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The Commission that Shaped the Los Angeles River's Bridges


June 16, 1933, Milton Coleman, a boy living in East Los Angeles cut a flower chain extending across the brand new Sixth Street Viaduct. As he did, a police band played, flags fluttered in the wind, and crowds cheered as the ribbon fell to the ground and cars eagerly made their first foray over the 56-feet wide roadway spanning 3,546 feet.

Its graceful concrete arches spanned the Los Angeles River, crossing the railroad tracks of Union Pacific and Santa Fe yards. It contains enough concrete to pave a 40-food wide street. Plans for the bridge began May 1931 and completed a few days before its opening at the cost $2,383,271. A Los Angeles Times writer hailed it as the start of a "new epoch in the development of Los Angeles transportation history."

Though the Sixth Street Viaduct of yore will soon be a thing of memory, it and its sister bridges across the Los Angeles River played a pivotal role in the making of Los Angeles. Built as part of the city's major traffic plan, the bridge was built directly in line with Wilshire Boulevard connecting the downtown business district at the heart of Los Angeles to the oceanside city of Santa Monica down through San Diego. At the time, Los Angeles' traffic plan was meant to ease traffic congestion caused by the tangle of street cars, railroad lines, automobile and horse-drawn traffic. The traffic plan connected streets to existing bridges and developed new bridges. By building these bridges, automobiles would be able to cross the river, while trains could still run along the river's banks. Instead of making do with cheap wooden bridges or rusty, easily manufactured iron truss structures, the city built reinforced concrete arch spans that were architectural marvels of its time.

Two pylons were once next to the two 150-foot wide, asymmetrical steel through-arch spans. A few years after opening, they were removed when it was first learned the bridge's concrete was suffering from Alkali-Silica Reaction. I USC Libraries Special Collections

Perhaps most notably, their presence in the city landscape enhanced Los Angeles' beauty and were testaments to this young city's grand ambition to establish itself as an attractive metropolis the likes of its more well-established counterparts on the east coast. Their graceful curves and architectural details (ranging from Neoclassical, Spanish Colonial, Streamline Moderne and Gothic Revival styles) gave the then- millions of people traveling to and from the city by train something to delight in. Many bridges even included concrete benches and balconies where pedestrians could rest and ponder the world while gazing onto the panorama of the city, mountains and what was once an un-concretized river.

Lauded for their beauty, the bridges were intentionally made to inspire civic pride. This aspiration was shepherded by the citizen-driven Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission. "It has been discovered that Los Angeles is not as beautiful a city as natural advantages warrant, and it is proposed to form a commission that will eradicate many of the defects," notes a 1903 Los Angeles Times article. Though the commission was first created to enhance the city's beauty, eventually it would come to play a much more significant role.

Consisting of five members --three men and two women-- the commission was initially appointed by the mayor to remove unsightly billboards and telegraph lines. They were also meant to encourage the public to clear vacant lots of weeds, prevent the destruction of trees by telephone and telegraph companies, and spur the planting of shade trees. In general, they were to work for the "gradual elimination of ugliness from the conspicuous parts of our city."

As the years progressed, the commission found its influence and powers increasing. Eventually, as the city flourished and the need for more roads and public construction became apparent, they were given authority to approve the designs of public buildings and infrastructure thanks to a city charter amendment in 1911. Thus, all city organizations involved in planning and construction --including the city's Bureau of Engineering (BOE)-- had to go before the commission.

Charles Mulford Robinson drafted a report called 'Los Angeles: The City Beautiful' that was part of a national urban planning movement characterized by monumental architecture. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Archives.
Charles Mulford Robinson drafted a report called 'Los Angeles: The City Beautiful' that was part of a national urban planning movement characterized by monumental architecture. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Archives.

But even before then, the city had already started gearing up for more integrated, civic-minded urban planning. In 1907, the commission had enlisted Charles Mulford Robinson, a Chicago-based architect, to create city-funded plan for Los Angeles. Robinson was a successful journalist, whose influential writings eventually earned him a place as a pioneering urban theorist. He was also acting secretary of the American Park and Outdoor Art Association. Robinson had authored 25 municipal improvement plans throughout the country in cities such as Buffalo, Denver, Detroit, and Colorado Springs. Later, he would be appointed the Chair of Civic Design at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one of two universities offering courses in urban planning at the time. (The other university was Harvard.) His appointment was the first position of its kind in the U.S.

