central core. Is it a giant alien spacecraft? Or perhaps an arcology that safely isolates its residents from the toxic environment of the 21st century?

It’s neither. Officially labeled “The Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Shopping Gallery,” it’s usually called just “the Bonaventure.” It’s the largest hotel in Los Angeles: 35 stories and 112 meters high, with 1,354 rooms and 135 suites, and occupying an entire city block. Since it opened in 1976, the Bonaventure has been featured in a diverse assortment of movies and television shows, not all of which are science fiction.

The Bonaventure is the work of John C. Portman, Jr. He is renowned as both an architect and a real estate developer, and served in both capacities for the Bonaventure. The hotel’s “rosette” design concept— a circle of towers surrounding a central tower— is one of Portman’s distinctive architectural hallmarks. He used a similar layout for Renaissance Plaza in Detroit and Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta.

Portman’s best-known architectural innovation is the cavernous multi-story atrium at the center of a high-rise hotel. The Bonaventure’s atrium is a mere six stories high. But the transparent glass ceiling offers a view of the sky and towers, making it feel much larger. (I wonder if Portman might have been inspired, at least subconsciously, by the Bradbury Building, also in Downtown Los Angeles. Designed in 1892, it’s notable for a five-story central atrium illuminated by a skylight ceiling.) In addition to a hotel lobby, the Bonaventure’s atrium is a shopping mall, with a collection of shops, restaurants, and a fast-food court on its upper levels.

Four glass cylindrical elevators— one for each tower— rise out of the atrium, past the glass ceiling to the outside of the central core. A ride in an elevator offers both an outward-looking view of Los Angeles and a fractured view reflected in the windows of the adjacent tower cylinder.

If the Bonaventure’s exterior realizes Portman’s vision of a glistening future, its interior presents a contrasting dystopian scene. The atrium is filled with stark, sterile, imposing spirals and pillars of bare concrete, festooned with strange oval “pods” (some of which contain gym equipment).

I find it anything but friendly and welcoming. The meandering spiral walkways, combined with the look-alike symmetry of elevators and cylinders, create an uncomfortable sense of disorientation. When I’ve visited the Bonaventure I’ve found it difficult to maintain my bearings, and to know what direction I’m facing or which level I’m on.

If you left your rose-colored glasses at home, you might marvel at Portman’s prescience in predicting a future where people are increasingly isolated, disoriented, and dwarfed by enormous dehumanizing forces and institutions. And looking at the concrete fortress bunker that separates the glass and steel rosette from the street, you might suspect that Portman somehow knew back in the 1970s that the intrepid Space Age would give way to the timorous Age of Terror at the beginning of the 21st century.

A visit to the Bonaventure is an opportunity to experience and reflect on a fascinating work of modern art— however you perceive it.

Picture of Diagnosis art installation Photo of Last Bookstore Labyrinth Last Bookstore work area
Picture of The Last Bookstore tunnel of books Photo of The Last Bookstore tunnel of books
Christmas tree made of books Magnifying glasses in the window of a shop at the Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore, on the corner of Spring Street and Broadway, defiantly attempts to dispel the common belief that the independent bookstore is an extinct species. The largest independent bookstore in California, it also embodies the sage advice Stephen Sondheim offered in Gypsy: “You gotta get a gimmick.” The gimmick is that The Last Bookstore is not just a bookstore (which also has an extensive stock of zines and vinyl records). It’s a Destination. Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com can’t compete with that.

From the outside, The Last Bookstore looks as unassuming as you’d expect from a building that originally opened in 1914 as a bank. The ground floor inside also looks pretty much like any other bookstore, although it does have unusual wall decorations and a stage for readings and musical performances (with armchairs for patrons to sit when the stage is not otherwise occupied). The superlative eccentricity is upstairs, in “the Labyrinth.”

The Labyrinth is a cornucopia of used books, arrayed in a dizzying cluttered maze spanning several rooms. Most of the 100,000 books in the Labyrinth are for sale for $1; the proceeds go to a project that tutors homeless children. But some of the books have transcended their humble literary origins to become installation art.

As soon as you reach the top of the stairs, a nook containing a nightmare version of an office (or perhaps a writer’s study?) welcomes you to the Labyrinth. This installation, enigmatically entitled Diagnosis, includes a chair, a globe, and a precariously leaning bookcase. Open books, and an antique manual typewriter spewing a roll of paper, are suspended from the ceiling on wires. From there you can enter the Labyrinth proper.

At the center of the maze of bookshelves is the Labyrinth’s signature installation: A tunnel made of books. It leads to a back room containing science fiction— and to a work area (or art installation?) in the sort of disarray that suggests the aftermath of a tornado or an earthquake.

Besides the Labyrinth, the Last Bookstore’s upper floor contains the “Spring Art Collective,” an actual art gallery. (The gallery is open all year. The name refers to its location at the corner of 5th and Spring Streets.) Some works are for sale, while others are further displays of books made into art. When I visited in December, there was a Christmas tree made of books. The “Collective” also includes several small shops selling the works of local artists. One of them had a collection of magnifying glasses hanging in the window.

Downtown Los Angeles

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