Urban Surgery: How Wilshire Was Extended Into Downtown L.A.

Between 1930 and 1931, the city extended Wilshire Boulevard three blocks into downtown Los Angeles, from Figueroa to Grand. 1930 and 1934 photographs courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Traffic may have been sluggish, but Wilshire Boulevard in the late 1920s was a road on the move. Developers like Henry de Roulet and A.W. Ross had overcome zoning restrictions on surrounding land and were busy transforming the boulevard into a major commercial corridor. Wilshire and Western had become the nation's busiest intersection, and the Miracle Mile was emerging as an important retail center.

But this "grand concourse of Los Angeles," to quote Kevin Roderick, still wanted for a connection to downtown Los Angeles -- a business district fated for decline but then still the center of the city's commercial life. To the west, Wilshire extended all the way to the sea. To the east, however, it ended abruptly at Westlake (now MacArthur) Park and its recreational lagoon. Beyond the park was a smaller retail strip named Orange Street, but that, too, ended abruptly when it reached the central business district at its intersection with Figueroa.

Anticipating the freeway construction of the coming decades, the city's solution privileged road building over the integrity of existing neighborhoods. The plan: widen and rename Orange Street, bridge the lake to link the two sections of Wilshire, and then extend the boulevard through several dense city blocks into the heart of downtown.

Advanced by real estate and business interests who stood to gain from improved connectivity, this plan countered another, bolder proposal to transform Wilshire into an "Archway," a super-wide automobile thoroughfare that would not have accommodated street-front businesses. Auto Club of Southern California historian Matthew Roth chronicles the battle over the Archway proposal in his dissertation "Concrete Utopia," accessible through the USC Digital Library.

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Despite enormous costs, the city completed the downtown portion first. Beginning in late 1930, workers demolished buildings, took up foundations, and filled in basements to extend Wilshire Boulevard three blocks between Figueroa and Grand. By the time it opened in September 1931, the 971-foot extension had cost $3.2 million -- all but $67,000 spent on demolishing the buildings that stood in the way and compensating their owners. This urban surgery left a scar; because adjoining businesses were slow to build storefronts along the new street, Wilshire's three new blocks consisted mostly of blank walls and open parking lots.

The widening of what had been Orange Street (between Figueroa and Westlake Park) also left wounds. Workers either tore down structures fronting the street, or, in the case of the Rex Arms apartment building, cleaved off the fronts of the buildings to accommodate the wider road.

But by far the most painful -- if not the most expensive -- segment was Wilshire's extension through Westlake Park, one of the city's oldest public parks and long a favorite outdoor retreat. Plans initially envisioned a bridge that would transport the boulevard over the park's signature lagoon. Realizing that a viaduct might compromise the park's aesthetics, the city later considered a tunnel alternative. After the nation plunged into an economic depression, however, only the cheapest alternative remained on the table: an earthen causeway that bisected the recreational lake. Local residents protested, and the dispute made its way to the state supreme court, which eventually allowed the construction to proceed.

On December 7, 1934, city officials celebrated the opening of the Wilshire causeway through Westlake Park. Millions of dollars had been expended, residents and businesses had been displaced, and one of the city's preeminent public spaces had been sacrificed, but Wilshire Boulevard finally linked downtown to the sea.

Before 1931, Wilshire Boulevard (previously Orange Street) met its eastern terminus at Figueroa Street. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Widening Wilshire Boulevard between Figueroa and Westlake Park. On the left, the Rex Arms apartment building loses its face. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

As seen in the background of this 1934 photograph, Wilshire's downtown extension left an urban scar through three city blocks, as adjacent businesses were slow to add store fronts or entrances. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

A newspaper illustration of the Wilshire extension through Westlake Park. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Another illustration showing progress on the Wilshire causeway. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Construction of the Wilshire Boulevard causeway through Westlake Park. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Grand opening of the Wilshire Boulevard causeway through Westlake Park in 1934. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

The Wilshire causeway permanent changed Westlake Park, once the city's most popular outdoor retreat. Image courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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