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Forum Follows Function: Planning Los Angeles' 20th-Century Civic Center

1939 Civic Center plan (header)

At a meeting with his colleagues in the summer of 1958, Los Angeles County Supervisor John Anson Ford raised an item of concern. Scores of young boys had apparently been spotted swimming in the recently dedicated Fort Moore Memorial Fountain (figure 1 below). Designed to be seen from Union Station and the civic center several blocks below, the memorial stretched 400 feet along the rise of Hill Street. At a cost of more than $600,000, the enormous structure honored the patriots of the Mormon Battalion who raised the American flag over Los Angeles in 1847. While sympathetic to the youngsters, noting that there were no other pools in the area, Ford recommended immediate action. Besides the county who was responsible for maintaining the mechanical equipment, the Department of Water and Power who supplied the electricity, and the city staff who raised and lowered the flag each day, the Los Angeles Police Department would, in the future, be tasked with securing the site from any “unscheduled use.”[i]

Over the years, in its search for a “better” civic center, Los Angeles has demolished a state building, a county courthouse, a county hall of records, a law library, and a building dedicated to health services. Will our future selves celebrate or mourn the demolitions authorized today?

This brief anecdote is significant because it gives us a glimpse into the thinking of Los Angeles’ mid-20th-century planners. Specifically, it highlights the struggle between their lofty urban aspirations and the reality of everyday life in the city. Calls for the preservation of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Parker Center and for the addition of more housing and amenities in the civic center area echo this century-long divide. Like our predecessors, we have been asked to find meaning in the buildings and public spaces that make up the civic center. Should the area be grand like an idealized Athenian agora? Is it a place for political action? Should its primary purpose be about the efficient provision of government services? Perhaps the civic center is a didactic landscape that can teach us about the history (good and bad) of our community. Or is it a place for pleasure and sociability, a shady spot for an ice cream on a hot day?

The Los Angeles civic center has, at one time or another, been conceived as all of these things, and during the 20th century more than 30 different plans were created to put these thoughts into action. Revisiting the plans and comparing them with photos from the period reminds us of the gap between our goals and the real places we occupy. A look at the plans also reminds us that the ideas we have today have deep roots and the decisions we make have long term consequences. Over the years, in its search for a “better” civic center, Los Angeles has demolished a state building, a county courthouse, a county hall of records, a law library, and a building dedicated to health services. Will our future selves celebrate or mourn the demolitions authorized today?

