Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 3, 2010

New Kid in an Old Town

I had a meeting in downtown Los Angeles last week. Like many urban centers, downtown L.A. isn’t the most commonly-visited portion of town for local residents. I still have a lot to learn about the area. My destination was the Wells Fargo tower up on what’s known as Bunker Hill, once the residential neighborhood of choice for influential 19th Century Angelenos, but now an enclave of mostly modern business structures, as well as the “Music Center” that includes Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Ahmanson Theater, Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

That downtown venue gave me the opportunity to see Los Angeles from a vantage point that was new to me. From our nifty spot on the 54th floor I was looking directly down onto the northern and western parts of the city and the mountains beyond. To the northwest was Mt. Olympus and the Hollywood sign. Dodger Stadium was spread out in the middle distance, and immediately below me was the Music Center. Just beyond those buildings, looking even less like a church from that perspective than it does from the street was the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels – or Lady of  the Angles, if you want something that describes its appearance instead of its function.

It’s an Old City

Los Angeles is not an old city in the way that Boston or Savannah or St. Augustine are, but it has been here a long time.

Spanish Origins

Reportedly the Spaniard, Sebastien Vizcaino, dropped anchor in 1602 somewhere off the coast of San Pedro, not far from where I’m sitting as I write from home. I could probably see the spot where he anchored if I stood on my roof. Of course, just because some European looked at a spot that had been occupied for millennia by the area’s natives doesn’t prove much.

The European version of Los Angeles got started quite a while after Senor Vizcaino’s drive-by, in 1765 or so, and I don’t want to hear from you readers in Boston and Philadelphia any jive about “Wow, that’s like yesterday to US!” Just save it. The original settlers WALKED from San Diego.

El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula

The official date of the founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula (I am not kidding) is 1781. In 1784, the King established some official ranchos for loyal retainers in the surrounding countryside, including the ground that our own Rancho Retro now occupies, part of Rancho San Pedro. It took another 171 years and the invention of cheap aluminum frame windows and galvanized plumbing before they could build our house, though.

Part of Mexico

In 1821, this part of California became part of Mexico, and then in 1846, with war on between the U.S. and Mexico, Commodore Stockton of the U.S. anchored off San Pedro and, instead of just looking at the place, marched in with an army and took over.

Things changed quickly, as first the disbanded army, then suppliers to the northern gold rush hurried to import as much violence,  coercion, graft and corruption as possible, establishing a proud civic tradition that enables L.A. to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the corruption hall of fame with cities like Chicago and New Orleans without feeling inferior. 1876 brought the railroad (from the port in San Pedro north to the town), and things started growing quickly.

Generations of Residents – Not All Newcomers

I stood looking out over downtown last week with two people who boasted of being 3rd and 4th-generation natives of L.A. That, contrary to what you may believe, is not unusual here, and it’s one of my main points to make as I write about my downtown visit throughout this week. People from many cultures have been living here in large numbers for a long time. I once had a colleague who is a 6th-generation Angeleno. This is a city populated by families who have been here for many generations.

With one hour to walk around before my meeting starts, I intend to visit enough historic icons in downtown L.A. to provide all of this week’s posts. I’m going to have to move fast, and I’ll skip around a bit.

A Crazy Quilt of Architectural Styles

I’m not an architectural expert, just a fan of interesting buildings. I enjoy seeing ancient buildings as much as neat modern ones, as well as the Art Deco, Beaux Arts and Streamline Moderne buildings that are peppered everywhere across greater Los Angeles, including downtown. When you visit Los Angeles, keep your eyes open, because you’ll see every style of architecture that’s prevailed since the city’s founding, not just sleek 50s buildings or kooky, kitschy gimmicks.

One Bunker Hill

Walking south on Grand from the top of Bunker Hill, I head downhill and encounter the building on the northwest corner of 4th and Grand, now known as One Bunker Hill.

One Bunker Hill Brad Nixon 3416 (640x480)

It began life in 1931 as the Southern California Edison Company Building. I see from the L.A. Conservancy page that I should’ve gone in, because I’d like to look at the mural in the lobby, “The Apotheosis of Power.” Man, that’s a humble title.

One Bunker Hill Brad Nixon 3417 (640x480)

The friezes on the exterior suggest what the interior style may be.

Los Angeles Central Library

One block further south and downhill along Grand, the southwest corner at 5th is completely filled with the Los Angeles Central Public Library, 1926.

LA Cent Libe S facade hor Brad Nixon 3444 (640x501)

It’s a vast structure, enlarged by a significant addition in 1993, named after former Mayor, Tom Bradley, who must have more things named after him than any Mayors short of Daley or LaGuardia.

IMG_3400 LA Central Library rotunda Brad Nixon (640x479)

All great cities have one or more great libraries, and, although L.A. may have been a little late to the game, their entry put them in the first rank. You can  CLICK HERE to read a bit more about it from the Los Angeles Conservancy, or CLICK HERE to read about architecture from the Library’s own Web site.

Many years later I finally toured the library and wrote about it with photos HERE.

Subway Terminal Building

Epitomizing the the way the old persists  in the modern city, take a look at this building from 1925, which overlooks Pershing Square from the north on Hill Street:

Subway Terminal Building Brad Nixon 3423 (640x366)

That is the Subway Terminal Building from 1925. At the time, Los Angeles was building a new terminal for the Pacific Electric Railway Interurban or “Red Car” public transit system, and built that noble structure to serve as a new commercial nexus. Because L.A.’s downtown at that time occupied the land around the foot of Bunker Hill, and the Hill itself was the residential area for the city’s power elite, it made sense as an intersection of public and private life. If you’ll move to the next post in this series, you’ll see a further connection with the Los Angeles Millennium Biltmore, because the Subway Terminal architects, Schultze and Weaver, were also the architects of the Biltmore. I guarantee that a quick glance at THAT building will be all you need to see the similarities.

The Subway Terminal project has been converted to residential purposes, as part of L.A.’s burgeoning renaissance as a downtown in which people actually live, as well as work, and let us hope that it is a trend which will lead to further recussitation of regular life there. CLICK HERE to read more about it.

Title Guarantee and Trust Building

Moving east along 5th street, I breezed past this wonderful Art Deco example:

Title Guarantee Brad Nixon 3425 (480x640)

That’s the Title Guarantee and Trust Building, erected in 1930-31. Wikipedia tells us that there are some notable murals inside that depict the history of Los Angeles. I was on a mission to get to the Bradbury Building, and time was short, so I don’t have interior photos for you. Wikipedia tells us that this building served in the “Lou Grant” TV series as the headquarters of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune (L.A. is famous for newspapers that are primarily fictional). CLICK HERE to read more about this building. (Move ahead two posts to read more about the Bradbury.)

The next several posts continue my downtown tour. See you tomorrow at the corner of 5th and Olive.

This entry refers back to a previous blog post. CLICK HERE to view it.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017


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