Robinson's L.A. assignment resulted in a report called "Los Angeles: The City Beautiful." In this plan, Robinson had outlined public improvement projects that gave us the City Hall, Union Station, and the bridges of Los Angeles River. These bridges were an outgrowth of the City Beautiful movement, a philosophy of urban planning that swept through the country from the 1890s to the 1920s.

The movement's supporters believed that beautiful, monumental architecture would inspire moral and civic virtue in its inhabitants. The first city to carry out a City Beautiful design was Washington D.C. The plan limited building heights and ensured new structures and monuments throughout the city positioned to create a balanced composition. Other cities that benefited from the movement were Cleveland, San Francisco, and St. Paul, Minnesota, even Manila, Philippines. The pinnacle of the movement came with Chicago's plan, which envisioned radial and concentric boulevards that connected the center to its suburbs and linked suburbs to each other within a 60-mile radius. The Chicago River would be straightened to enable water transportation and commerce. Tracks of competing rail lines would be consolidated and a lakefront park would run along Lake Michigan for 20 miles. Parks would be increased and enhanced, embedding itself into the whole network. Neoclassical buildings would also rise grandly at key points in the city. Much of this would become similarly manifested along the Los Angeles River.

Gothic revival characterizes the Fourth Street Bridge. Photo by Los Angeles City Planning Department.
Gothic revival characterizes the Fourth Street Bridge. Photo by Los Angeles City Planning Department.

This push for a higher aesthetic standard was a response to the soot, grime and overall urban degradation caused by the Industrial Revolution. Though as time passed, the City Beautiful movement drew critics because of its so-called elitist ideals that created grandiose city plans too expensive to realize, the philosophy had already made its mark.

In his report, Robinson included a telltale explanation by Homer Hamlin, the City Engineer of Los Angeles' Bureau of Engineering (BOE), of the agency's construction policy. "The earlier policy was to consider first cost alone and to construct the cheapest and narrowest bridge that would serve the purpose. Then a few steel structures were erected across the river of the truss or the girder type, which are inherently unsightly. It is now the policy of the Board of Public Works to recommend cheap wooden bridges only in the outlying districts and occasionally for more important crossings where a temporary bridge can serve purposes until funds are available for a more permanent structure...The aesthetic side is taken care of by adopting the arch form and by special treatments of the concrete surfaces."

Hamlin would eventually be appointed to the Municipal Art Commission in 1911--the same year a city charter amendment gave the commission authority to approve the designs of public buildings and infrastructure. Thus, all city agencies concerned with building and construction --including the BOE-- needed to run their plans by the commission.

To give an example of the commission's influence, one need only look at the North Broadway Bridge. When it came up for review, BOE had suggested using lions or pillars, while the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West wanted bears. The commission saw it another way, recommending the use of an "architectural group of columns" that would make the bridge more monumental. Three months later, a revised design showed the commission's suggested columns. The commission's interest in the bridges went on until the 1940s and eventually approving designs for the Olympic Boulevard Bridge, Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge, the Spring Street Bridge and the First Street Bridge.

As architectural styles changed throughout the first half of the 20th century, so did the commission's preferences. The Beaux Arts Classicism evident in the Olympic Bridge's concrete bases ornamented with acanthus rolls and Doric and Corinthian columns in 1925 gave way to more modern Art Deco styles such as the elements found at the Sixth Street Bridge in 1932.

The Broadway Bridge.
The Broadway Bridge.

Eventually, as times changed, so did the commission's role in the city. As more transportation projects came under state or federal programs, more and more emphasis was given to uniformity and cost efficiency, leading to simpler designs that were cheaper to execute and maintain. As a result, the commission's input on aesthetics became less significant. The commission then began to concentrate more on art and cultural activities, work which it continues today as the Cultural Affairs Commission.

Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission was a pioneer. It was the first civic approval organization in the country. "Cities as far east as Virginia and as far west as Australia want to know how the Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission supervises the architecture of public buildings," said a 1930 Los Angeles Times article. In the same year, both Harvard and Yale Universities recognized the commission nationally as a leader in civic building management.

Today, the Cultural Affairs Commission may not be looking over bridge designs, but L.A. looks to be in the midst of another golden age of building with a number of exciting projects on the horizon --the new Sixth Street Bridge, the La Kretz bridge, and Lauren Bon's water wheel among them. Whether they too will be part of the river's storied history, only time will tell.

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