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Iconic Vision: John Parkinson and Angel City Press

Published by Angel City Press, "Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles" is the long-awaited book on the storied life and career of John Parkinson, architect of L.A. City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum, Bullocks Wilshire, and Union Station along with over 400 buildings throughout Southern California, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and more. Despite all of his accomplishments, this book is Parkinson's first biography. This week L.A. Letters takes a long look at Parkinson's vast body of work as it is outlined in the new book, as well as a quick glance at Angel City Press and their extensive catalog of L.A.-centric titles.

Parkinson was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Le Corbusier, Paul Williams, and other celebrated early 20th Century architects. But his name is much less known, and surprisingly little has been written about his extensive design oeuvre from 1890 to 1935. Author Stephen Gee's narrative tells the background stories behind his important projects, like the Memorial Coliseum and City Hall, and also traces the trajectory of Parkinson's life from his childhood in England, his adventurous escape west, which included time in Seattle, arriving almost penniless in Los Angeles, and then Parkinson's long reign as dean of Los Angeles architects.

Gee's detailed volume effectively argues that though the architectural giants named above are more internationally famous than Parkinson, none of them have produced as many long lasting icons as Parkinson did. The author makes a strong case for Parkinson, noting again and again that many of the projects built by Parkinson are still standing after close to a century.

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Fifty Parkinson buildings remain in Downtown Los Angeles alone. Spring Street, namely the Old Bank District, has almost a dozen Parkinson structures between City Hall and Ninth, including the building that houses the Last Bookstore. I've noted in a previous column that there is a plaque honoring Parkinson on the building near the northwest corner of Spring and Fifth. Walking past the Parkinson plaque on Thursday, August 22, I couldn't help notice a large potted tree blocked the plaque's visibility. Though I'm sure this act was unintentional by building management, it is an appropriate metaphor.

Parkinson's work is everywhere in this city, but many have never seen him. If I hadn't known the plaque was there from my past knowledge I would have missed it entirely. Parkinson's work, like the plaque, has been there all along, whether anyone notices. Gee's book portrays Parkinson as a humble man that was more concerned with producing structures that will stand the test of time than fame. On this standard alone, it is safe to say Parkinson achieved this goal and then some whether or not the average Angeleno knows his name.

Title Insurance Building, 1928 | Courtesy of the USC Digital Archives

Spring Street is the obvious place to begin. In 1903 Parkinson designed the Braly Block at Fourth and Spring, the first skyscraper ever built in Los Angeles. It put Parkinson on the map in the city and sooner than later his practice began to flourish. By 1904 Parkinson moved his own firm into the building, where he was barraged with requests for his services. The prosperity of the era fostered Parkinson's use of experimental new architectural techniques. Project after project, from the Alexandria Hotel, Rosslyn Hotel, Bullocks Wilshire, structures in Pasadena, to being commissioned by USC, Parkinson worked on many of the region's biggest structures, displaying a wide range of versatile styles over the years from Beaux Arts to Art Deco. Parkinson died during the Depression while Union Station was being finalized, and it's appropriate that his last project was an icon analogous to City Hall, the Coliseum or Bullocks Wilshire.

Braly Block, 1903 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public LibraryThe new Spring Street Park is surrounded by three different Parkinson Buildings, including the Braly Block, the Rowan Building and the Title Insurance Building across the street. The Title Insurance Building was once known as the "Queen of Spring," and this is where Parkinson's practice was based while he designed City Hall in the mid-1920s. Gee describes further: "the exterior terra cotta displayed a travertine-like finish, complemented inside by real travertine and marble in the public areas. Artist Herman Sachs was recruited to decorate the lobby ceiling and Hugo Ballin to create the murals above the street entrance." Resembling a deco cruise ship, the Title Insurance Building, like so many Parkinson structures still looks monumental.

Another important Parkinson design is the Alexandria Hotel on Spring and Fifth. Though it may be taken for granted now, when the Alexandria was built in 1906 it was the finest hotel in the city. For the first two decades U.S. presidents, royalty and movie stars stayed there. Gee writes, "the main restaurant, finished in fumed oak and Italian marble, had thirty-foot ceilings and elaborate glass chandeliers. The second-floor banquet hall, decorated in ivory and gold, contained private rooms where business leaders could meet behind closed doors." The Banks-Huntley Building, a block south of the Alexandria, is an art deco gem in mint condition. Adjacent to the Spring Street Bar, its smooth design falls in line with all of his other work on Spring.

Completed in 1923, Parkinson's Memorial Coliseum is the only stadium ever used in two Olympic ceremonies, 1932 and 1984. It's fair to say that the Coliseum was the first of his major iconic works. Gee reveals how Parkinson's love for his city guided his practice with projects like the Coliseum. "He viewed the ambitious undertaking as his civic responsibility and agreed his firm would work at cost while he donated his own services." USC immediately began playing football in the stadium. Later the Dodgers would play four seasons there; the Los Angeles Rams, and later the Raiders, played NFL games there; and presidential campaigns, concerts, and religious leaders appeared at the coliseum.

USC Bovard Administration Building, 1921 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Around the same time as the Coliseum, Parkinson designed USC's Administration Building in an Italian Romanesque style. The success of the structure led Parkinson to work on twenty projects for USC, though several never materialized. Nonetheless eight of Parkinson's USC buildings remain in use to this day.

The sheer number of Parkinson buildings still standing is astounding. Besides his collection on Spring Street, there are two classic Parkinson buildings on Hollywood Boulevard. There's also Fairfax High School, Manual Arts High School, the Homer Laughlin Building where the Grand Central Market is, Santa Monica's City Hall, the list goes on and on. Gee comments on Parkinson's legacy: "Bullock's Wilshire remains one of the most masterfully crafted structures ever conceived in the city, and is enjoyed every day by the students and faculty at Southwestern Law School. The administration building at USC is still the most recognizable structure ate the university. And nearly seventy-five years after the first train arrived, bustling Union Station remains one of the city's most beloved architectural icons."

Considering Parkinson's tremendous architectural legacy, "Iconic Vision" is an excellent name for this book. Furthermore, the subtitle, "John Parkinson, architect of Los Angeles" is also fitting. The iconic power of his work makes this label accurate, Parkinson's track record speaks volumes. Gee's book puts Parkinson's work in its appropriate historical context. Curious urbanists and architectural students will find an encyclopedic account of the great architect's busy life.

It makes sense that the first biography of Parkinson was published by Angel City Press. Dating back to 1992, Angel City Press has published 50 mostly nonfiction titles which, as their name suggests, are L.A.-centric, with all of the books connected somehow to L.A. and Southern California architecture, culture, and geography. They've published titles by Charles Phoenix, Kevin Roderick, D.J. Waldie, and even a poetry book by former California Poet Laureate, Al Young, among many others. Angel City is a small independent press but their level of scholarship is on par with any university press.

Angel City's new book does an outstanding job showing John Parkinson's iconic vision. The mix of historical anecdotes and vintage documents and images presented also show how prolific the man was. Salute to his storied legacy and his extensive body of work, John Parkinson will always be one of the most iconic architects in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

Top: Bullocks Wilshire Building. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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