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October is for Architecture

October was recently declared Architecture month by the city of Los Angeles. In honor, this edition of LA Letters pays tribute to some of my favorite structures in our fair city. There are far too many to list them all, but here's a few to begin with.

Downtown in particular has a consolidated cluster of classic architecture in several styles, like Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance Revival, Churrigueresque and Art Deco. The Historic Core east of Hill Street along Broadway, Spring and Main holds building after building of vintage architecture like the Bradbury Building, Million Dollar Theater, Rosslyn Hotel, Wurlitzer Building, Orpheum Theater, Title Insurance and Trust Company Building, and countless more. Historian/Photographer Tom Zimmerman's book, "Downtown in Detail," does an excellent job showcasing downtown's historic buildings and the accompanying sculptures, clock towers, tiles, gargoyles and relief panels decorating their facades. Zimmerman captures these structures in all their glory.


Central Library1

Rotunda at L.A. Central Library | Photo by Suzanne - neusuz5 used under a Creative Commons license

The first building I really got to know in Downtown L.A. was the Central Library. Two decades ago I fell in love with it. When the UCLA Library wouldn't have a book I needed or I just needed to get away from the Westside, I would drive to the library downtown. Designed by architect Bertram Goodhue in 1926, the Central Library on Flower and Fifth stands with the great libraries of the world. Built in Art Deco style, the design includes influences of ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean Revival architecture. The central tower is crowned with a tiled mosaic pyramid with a sun on each side. Topping the pyramid is a hand holding a gold torch symbolizing the "Light of Learning."

In 1978 the Central Library was almost demolished to be included in a new high rise development in Bunker Hill. A coalition of local residents came together to fight the demolition and they stopped it from happening. This group became known as the L.A. Conservancy. The L.A. Conservancy's efforts restoring historic buildings set the benchmark and precedent for the eventual redevelopment of downtown L.A. They deserve as much credit as anybody does for the rebirth of downtown L.A. The Conservancy has saved dozens of other historic buildings throughout downtown and the rest of the city since they first rescued the library three decades back. A few years after the Conservancy saved the library, two arson fires in 1986 almost finished it off for good.

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Legendary Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski wrote a great poem shortly after the fires. His poem "the burning of a dream," is both an ode to the library and a revealing window into his youth. He starts it like this.


The old LA Public Library burned down
that library downtown
and with it went
a large part of my
youth.


The poem is one of Bukowski's longest, celebrating the library, his favorite authors, his rite of passage, and how the library assisted with his growth as a writer and survivor. "Meanwhile while other young men chased the ladies I chased the old books. I was a bibliophile, albeit a disenchanted one and this and the world shaped me." He writes, "that wondrous place the L.A. Public Library it was a home for a person who had had a home of hell." The library gave him one thing to hold on to in a cold world.

Fortunately the library fire wasn't as bad as Bukowski thought. Almost 400,000 books burned and the library was severely damaged, but a plan of expansion was already in the works and now it would have to happen. Over a seven-year period the library expanded to include five more levels. The new wing is on the East Side of the library and cascades along Fifth Street. It connects to the original structure smoothly without affecting the integrity of the original architecture. Looking over the new wing, one sees a vast hall filled with light lying below a glass atrium-ceiling overhead. Five floors are linked by a long set of escalators. There is a sublime feeling riding up the escalators as the last light of the day pours through the glass overhead. Looking up every time I think how much I love this library and I love my city. †


City Hall

L.A. City Hall | Photo by Kansas Sebastian used under a Creative Commons license

City Hall is an architectural masterpiece. Though many take it for granted, the 1928 edifice with its pyramid top is Art Deco at its finest. Iconic like a city hall should be. City Hall's free observation deck on the 27th floor is one of the best kept secrets of L.A. sightseeing. Several times a year I visit the observation deck when I lead school walking tours. Recently I was there with Poet/Teacher Steve Abee and his English class from Thomas Starr King Middle School. Abee and I did a quick set of poems with the students before going downstairs and resuming our downtown walking tour.

The newly opened Grand Park's greatest asset is how well it frames City Hall and the fountain across from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Downtown is packed with epic architecture and not all of it historic -- such as the ultra-modern Disney Concert Hall and Cal Trans Building, more on these and others in a future column.

The Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway and Ninth is another art deco gem. Built in 1930, the terra cotta green tower is now loft units. That particular block is dense with historic structures like the Orpheum Theater across the street.

The Hall of Justice on Temple in the Civic Center is a civic treasure. Currently being restored, the grey poured concrete 1925 behemoth is distinguished especially by the three floors of columns near the top. Originally the county jail's lockup facility, the Hall of Justice was damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.


