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L.A. and the Olympics
See how the Olympics helped shape the L.A. we know today in this four-part feature article series. It will chronicle how the Olympics affected L.A.'s built environment, how L.A. impacted Olympic traditions from 1932 to 1984 and how these have changed L.A.'s approach to 2028.
  1. The Coliseum during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles shows the words "Olympic Stadium" on the foreground.
  2. A bed cushion is carried by a man walking into one of the homes in the Olympic village during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
  3. A light structure similar to scaffolds were used in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
  4. A young woman paints a a mural that says "LA28" with a sunset and palm tree silhouettes

L.A.'s 1932 Olympics Put the City on a World Stage

The Coliseum during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles shows the words "Olympic Stadium" on the foreground.
The Coliseum during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Libraries
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Los Angeles is arguably the most successful Olympic host in the history of the Games. Both of the city's previous Olympics, in 1932 and 1984, became public and commercial successes that redefined the role of the Olympics in the global imagination. In 1932, the Games demonstrated how effective the Olympics could be in boosting a city's world profile. The 1984 Games revived a then-beleaguered Olympic movement in the midst of global conflict, showing that the Games could be profitable and uplifting as well as a veritable mega-production.

L.A.'s profile was revamped during both events, a shift which wouldn't have been possible without the architectural and design choices made by planners, councils and Olympic Committees both before and in preparation for the events. Precedents were set for L.A. as an evolving city and for future Olympics far and wide.

Downtown Los Angeles decorated as the Olympic City in 1932. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.
Downtown Los Angeles decorated as the Olympic City in 1932. | Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation

In 2028, Los Angeles will become the third city (after Paris and London) to host the Summer Olympic Games on three separate occasions. As the most-viewed event in the world, the Summer Olympics continues to be an avenue through which cities and countries attempt to showcase their assets and make arguments about their value — architectural sophistication, operational effectiveness, sporting prowess, international prestige, economic might, or all of the above — to a global audience.

Olympic legacies have historically been multifaceted. The expensive, expansive and heavily commercialized nature of modern Games makes them an ideal tool for city councils looking to revamp their landscape, infrastructure, global image or sporting culture. As such, they have often become playgrounds for city planners and architects, constructing Olympic mega-projects which would otherwise not be possible due to funding constraints or public pressure.

The 1932 Games were a direct product of the cultural and economic circumstances L.A. was experiencing at the time. Throughout the 1900s, efforts had been made to improve L.A.'s image in the minds of citizens throughout the nation and beyond. The 1932 Games was a culmination of those efforts, while also shaped by economic issues, L.A.'s rapid development, burgeoning industrialization and the related modernist philosophies, which dominated architectural thinking in California at the time.

Crowds walk toward the Coliseum during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Crowds walk toward the Coliseum during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. | Courtesy of Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Libraries

American cities began clamoring for the honor of the Olympics after Berlin's 1916 Games were cancelled due to World War I. After filing an official Olympic bid at a meeting in Antwerp in 1919 a year later, real estate magnate and one of the city's chief 'boosters' William May Garland was told that if L.A. were to build an Olympic stadium its bid would be considered by the International Olympic Committee. L.A. delivered — an athletics stadium was already on the agenda of the city's higher-ups — and in 1923 L.A. was awarded the 1932 Olympics.

The 1932 Games came at a difficult time for L.A. and the United States. The Great Depression, beginning with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, caused widespread homelessness, unemployment and a significant downturn in industry despite the continued success of Hollywood. L.A. was also characterized by income inequality and stark racial segregation.

That the city was to host an expensive festival of sporting celebration was not well-received by all Angelenos given the problems city and country were facing. However, the city's movers and shakers were who mattered; real estate magnates and the city's aristocrats had a long-standing desire to bring the world to L.A. so as to improve the city and its world profile (and the prices of their properties). The Olympics facilitated that.

