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L.A.'s Changing Skyline: A Brief History of Skyscrapers in the City of Angels

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Downtown L.A.'s modern skyline took shape between the mid-1960s (top) and the late 1980s (bottom). Both photos courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Recently, it seemed that the 1,018-foot U.S. Bank Tower's reign above the Los Angeles skyline might come to an end, as rumors swirled of an 80-story skyscraper rising from the current site of the Wilshire Grand. Now, the U.S. Bank Tower's title as L.A.'s tallest building looks again to be secure, but the speculation serves as a reminder of the evolving nature of downtown L.A.'s skyline -- a story richly documented in Southern California's photographic archives.

The cluster of towers rising today from the remains of Bunker Hill belies the fact that, for decades, Los Angeles lacked a modern skyscraper. While New York furiously erected engineering marvels like the Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State buildings, Los Angeles imposed a strict 13-story, 150-foot ceiling on new structures for more than 50 years.

Urban legend holds that L.A. avoided the skyscraper for so long out of a fear of earthquakes. Distrust of the high-rise -- still a novel architectural form in the twentieth century's first decade -- certainly motivated the city to impose the restriction. But the city first enacted a height limit in December 1904 -- a year and a half before the 1906 San Francisco quake reminded everyone of California's geologic instability.

Instead, aesthetic and economic concerns weighed more heavily than structural ones, as architectural historian Paul Gleye has argued. The height limit resonated with the then-ascendant City Beautiful movement; a city Planning Committee report cited "the development of our great city along broad and harmonious lines of beauty and symmetry" as a rationale. Backers also warned that skyscrapers would create dark, artificial canyons that could turn into dangerous wind tunnels.

Personal pride may have played a role, too. When in 1903 John Parkinson joined a blue-ribbon panel of architects charged with drafting the city's first height restrictions, work was almost complete on Parkinson's 12-story, 173-foot Braly Block -- considered L.A.'s first skyscraper. The new restriction would secure the Beaux Arts building's place atop the L.A. skyline.

Property owners -- at least those who held land on the fringes of L.A.'s urban development -- also favored a policy that kept Los Angeles growing horizontally rather than vertically. With unlimited building heights, architect John C. Austin told the Los Angeles Times in 1926, business would tend to concentrate in a congested central district.

"The limit height restriction causes building activity to spread out over a wide area, benefiting a large number of property owners instead of a few," said Austin, who also served with Parkinson as a drafter of the original height restrictions.

Before Los Angeles repealed its building height limit in 1956, flatness prevailed in the city's skyline. Circa 1940 photograph courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
City Hall dominated downtown L.A.'s skyline through the 1960s. Circa 1940 postcard courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.
1902 artist's rendering of the Braly Block, L.A.'s first skyscraper. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
The 264-foot Eastern Columbia building under construction in 1930. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Los Angeles City Hall under construction, circa 1927. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

In 1911, the limit was incorporated into the city charter, and a later county regulation imposed the same restriction on structures in neighboring cities. Buildings in the city's central business district surrounding Main, Spring, and Broadway routinely bumped up against the 13-story limit, as did the Art Deco department stores along Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile. In some cases, builders skirted the rules by constructing "attics" or unoccupied towers that supported corporate signage. For instance, the towers of Broadway's United Artists and Eastern Columbia buildings both rose well above the 150-foot ceiling.

For decades, developers lobbied the city to relax the restriction, to no avail. Los Angeles made only one exception: in 1926, it allowed its own City Hall to soar to 454 feet. It would remain the city's tallest building for 40 years.

By the late 1940s, the postwar building boom had ratcheted up pressure on the city to ease its height restrictions. The 13-story limit did still have its defenders. The Times' Timothy Turner cheered the "symmetry of the sky line" and even warned that building upward would make the city a tempting target for a Soviet nuclear attack. But public support had shifted. In a referendum on November 6, 1956, Los Angeles voters repealed the 52-year-old limit by a nearly three-to-one margin and replaced it with one restricting a building's total floor area to no more than 13 times the area of the lot.

Soon a flurry of new skyscraper construction -- largely made possible by the controversial redevelopment and regrading of Bunker Hill -- punctuated downtown's horizontal skyline west of Hill Street. (Older, 13-story high-rises, many of them converted for residential use, still predominate in much of downtown east of Hill Street.) The 40-story Union Bank Square eclipsed City Hall as the city's tallest building in 1968, and a succession of mega-developments, each with a tower taller than the last, followed. In 1989, the 73-story Library Tower -- since renamed the U.S. Bank Tower -- opened and became the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

Today, the downtown skyline may retain a vestigial flatness, but the "harmonious lines of beauty and symmetry" -- if they ever existed -- are no more.

The 42-story Union Bank building rises behind a Victorian house on Bunker Hill, 1966. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
1988 view of the downtown Los Angeles skyline from the Baldwin Hills, showing construction on the 73-story Library Tower. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
The final steel beam made its way to the top of the 1,018-foot Library Tower, by then renamed the First Interstate World Center. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

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