Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 23, 2013

An Ancient Palace

In olden times, giants strode the earth. Of these giants, those truly worth their name (“entas” in Anglo Saxon) dwelt in massive castles of wondrous construction.

Los Angeles has always been the Land of the Giants of the film industry. And the city once boasted an almost uncountable number of immense and spectacular movie palaces for them to occupy. Many survive. The devoted fan of film theaters could exhaust a full week traversing the vast L.A. basin without visiting all of them that remain, with occasional stops at a variety of strip malls, parking lots and vacant spaces that once were graced by these amazing structures. If you have an interest in the grandiose theaters of the past, and you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles, you’d do well to consult the website of the Los Angeles Conservancy. CLICK HERE. The Conservancy can help you gain a fundamental orientation to some of the remarkable structures that are still extant. They offer tours, and, during select times of the year, host screenings of classic films in several of the houses in a series named “Last Remaining Seats.”

I had an errand to run that would take me near a part of L.A. named Morningside Park.  Whenever I can, I make the effort to see one more slice of this vast megalopolis that would require multiple lifetimes to fully explore. An important resource is my battered copy of A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles & Southern California, by David Gebhard and Robert Winter, Peregine Smith, 1977. (I note that Amazon lists one “new” copy for $160, although used copies are available for much, much less. Mine is used.) This staggering work of massive research and profundity details hundreds of structures throughout southern California. It’s illustrated with photos of select sites, for which Julius Shulman, the avatar of L.A. architectural photographers, served as Photographic Consultant (and many of the photos are his). Although scores of the buildings listed in the book have fallen prey to the wrecking ball in the ensuing 35 years since the book’s publication, hundreds still stand. How Gebhard and Winter compiled the book is a mystery to me, because setting out to visit each of the locations once would seem to require a few years of dedicated travel, let alone researching their histories, acquiring photos and amassing them in a single publication. I salute them. (There IS a revised edition, 2003, which is worth investigating. I promise to do so.)

Consulting the Guide, I saw that my errand would take me to the vicinity of The Academy Theater, built in 1939 by S. Charles Lee, whom Wikipedia lists as “one of the most prolific and distinguished motion picture theater designers on the West Coast.” I could construct a route for my errand that would pass the site without a lot of additional driving. Gebhard and Winter’s description tells us that the Academy is “The  high point of the Streamline Moderne theaters in Southern California.” That’s enough for me. Let’s go! Is it still standing? I made my way to the intersection of Manchester Blvd. and Crenshaw Blvd.

Manchester drives a long east-west line across the southern edge of south-central L.A. just north of LAX, bisected in the city of Inglewood by Crenshaw Blvd., which runs from north almost from the edge of the Pacific to the base of the Hollywood Hills. The Morningside Park neighborhood is somewhat tattered, far enough inland and distant from the spiffier sections of town to still play host to architectural reminders of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

I drove there. Here is what I saw:

Academy Theater LA Brad Nixon 0198 Academy (593x640)

Still there. Even in ’77, Gebhard and Winter had written, “… now a church, and some remodeling has begun to compromise the original design.” Obviously, the place is not what it once was, but the church has at least retained that remarkable spire with “ACADEMY” spelled out along its height. Those curvilinear shapes that comprise the house are a distinctive touch from the great age of Streamline Moderne.

Academy Theater LA Brad Nixon 0197 (640x424)

I can’t speak for the current state of the interior of the building. A Google Image Search reveals tantalizing photos of a stunning interior. I may have to attend church there, just to see.

FYI, in addition to numerous movie palaces and other structures in Los Angeles, Lee designed the still-extant Fremont Theater in San Luis Obisbo. I regret I’ve never succeeded in capturing an acceptable place of the exterior at night. It has excellent neon signage.

Keep your eyes open. And keep your camera handy. Ask questions if you find someone who knows anything about what you see. Nothing lasts forever, and change is certain.

If you’re doing a map search, the address of the Academy is 3100 Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, CA.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017


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