Promotional photo for the 1932 Olympic Games. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Promotional photo for the 1932 Olympic Games. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

L.A. in the 1900s: Growing in Shape and Size

L.A. had been growing rapidly since the late 19th century. Gold was first discovered in California in 1842 and then in San Francisco in 1848. The Gold Rush brought over 300,000 people to the region, a move that resulted in the massacre of Indigenous Californians, the population of which fell from approximately 150,000 in 1850 to about 30,000 in 1870. The city of Los Angeles' population soared from 141 in 1841 to 1610 in 1850 to over 4,000 in 1860. During the Gold Rush it became known as "Queen of the Cow Counties" for its role in supplying beef to the miners in the north. The city of L.A. was incorporated in 1850 and declared the county seat for the County of Los Angeles — today L.A. County is made up of 88 cities and approximately 140 unincorporated areas.

When populations began to decline in the 1870s and '80s due to emigration from L.A., members of the newly-formed Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (initially formed in 1873 as the Board of Trade and reformed in 1888 as the Chamber) sought to advertise the city's qualities throughout the country ('boosting' the city), particularly emphasizing the abundance of space, espousing questionable claims about land values and health cures and of course drawing attention to the Mediterranean weather. As historian Kevin Starr puts it in "Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era," the Chamber of Commerce exported "an image of Southern California that dominated the popular imagination at the turn of the century and is alive to this day: a mélange of mission myth, obsession with climate, political conservatism and a thinly veiled radicalism, all put to the service of boosterism and oligarchy."

The sales pitch worked: while in 1880 L.A. County was home to just 33,381 citizens, by 1930 the county boasted over two million residents. This was in part helped by cheap land that facilitated a thriving agricultural industry and the discovery of Los Angeles City Oil Field in 1890. During the 1920s, California was producing between 20 and 25% of the world's oil.

After the Santa Fe railroad was introduced to the region in 1885, tourists poured in on a weekly basis, bringing with them investment and often, plans to resettle. This led to what was termed L.A.'s real estate "boom of the Eighties," catalyzed by cut-price tickets from Kansas which at one point (March 6, 1887) were as low as one dollar (about $27 in today's money).

In the 1880s, L.A. — which had only been recognized as a city 30 years earlier — was suffering from a crisis of emigration. Members of the newly-formed Chamber of Commerce sought to rectify this by advertising the city's qualities throughout the US Political bodies representing the interests of the city's higher-ups — the Chamber of Commerce and the Community Development Association in particular — enacted concerted efforts along with rhetorical strategies to improve ('boost') L.A.'s world profile.

The Community Development Association, composed of L.A. elites, was set up in 1919 by mayor of Los Angeles Meredith Snyder to promote travel to the region. Owner of the Los Angeles Times, Harry Chandler set a meeting with four other major publishers to facilitate measures which would enhance Los Angeles' profile, thereby rallying four of the region's major papers around a shared goal. This meeting was one of several efforts put forth by L.A. elites to promote the growth of the region.

The 1932 Olympic Games was an expensive cherry on top. L.A. tried to host the 1924, 1928 and 1932 iterations of the event, partially inspired by the 1915-17 Panama-California Exposition, an exceptionally successful event used to advertise San Diego to those traveling northwards from the recently completed Panama Canal. It would spur an adoption of Mediterranean Revival architecture throughout California, for example in Santa Barbara and the Palos Verdes Estates.

The Exposition began on January 1st 1915, and by April 5th a report emerged in the New York Times of Los Angeles' bid for the disrupted 1916 Games. The reported stated the selling point of L.A. was that it "could furnish practically as large attendance as either Philadelphia or New York, in addition to offering the finest climate and scenic setting in the world," as well as that "the opening of the Panama Canal has brought Southern California in touch with European countries by boat." Though the 1916 Games were eventually cancelled, the pitch is an early indicator of how organizers would intend to use the 1932 Games; not primarily for the celebration of sport, but rather to boost L.A.'s world profile.

The Coliseum built for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics is filled with crowds.
Architects John and Donald B. Parkinson designed the 1923 Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The photo shows the large crowds the Games attracted. | Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

A City Sprawling Into Modernism

L.A.'s first round of Olympic architecture was partially shaped by America's real estate boom, which caused the city to sprawl after its city limits were drastically expanded throughout the 1920s, accompanied by an increased idealization of suburban life which was supplemented by the promise of an escape from city pollution. Inglewood Ranch, for example, was advertised as "Only 3 Miles From Los Angeles…A Country Home Almost in the City," thus offering the best of both worlds, a testament to suburbia.

