Driving through the Figueroa Street Tunnels might be one of L.A.'s most dramatic freeway experiences. As you plunge through the first Art Deco portal, the downtown skyline recedes in your rear-view mirror. A minute later, leaving the last of the four bores, you enter the world of the Arroyo Seco Parkway: sycamore trees, sweeping curves, and arched bridges.
The tunnels weren't always part of the state freeway system. Built between 1930 and 1936 by the city of Los Angeles, they originally carried Figueroa Street through the rugged terrain of Elysian Park. Two lanes traveled in either direction, separated by white double stripes. Pedestrians were welcome, if not expected; a single five-foot sidewalk (since removed) ran alongside the forty-foot wide roadway.
Designed by municipal engineer Merrill Butler1, the tunnels bore the aesthetic flourishes that distinguished Butler's more-celebrated Los Angeles River bridges. Art Deco patterns and ornamental street lamps adorned the concrete faces of the portals and retaining walls. Inside, reflective tiles reinforced a sense of motion. And above each of the eight portals, a stylized version of the Los Angeles city seal was cast in concrete.
Aesthetic considerations aside, the tunnels were first and foremost a traffic relief measure, the key part of a program to widen and extend Figueroa Street between downtown and Pasadena. (The grade-separated intersection of Temple and Figueroa is another legacy of this program.) Previously, the principal route north of downtown had been North Broadway, which often choked with traffic where it crossed the Los Angeles River. The four tunnels represented a shortcut around North Broadway and through Elysian Park, whose southeastern flank was sacrificed in the name of traffic flow.
Workers with contractor's H.W. Rohl's construction firm began drilling through the sandstone and mudstone of the Elysian Hills in April 1930. Tunnels two and four (counting from the south) they built by drilling outward from the center of the bore toward each portal. Tunnel three -- the shortest -- they constructed using the cut-and-cover method. These three tunnels opened to traffic in Nov. 1931. A second burst of construction activity from 1935 to 1936 gave birth to tunnel one -- the longest -- which burrowed 755 feet through the hills between Bishops Road and Solano Avenue. On August 4, 1936, two-way traffic flowed through all four of the Figueroa Street Tunnels for the first time.
But the tunnels would not remain part of Figueroa Street for long. The 1940 opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway to Pasadena created a chronic traffic jam at the tunnels, where several lanes merged into two. To eliminate the bottleneck, state highway engineers rushed to upgrade Figueroa Street to freeway standards. Blasting through the hills above and to the west of the tunnels, workers built a new open-cut roadway to carry four lanes of southbound traffic through Elysian Park to Castelar (now Hill) Street. Northbound lanes were routed through the tunnels. By Dec. 30, 1943, the sidewalk was gone, four one-way lanes had replaced two-way traffic, and a freeway roared through the Figueroa Street Tunnels.
1Butler only personally supervised the design of the three tunnels that opened in 1931. By 1935, when construction began on the final tunnel, he had already been promoted to deputy city engineer.
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