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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 well...giving 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 aut