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A Guide to Art Deco Los Angeles

Griffith Observatory
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Griffith Park has become so popular with tourists and locals alike, I’m not sure there’s anyone left who doesn’t know about it or recognize its Art Deco façade.
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Downtown L.A.
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There are so many Art Deco treasures in L.A.’s Downtown area that it’s impossible to choose just one, so it’s best to do an architectural crawl to hit several of them.
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Mullin Automotive Museum
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An easy day trip away from L.A., Oxnard is home to the other car museum of Petersen Automotive Museum’s chairman, Peter Mullin.
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Bullocks Wilshire
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Sure, Wilshire Boulevard has its own Art Deco movie palace, The Wiltern (which now functions primarily as a concert venue), but a more staggering example of an Art Deco landmark can be found on the campus of the Southwestern Law School, which purchased the 23,000 square-foot former home of Bullock’s department store, built in 1929.
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Catalina Casino
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One of the most iconic images of Catalina Island and its harbor in the town of Avalon is of "the Casino building."
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Long Beach Airport
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But our historic LGB’s 1941 terminal building is exemplary of Streamline architecture (though it was somewhat late to the party).
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Thanks to movie magic, Southern California has doubled for Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Italy, Ireland, and even the planet Capella IV.

So, when you live here, you can choose pretty much any place in the world you’d like to be.

But thanks to an architectural and cultural landscape that reflects a variety of time periods over the course of the last couple of centuries, you can also choose when you’d like to be.

If you imagine yourself walking in the footsteps of Zelda Fitzgerald… and if you’d like nothing more than to kick up your heels to the Charleston or the Foxtrot in some “Roaring Twenties” garb, celebrating the magic of the Jazz Age… then it’s time to immerse yourself in all the Art Deco that this great metropolis has to offer.

Whether it’s the ziggurats of Art Nouveau or the undulating curves and nautical elements of Streamline Moderne, here are the greatest places to experience the gin-soaked glamour of The Great Gatsby -- without the battles over booze or the destitution of the Great Depression.


1. Pantages Theatre, Hollywood

You can’t talk about L.A. in the 1920s and 1930s (or any time thereafter, for that matter) without mentioning the movies. And in that time, as the heyday of the silent film era gave way to the new-fangled “talkies,” one of the best places to see spectacular expressions of an Art Deco design aesthetic was at our movie palaces. Though several of them still remain all over the greater Los Angeles area (including one that’s now a church), perhaps the most assertive example of this ornate style can be found at the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine. It’s currently open for business as a legit theatre that presents various stage productions (including a variety of Broadway touring productions), but it opened in 1930 with the premiere of The Florodora Girl, a talkie starring Marion Davies, and alternated between showing films and hosting vaudeville stage acts. There’s something innately “Hollywood” about the Art Deco style -- and the gold leaf, plasterwork, and larger-than-life figures found in the Grand Lobby (and the Grand Staircases) pay tribute to the movie industry as well as to aviation, oil, and sports. Wherever you are in the theater, be sure to look up at the muraled ceilings and (replica) deco lighting fixtures. At either end of the inner lobby, take a drink in one of the two fountains adorned with Malibu tile. Just don’t try to take any photos inside the auditorium during a show!

Pantages Theatre (1)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Pantages Theatre (2)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Bullocks Wilshire, Wilshire Center

Sure, Wilshire Boulevard has its own Art Deco movie palace, The Wiltern (which now functions primarily as a concert venue), but a more staggering example of an Art Deco landmark can be found on the campus of the Southwestern Law School, which purchased the 23,000 square-foot former home of Bullock’s department store, built in 1929. That means that generally, you can only get into it when class isn't in session – for example, during the annual open house hosted by Friends of Bullocks Wilshire. The Central Hall is still reminiscent of the lobby of the Empire State Building, but you will no longer find an ostrich feather Christmas tree there during the holidays. In the former shoe salon on the first floor, original lighting fixtures and ceiling details have been incorporated into the design for the Julian C. Dixon Courtroom and Advocacy Center. The former Women's Sportswear Department is now the Reference Room with "The Spirit of Sports" plaster relief mural at its center. A Streamline Moderne ceiling detail near the former gift-wrapping desk has been revealed from behind some dropped ceiling tiles. And then, of course, there’s that iconic tower, rising 241 feet and topped with tarnished green copper, which still stands out from that stretch of Wilshire, though it’s become decidedly more commercial over the last 90 years. For more Art Deco, continue west past the Security First National Bank (now “The Deco Building”), the former Desmond’s Department Store, and the former May Company building (the future site of the Academy Museum).

