Before the 110 Freeway, Figueroa Street Ran Through These Tunnels

Two-way traffic once ran through the Figueroa Street Tunnels, now part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

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.

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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.

The northernmost three tunnels were built between 1930 and 1931. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Another view of tunnel construction in 1931. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

The southernmost and longest of the four tunnels, seen here at its northern portal, was built five years after the other three. It opened in 1936 and connected Bishops Road to Solano Avenue. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

A 1931 view of the Figueroa Street Tunnels, shortly after the first three opened to traffic. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Before the tunnels became part of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, pedestrians could walk through them down a five-foot-wide sidewalk. 1937 photo courtesy Herman J. Schultheis Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A 1931 postcard of the Figueroa Street Tunnels. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

From 1931 to 1937, Figueroa Street merged sharply with Riverside Drive immediately after leaving the tunnels. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

In 1937, the Figueroa Street Viaduct opened across the Los Angeles River, providing a more direct connection between the tunnels and points northeast. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Between 1940 and 1943, state highway crews built a new four-lane roadway near the existing tunnels to carry the Arroyo Seco Parkway's southbound lanes. Illustration from the October 1940 issue of 'California Highways and Public Works,' courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

A 1941 view of the southbound Arroyo Seco Parkway under construction. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Another view of the Arroyo Seco Parkway's southbound lanes under construction in 1941. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

After 1943, the Figueroa Street Tunnels carried the Arroyo Seco Parkway's northbound traffic. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection - Los Angeles Public 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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