"In Los Angeles they prided themselves on not having real buildings, but instead having this horizontal spread," Jeremy White, an architectural historian specializing in the modern landscape, urbanism and the country, explains in an interview, "Nowadays it's problematic as it's responsible for urban sprawl, but at the time it was a marvelous modernist example of what a garden city could look like."

In 1904, urban planner Ebenezer Howard joined decentralist theories together to produce a vision for urban communities called the "Garden City." The Garden City vision had roots in Anglo-American architectural theory, but particularly focused on decentralization, predicting that crowded cities were bound to empty in the 20th century. It also predicated that decentralist forces could help form self-contained communities where residence, work and leisure would be near one another.

Pacific Coast Highway hosted the cycling road race in 1932 Olympics. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.
Pacific Coast Highway hosted the cycling road race in 1932 Olympics.
| Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation

Los Angeles' urban development in the early 1900s was flanked by a couple of complementary architectural movements, specifically contemporary modernism, the Garden City movement and the City Beautiful movement. The latter was popularized by influential Beaux-arts architect Daniel Burnham, who introduced the idea at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission was formed in 1903, making Los Angeles one of the first American cities with a civic body concerning art and urban aesthetics, and consisted of five members (three men and two women).

It aimed to work towards the "gradual elimination of ugliness from the conspicuous parts of the city" according to a 1903 Los Angeles Times article, and in 1909 its first report was published, titled "Los Angeles, California: The City Beautiful." Most of the 52-page report is dedicated to a section containing suggestions by urban theorist and beautification devotee Charles Mulford Robinson, the recommendations of which can be summed up as follows:

[Los Angeles] should not simply be big: but beautiful as one so much to do that tourists will not pass through Los Angeles. They will stay here, in a real "Paris of America,"— a summer city, when the East is swept by wind and snow; and they will find a gay outdoor life where other cities are stamped with the grime and rush of an earnestness that knows not how to play.

This was L.A.'s vision in a nutshell, a vast playground for beautification initiatives. It's no coincidence that the Municipal Art Commission was headed up by Frederick W Blanchard, who would later become president of the Community Development Association as well as founder of the Community Park and Arts Association, which would in turn become the Hollywood Bowl Association. L.A.'s famous palm trees were also foreshadowed in the report, as it stated "The great needs are more tree planting, more uniformity in the kind of tree...and in their spacing, even small trees should be thirty feet apart."

L.A.'s transit system in the 1880s was dominated by the electric streetcar (aka the tram), developed in the latter part of the decade and installed throughout Los Angeles by real estate developers to ensure long-term access to their land and entice new buyers to it. However, the privately-owned streetcar transit system would come under public scrutiny. Widespread dissatisfaction was caused by crowded trains, expensive fares compared to "jitney" taxis (which took passengers for the small price of a nickel) and a perceived decrease in dependability (in part due to congestion caused by automobiles) becoming issues during the 1910s.

Learn how trolley's helped make Los Angeles a horizontal city.
Iron Sprawl

The private streetcar companies failed to adapt, and by the '20s they would be all but unused. This was largely due to the development of the automobile; the first production motor vehicles in California were built in 1902, in L.A. As the streetcar began to falter, many of L.A.'s burgeoning middle-class chose to purchase a car. The city's low density growth was enabled by the ability of automobile owners to spread out, traveling to suburbs to build homes. As historian Scott Bottles calculates, by 1930 Los Angeles had an average of 1.8 residents per automobile compared to 8.0 in Chicago and an average of 5.3 across the US

Researcher Eric Stewart notes that in 1915, an assistant engineer for the Board of Public Works stated that L.A. "has an opportunity to solve its congestion problem simply by the gradual extension of its business area." Unlike East Coast cities, from which L.A. city planners (and residents) had heard stories of jangly trains and loud, industrial disturbances throughout the night, L.A. decided to remedy its issues simply by continuing to expand. This benefited realtors, who wielded considerable power, as they would be able to expand their remits and increase the prices of their more central properties.