Photograph of the Fort Moore Memorial taken just after its completion in 1958.
Figure 1: Photograph of the Fort Moore Memorial taken just after its completion in 1958. The mammoth structure was designed to be seen from the Los Angeles civic center and by passangers exiting Union Station several blocks below. Until they were turned off in the 1970s, three pumps sent more than 7,500 gallons of water over the edge of the fountain each day, making it an ideal watering hole for children who lived nearby. Los Angeles Public Library, L. Mildred Harris Slide Collection.
Los Angeles’ first civic center plan was created by Charles Mulford Robinson.
Figure 2: Los Angeles’ first civic center plan was created by Charles Mulford Robinson. An East Coast advocate of the City Beautiful movement, Robinson was invited to Los Angeles by the Municipal Arts Commission in 1907. In 1909, the commission published his proposal, which recommended three separate civic, education, and transportation nodes linked by grand boulevards. The image above represents Robinson’s plan for the administrative or governmental node in the area around Spring, Main and New High streets. It records the site of the Los Angeles County courthouse and suggests a location for a new city hall building on a triangular piece of land at Temple, Spring and Main. Robinson also thoughtfully recommended the construction of a “public comfort station,” (meaning a lavatory), to be “screened by shrubbery” on Aliso at Los Angeles Street. Charles Mulford Robinson, (1909) “Report of the Municipal Art Commission for the City of Los Angeles,” W. J. Porter
The Los Angeles County courthouse building, constructed in 1890
Figure 3: The Los Angeles County courthouse building, constructed in 1890, served as an anchor for Robinson’s 1909 plan for an administrative and governmental center. Opposite the courthouse, Robinson recommended that a new city hall be built with a terraced garden between the two. USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection
Los Angeles County Hall of of Records building (1911)
Figure 4: Unlike the humble annex recommended in Robinson’s plan, the county constructed an elaborate Hall of of Records building in 1911, seen here to right of the courthouse. Note that when this photograph was taken in the early 1920s, Spring Street had been realigned, leaving existing structures such as the courthouse and Hall of Records at odd angles. Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University
Dodge Plan by Lyman Farewell
Figure 5: In 1918, Mayor Frederick Woodman appointed a Civic Center Committee headed by the city’s Chief Engineer of the Water Department, William Mulholland, to bring the various government buildings together in a convenient location. As part of this discussion, Los Angeles County Supervisor Jonathan Dodge resurrected Mulford Robinson’s plan and asked architect Lyman Farewell to prepare a series of renderings. In this view, we see the Hall of Records incorporated into a newer expanded courthouse. ‘‘Copy of Preliminary Description, Maps and Sketches of Proposed Civic Centers for the City of Los Angeles,’’ December 30, 1919. The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
Cook and Hall plan
Figure 6: After more than five years of debate, Mulholland’s committee settled on a site for the civic center and recommended that the public vote to finalize it. The committee asked the firm of Cook and Hall to prepare a plan that would be included in the 1924 election materials. The Cook and Hall civic center proposal is oriented horizonally in an area bounded by Broadway, Sunset, Main, and First streets. It includes buildings for all four levels of government: city, county, state and federal. The plan repeats Supervisor Dodge’s proposal to add wings to the Hall of Records. Jermain, N. L. (1934).” The History of the Los Angeles Civic Center Movement”. Unpublished USC Master's thesis
Allied Architects plan
Figure 7: Unsatisfied with what they perceived as a dull proposal from Cook and Hall, the Allied Architects Association submitted a competing plan for the civic center. Drawing inspiration from City Beautiful plans in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, the association envsioned a monumental promenade along the top of Bunker Hill that connected Fort Moore to the Central Library at 5th Street. From the park, a perpendicular grand mall would descend towards City Hall. UCLA Young Research Library, Allied Architects Association of Los Angeles Records, 1921–1944, Box 22.
Adminsitrative Center plan, 1927
Figure 8: The public voted overwhelmingly to confirm the civic center location recommended by the Mulholland Committee. However, while the city favored the Cook and Hall scheme, the County approved the Allied Architects plan. Neither side would budge and so a compromised plan was prepared that captured an existing rather than an imagined civic center.[ii] Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission (1927) “Administrative Center
Administrative Center plan, 1927, perspective drawing
Figure 9: Perspective drawing of the proposed Los Angeles Administrative Center drawn by staff of the Regional Planning Commission in 1927. The rendering shows the Los Angeles City Hall that was nearing completion with the California State Building and County Hall of Justice on the other side of Spring Street. The rendering reserves a spot for the United States Court House that would occupy a site immediately north of city hall but wouldn’t be completed until 1940.  The County Hall of Records, which was located in front of City Hall, is not pictured, and while the building survived until 1973, it would never again be included on a plan for the area. Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission (1927) “Administrative Center”
Lloyd Wright rendering for Civic Center
Figure 10: While the city’s planning establishment thought that the civic center question had been settled, local architects, including Lloyd Wright, continued to develop much grander visions for the area, such as this 1925 temple-like court complex. UCLA Young Research Library, Lloyd Wright papers, 1920-1978, Box 651
Dwight Gibbs Civic Center plan, 1936
Figure 11: Another plan for the civic center was prepared by Dwight Gibbs on behalf of the L.A. Junior Chamber of Commerce & City Planning Commission in 1936. Gibbs envisioned a grand concourse leading up from Union Station to a monumental civic auditorium on Bunker Hill. On their way to this new structure, visitors would pass by the Plaza Church and a new “victory monument” in a semi-circular plaza on Spring Street. USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection
Woollett plan, 1939
Figure 12: In 1939, William Lee Woollett proposed a new plan. Seen in this aerial view, it seems rather straight-forward: Los Angeles’ city hall would front onto a large open plaza with the Hall of Justice and the State Building on either side. A series of planted terraces would lead to new county buildings on Temple and First Streets. UC Santa Barbara, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design and Architecture Museum, William Lee Woollett papers
Woollett rendering
Figure 13: In his rendering of the civic center, Woollett’s ideas came fantastically alive. Woollett, who contributed to the design of Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater on Broadway, filled his terraced gardens with monstrous stone eagles, Egyptian pyramids, and imposing staircases flanked by crenellated walls. UC Santa Barbara, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design and Architecture Museum, William Lee Woollett papers.
1938 view of Civic Center and residential area
Figure 14: While the city’s planners and architects created grand schemes for the civic center, the area’s residents continued to occupy steets full of small shops and apartment buildings, as seen in this 1938 view across Alameda Street from the Union Station construction site. USC Libraries, Dick Whittington Photography Collection
Turner rendering, 1946
Figure 15: The Civic Center Advisory Committee became an official governmental body in 1945 as the Los Angeles Civic Center Authority. The following year, the Authority hired a team from the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, headed by Burnett Turner, to propose a new plan for the area. Turner, who had worked for many years with Christine Sterling on the development of Olvera Street, suggested a significantly expanded Civic Center, one that pushed deeply into the residential communities of Bunker Hill, New Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. As with many plans before it, Turner’s plan was never officially adopted. However it was the source of a number of new proposals, especially the 1952 Master Plan that set the long vertical shape of the Civic Center for the next 60 years. USC Libraries, Burnett Turner papers
Civic Center plan by "architectural dream team"
Figure 16: By the 1950s, the space needs of the County of Los Angeles had reached a crisis point. A new courthouse and administrative building were desperately needed. An architectural dream team including J.E. Stanton, William Stockwell, Paul R. Williams, Adrian Wilson, John C. Austin, Robert Field, and Charles Fry was hired to design these new county buildings. The buildings were arranged in a starkly symmetrical plan with the city Department of Water and Power building flanked on either side by two county buildings. USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection
Arthur Will, Los Angeles County Administrator
Figure 17: Los Angeles County Administrator Arthur Will was one of the strongest advocates for a civic center. Here he points to an early rendering of the 1954 civic center plan by Millard Sheets (of Home Savings of America mural fame). The image shows a sparsely landscaped space between two county buildings and a proposed Department of Water and Power building on Bunker Hill. USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Negatives Collection
Aerial view of the proposed 1954 Los Angeles Civic Center
Figure 18: Aerial view of the proposed 1954 Los Angeles Civic Center. With the addition of Ralph Cornell as the consulting landscape architect, the public spaces between the various buildings assumed greater importance. Like many before him, Cornell envisioned a stepped landscape full of fountains and trees rising from the city hall building to the Department of Water and Power building on Bunker Hill. USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection
Cornell's rendering of Civic Center Mall
Figure 19: Cornell’s rendering of the proposed Civic Center Mall between Broadway and Spring Street. For the area immediately in front of Los Angeles City Hall, Cornell envisioned a large plaza with the seal of the city stamped into white tile. USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection
Cornell's rendering of the Civic Center between Hope and Grand
Figure 20: Cornell’s rendering of the proposed civic center block between Hope Street and Grand Avenue with an amphitheater for public and civic performances. USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection
1960s aerial view of Los Angeles Civic Center and its massive surface parking lots
Figure 21: The new county buildings were completed by 1960. However, the public open space that was intended to connect the structures to others in the civic center took much longer to develop. Through the 1960s, the Los Angeles Civic Center was nicknamed “Auto Atoll” and “Bumper Butte” because of the massive surface parking lots that surrounded it. Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection
1970 photograph of Los Angeles Civic Center fountain
Figure 22: As we see in this photograph from October 1970, the county did eventually develop the public spaces at the Civic Center, although in a stark modernist style. The fountain pictured here is dedicated to Arthur Will and was recently restored as an integral part of Grand Park. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, Herald-Examiner Collection
1972 photograph of "Court of Flags," Los Angeles Civic Center
Figure 23: View of the civic center’s “Court of Flags” with the Criminal Courts Building squeezed into the lot next to the County Hall of Records in 1972. The Hall of Records was demolished a year later and a large parking lot occupied the space in front of City Hall until the development of Grand Park. The addition of Grand Park has reinforced the public core of the civic center. However, from the County Health Building on Figueroa to the Edward Roybal Federal Building on Alameda, the Civic Center, as a single coherent district, continues to exist solely in our planning imagination. Photo by Mark Jones. USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection


The title comes from J. B. Jackson’s riff on Louis Sullivan’s functionalist mantra.

[i] Van Nuys News (1958) "Supervisors in Dither; Kids in $694,000 Swimming Hole"; Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) (1956) "Mormon Group Raises Flag at Old Ft. Moore"

[ii] For more on the battle between the city and county over the civic center see “Beauty Controlled: The Persistence of City Beautiful Planning in Los Angeles” (2014) Journal of Planning History, 13(4), 296-321.​

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