Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 3, 2010

New Kid in an Old Town

I wrote last week that I was heading to downtown Los Angeles for a meeting and observed that, like many urban centers, it’s not always the most-visited portion of town by the local residents. 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 Pavillion.

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. Right out 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.

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.

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. Heck, if I were standing on my roof in 1602, he’d’ve seen ME. Hola! Casa de Nixon aqui! Well, that’s silly. And just because some European looked at a spot that had been occupied for millenia by the area’s natives doesn’t prove much.

I am going to talk about history, not prehistory, and I apologize in advance for the Eurocentrism that this post will reflect.

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. It was a long trip down through the Panama Canal and up the coast in those days. Plus, the original settlers WALKED from Sandy Eggo, and that means they had to go around Camp Pendleton because the Marines don’t want you there. 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, there were some official ranchos established 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.

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 (again, from San Pedro’s port, up to the town), and things started growing fast enough that I can now walk out of the Wells Fargo tower up on Bunker Hill and look around for old buildings from old Los Angeles.

Before I start, though, let me observe that I stood looking out over downtown last week with two other caucasian contemporaries 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 worked until recently with a man of Mexican heritage who is a 6th-generation native. Given the steady, large influx of people to southern California for a couple of hundred years, it’s not unusual that many of them stayed and established roots that have provided as much continuity amidst the flux of L.A.’s growth as you’ll find anywhere, despite what feature films and popular literature might have you believe. This is a city populated by families who have been here for many generations.

One could spend a working lifetime covering the downtown of any city, LA, included. This week’s posts are the result of a single hour spent on foot, moving pretty fast, and not taking time to talk to many people.

People, you’ll notice, are mostly absent from these photos. Of course, there are no cities without people, but that would be yet ANOTHER photographic career, and far more complex because people keep moving around and making faces or blinking the moment you snap the shutter, so it’s much simpler to shoot photos of buildings. Besides, there’ll always be more people, because they keep making new ones all the time, while some of these buildings just won’t be here forever.

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. Some other time I hope I can go back and get into specific categories, like the movie palaces that line Broadway, just south of where today’s walk will take me, and which I won’t be able to visit at all on this jaunt.

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. My major thesis here is that if you have a chance to 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.

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.

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!

However, the friezes on the exterior suggest what the interior style may be.

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

This is a vast structure, which had 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. Vast.

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. I’m sorry that my lightning tour didn’t give me time to take any photos of the interior or explore a lot more. Perhaps regular readers Barb or Shapiro would like to add some comments that could enlighten you further about this place. 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.

Finally, omitting great swaths of downtown chock-full of other old, current and modern architecture, to epitomize the random nature of 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:

This 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 this noble structure was 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 of Queen Anne-style homes of the city’s power elite, it made sense as an intersection of public and private life. If you’ll move to the nexst post in this series, you’ll see a further connection with the Los Angeles 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.

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

This was 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. Since I didn’t read up ahead of my visit, I passed by without looking inside, so I have no photos for you. Besides, I was on a mission to get to the Bradbury Building, and time was short, so I may not have ducked in there, even had I known there was more to be seen. 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.)

In the next post, I’ll backtrack just a block from this last photo and explore inside one of downtown’s gems. On Wednesday I’ll pick up from this spot and continue east to Broadway and head north two blocks for a real scene-stealer. Thursday I’ll have to rely on public transportation to get myself back up to Bunker Hill in time for my meeting, and Friday I’ll drive the 20-s0me miles back to the South Bay along what I promise will be an interesting, although not the most direct route.

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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