Bridges Over the River

Most people that leave downtown headed east know about the bridges over the Los Angeles River. The Sixth Street Bridge, Fourth Street Bridge, First Street Bridge and Chavez Bridge in particular are highly travelled. Dating to the 1920s and 1930s, they were designed by Merrill Butler, the city's bridge engineer from 1923 to 1961. Besides these bridges near the river downtown, he also worked on hundreds of bridges across the city in the Arroyo Seco, Silver Lake, Atwater Village and Lincoln Heights over his long career. The set of bridges Butler designed are iconic to Los Angeles, like City Hall, the Griffith Observatory and Memorial Coliseum. His design skills were flexed as he switched architectural styles from bridge to bridge. The gothic style of the Fourth Street bridge looks better than ever. Years before I learned the history behind the bridges, I knew they were special when I drove by them as a kid.


Vincent Price Art Museum

Vincent Price Art Museum | Photo by waltarrrrr used under a Creative Commons license

Among the countless iconic structures across the city, one of the newest is the Vincent Price Art Museum. Located on the campus of East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, the Museum's just completed elegant space matches the 60 years of groundbreaking art produced there.

In 1957, film star Vincent Price and his wife donated 90 pieces of art from around the world to East Los Angeles College. Price studied Art History at Yale and had spent a lot of time in the galleries of New York City. When he arrived in L.A. for his film career after a successful Broadway tenure in the late 1930s, he thought the Southland was a wasteland of culture compared to New York. He eventually opened his own gallery and joined the LACMA board and UCLA Arts Council.

As his art collection grew he wanted to donate it to a local college gallery like UCLA or USC. Before he made any decisions, an art teacher at ELAC named Judith Miller called Price to see if he could come speak to her students. He accepted the invitation and the rest is history. It also must be said that Price's wife fell in love with the diverse student body and they decided that their art collection could be used and appreciated in the gallery at ELAC even more than it would be at a wealthier and larger school. Price believed in the power of art and remained close with the ELAC Art Department until his death in 1993.

Price and his wife went on to donate another 2,000 pieces of art over the years. The collection has now grown to over 9,000 works and many of the alumni have gone on to international success in the art world. For the Museum's Grand Re-Opening in May 2011 a show called "Round Trip," featured eight well known artists returning to their starting place: Diane Gamboa, Gronk, Clement S. Hanami, Judithe Hernandez, Willie Herron III, Kent Twitchell, John Valadez and Patssi Valdez.

The Vincent Price Art Museum includes 7 galleries over three floors. The highly respected Miami-based architectural firm ARQUITECTONICA designed the space. Known for their use of glass and sleek lines, their rendering of the museum fulfills its purpose and then some. Walking up from Caesar Chavez Ave the sculpted rectangular shape is partially bisected by large triangular windows in each corner. On the east side of the museum where the entrances are located, doors stand below large panes of glass, letting in ample natural light. The Museum's new facility is an instant icon because all the ingredients come together so well.

"When a work of architecture functions as an icon, then it matters in a different kind of way from other buildings," writes venerated architectural critic Paul Goldberger. "The power of architectural icons is undiminished today, even as so many other symbols of our culture appear to weaken." The case of the Vincent Price Art Museum is an iconic building emitting power on multiple levels.

The humble gallery Price donated in 1957 has blossomed into a world class museum with the space to prove it. Price liked to say, "Art saves lives." The new museum testifies to this.


Esther McCoy

East of Borneo Books recently published, "Piecing Together Los Angeles," a stunning collection of over 50 essays written by the legendary architectural historian Esther McCoy, cataloging the development of L.A. architecture over five decades, from the Depression to Reagan. Esther McCoy's Southern California legacy is heavy like Vin Scully. Her brand of architectural criticism is interdisciplinary, combining cultural history and anecdotes with her commentary. "It was the scarcity of wood that made Los Angeles architecturally inventive." Eventually writing articles for magazines like the New Yorker, McCoy is the bridge between Carey McWilliams and Mike Davis, writing about the years in between the two noted L.A. historians. The new collection demonstrates her place as a central chronicler of midcentury modernism and her A to Z glossary of architects is invaluable. Though McCoy died in 1989, her work is read now more than ever and this new book re-focuses the spotlight on the full trajectory of her prodigious 50-plus years of published work. The last essay in the book is appropriately titled, "Geography as Destiny."

Geography is destiny and there's no shortage of cultural attractions and epic architecture around the Southland. Go forth and explore! This edition of LA Letters salutes Esther McCoy and architecture.


1This portion was adapted from an article originally published on The Loft Exchange.


About the Author

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