In 1905, a City Council ordinance imposed a 150-feet height limit on any new constructions, with the only exception made in 1928 for City Hall. While myths abound that this was due to earthquake-induced skepticism regarding tall buildings, it was in fact more due to City Beautiful philosophies. In a 1910 City Planning Committee report before voters approved of the 150-foot charter change, structural safety was unmentioned. However, "the development of our great city along broad and harmonious lines of beauty and symmetry" was emphasized.

The ordinance — which was not repealed until the 1950s — combined with widespread adoption of the automobile and the City Beautiful movement led to the modern, stretched out Olympic city which characterized the ‘32 Games and captured the imagination of critics near and far, spring boarding L.A. onto the world stage

Perhaps more significantly for the Olympic Committee, L.A. was faced with the task of hosting an Olympics after the economically disastrous 1920s. L.A.'s team of boosters set about ensuring its success. Unlike previous Olympics, in which athletes were forced to pay for their own travel, in 1932 L.A.'s Olympic Committee funded a stipend to cover such expenses. Though this partially prevented costs becoming an issue for some foreign delegations, travel remained expensive and only 37 nations competed compared to the 46 that partook in 1928 due to the global economic downturn coupled with the sheer cost of making it to the USA (the only previous US Olympics took place in 1904 in St. Louis, and due to travel difficulties and the Russo-Japanese War only 12 nations attended).

Modest but Impressive: L.A.'s Stadia

The 1932 Games used seven buildings for a range of events, which with the exception of the Rose Bowl and Armory were built for the Olympics. The Riviera Country Club hosted equestrian and the pentathlon, a freshly-constructed swimming stadium, built for the '32 Olympics, hosted swimming and water polo, and the Olympic Auditorium — constructed in 1924 for the Games and at the time the largest indoor sports venue in the States — held boxing, wrestling and weightlifting, while the now-world famous Rose Bowl held track cycling events. Long Beach Marine Stadium, the first human-built rowing course in the US, was created in 1925 after Alamitos Bay in Long Beach was dredged. The jewel in the 10th Olympiad's crown, though, was the Memorial Coliseum, which played host to track and field events, equestrian, field hockey and gymnastics, effectively enabling the centralization of the Games around one impressive structure.

An Olympic pool photographed with empty stands
The opening of the Olympic pool used in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. | Courtesy of Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Libraries

Construction of the Memorial Coliseum — named after Rome's landmark arena — began in 1921 and finished in 1923, and was designed by prominent Southern California architects J & D Parkinson. The surrounding Exposition Park — then known as Agriculture Park — was renamed in 1909, ten years after its annexation by the city council to prevent illegal activities such as gambling taking place there (a particular concern of USC Law professor, council member and CDA member William M. Bowen, whose students were skipping Sunday School to loiter in the park). In 1908, Bowen began making plans to turn the park into a public cultural and recreational center.

The ambitious project was completed in May 1923 with a capacity of over 70,000 spectators, expanded to over 100,000 before the Games. It was the largest sports arena in the country at the time. The completion of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena further demonstrated the desire of Los Angeles' boosters to become a hub of athletic competition.

Men running on a track at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Men running the 200 meter final at the Coliseum during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Libraries

The nature of legacies is that they are hard to accurately estimate; in the case of Memorial Coliseum, though, they are hard to overestimate. The Coliseum exudes longevity — it is currently home to USC football, the previous home of the L.A. Rams and the past host of two Olympics, the World Series, two Super Bowls and even a visit from the Pope. In 2028, it will be the first stadium to act as centerpiece during three separate Games.

The Coliseum's iconic peristyle, made of Italian travertine and inspired by Roman architecture, defined its iconic aesthetic while also incorporating Spanish and Mediterranean influences, in-keeping with the interests of Californian architects at the time. However, many of the extraneous details were sacrificed in favor of cost-cutting. After the '84 Games, it would be designated a National Historic Landmark.

Lining the streets of L.A. were early sprouts of the palm trees, which would go on to dominate popular imaginations of California for the next several decades. These were planted alongside a long-term beautification initiative spearheaded by the L.A. Municipal Art Commission which would plant the palms throughout the city. Keen to present L.A. as idyllic and tropical to foreign delegations, as well as providing widespread temporary employment, over 25,000 trees were planted throughout L.A., perhaps most notably on Christmas Tree Drive, where they were positioned in order to signpost the way to the Coliseum. The trees would be revitalized once more for '84.

The impressive Coliseum and the conceptually-engaging Olympic Village played important roles in ensuring the Games' success. It ended up, through ticket sales, making an estimated profit of $1 million, while announcing L.A. as a global city on the world stage. Its success was testament to the effectiveness of the city's boosterism throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This wasn't merely notable; it redefined global perceptions of the Olympics and the role it could play for a city's image. Pre-1932 Games were completely different to the extravagant spectacles that have become the norm in the 21st century.

This achievement ensured the longevity of L.A.'s Games as '32 became a yardstick for the infamous 1936 Games, held in Munich. The Memorial Coliseum's opening ceremony demonstrated the effectiveness of stadium-contained spectacle, as the LA Times put it:

Wave upon wave of cheers followed the three men [Vice-President Curtis, Count Baillet-Latour (IOC president) and William May Garland] as they moved to the Tribune of Honor, where waited other "big-wigs" in glinting top hats, frock coats and formal pants, to say nothing of persons in trim, medal-laden military uniforms, and ladies snuggling under riotously colored Japanese parasols.

This was something Hitler would amp up in 1936, ordering the construction of the 100,000 capacity Olympiastadion in an effort to exceed the magnitude of the Coliseum. The opening ceremony was adorned with Nazi paraphernalia and accompanied by an elaborate carrying of the Olympic torch round the running track. While in 1928 the Olympic flame had been lit in a tower overlooking the Olympic Stadium, in 1932 it adorned the entrance to the Coliseum; its extinguishing at the end of the games was mourned in the LA Times, and its metaphor clearly appreciated and understood. In 1936, it would be further foregrounded, with the first iteration of the Olympic torch relay occurring to much fanfare.

The 1932 Games, though, were indubitably well-received. The USA sat atop the medals table while the organizing committee pocketed over $1 million in profits, setting precedents for future Olympics after the loss-making Paris and Amsterdam Games. The event was especially impressive given the economic climate in which it took place. "I came to chronicle sports' biggest disaster," wrote Westbrook Pegler, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "I am leaving to describe its greatest triumph."

The participation of Hollywood celebrities like actor and filmmaker Douglas Fairbanks, pictured here with Japanese swimmers, helped make the 1932 Olympics a success. Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation.
The participation of Hollywood celebrities like actor and filmmaker Douglas Fairbanks, pictured here with Japanese swimmers, helped make the 1932 Olympics a success. | Courtesy of the LA84 Foundation

New records were set in every event but the broad jump (now the long jump), with American athletes such as Babe Didriksen and Eddie Tolan claiming multiple medals for the host nation. Citizens raved about the Games' atmosphere, though only white citizens were permitted to attend due to the city remaining deeply segregated. Just as the '32 Games is overlooked due to the historical and political significance of the '36 Games, so too is the racism of '32.

Los Angeles' growth would continue for the next 50 years, though not at the rate it experienced previously. By the '50s, the availability of cheap land would lead to real-estate development becoming California's primary industry after the manufacturing industry had flourished during the World War due to demand for munitions, supplies and vehicle production. Migration to California continued at express pace, catalyzing a successful local economy. L.A. continued to expand its notorious sprawl south and eastwards and had increasing issues with smog, so much so that schools in urban areas began closing on "smog days" when air pollution was deemed too unhealthy. By 1980, when the next Olympics rolled around, the population of the city was nearly three million, and the LA of '32 was all but unrecognizable. However, if anything was garnered from L.A.'s first Olympic instalment, it was that the Games were about more than just sport.

Through a grant made possible by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the USC Libraries are digitizing 37,000 photographs of Los Angeles from the Dick Whittington Studio between the 1930s and 40s.

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