Bullocks (2)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Bullocks (1)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Catalina Casino, Avalon

One of the most iconic images of Catalina Island and its harbor in the town of Avalon is of "the Casino building." You can see it from high up in the island’s wild interior, as well as from the sea, as you arrive via boat. And while the city of Avalon is full of many ornamentations (like Catalina Tile), monuments, recreations, and attractions to lure tourists from the mainland, there's no other gathering place quite like this circular, Art Deco landmark built in 1929. In its forecourt, you can gaze upon ornate designs that are inspired by the sea, a design motif that continues into the interior -- especially in its movie theatre (which still shows first-run movies every night of the week, preceded by a performance on the original Page Organ Company pipe organ). In the domed auditorium, you’ll find Art Deco wall murals painted by famed Hollywood production designer / art director / set designer John Gabriel Beckman, who also directed the design of the undersea fantasy in the forecourt. In the circular ballroom on the upper level (the equivalent of about 12 stories up), the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles hosts its annual “Avalon Ball”, making good use of the enormous dance floor (reportedly, the world's largest). If it gets a bit too crowded inside, you can exit through one of the many French doors that encircle the ballroom and take a stroll out on the balcony, nicknamed the "Romance Promenade." Daytime tours are also offered daily through the Catalina Island Company.

Catalina Casino (1)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Catalina Casino (2)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

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4. Long Beach Airport, Long Beach

Since Art Deco’s later-period Streamline Moderne movement is usually associated more with nautical themes than with those of aviation, people often think of the Queen Mary cruise ship (now a dry-docked hotel) in Long Beach before Long Beach Airport. But our historic LGB’s 1941 terminal building is exemplary of Streamline architecture (though it was somewhat late to the party). In it, the vintage floor murals by WPA-hired mosaicist Grace Clements show deco-esque depictions of scenes from the land, the sea, and the air (and sky), as well as scenes from nature (like birds and fish). Art Deco was always a bit forward thinking and somewhat futuristic-looking, so it seems appropriate that the world map in the ground level ticketing area shows flight patterns that didn’t yet exist. Elsewhere in the terminal building, you’ll find plenty of the starbursts that are so iconic to the Art Deco period as well. Make sure to arrive early so you can visit the second floor deck and gaze out at passengers who must still walk out onto the tarmac to board and deplane. You don’t need a ticket to visit the terminal building, whose historic exhibits (including lots of vintage photographs) are all viewable outside of the security checkpoint.

Long Beach Airport (1)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Long Beach Airport (2)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Mullin Automotive Museum, Oxnard

An easy day trip away from L.A., Oxnard is home to the other car museum of Petersen Automotive Museum’s chairman, Peter Mullin. And while the Petersen’s on-display collection includes vehicles ranging from the late 19th century all the way through the present day, Mullin gets a bit more specific with his eponymous museum in Ventura County – particularly as it relates to les arts décoratifs. He’d already indulged his love of French design with a tremendous Bugatti exhibit (which has since relocated to the Petersen), and now he’s launched a first-of-its-kind show devoted to French car manufacturer Citroën – despite the fact that the company has pretty much zero profile in the United States. In the collection, you’ll find the Art Deco aesthetic in both in the swooping curves of the vintage vehicles’ bodies and the hood ornaments designed by French glassmaker René Lalique (of which there are several more on display in the museum’s permanent collection). You almost can’t get more Art Deco than this exhibit, which also features a miniature reproduction of the Eiffel Tower that Citroën had turned into the world’s largest advertising billboard during the 1925 Paris Expo (a.k.a. the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, from which “Art Deco” got its name). The Mullin museum is open for limited open days monthly, and advance reservations are required. The Citroën show will run at least through the beginning of 2018 (though if the Bugatti exhibit is any indication, it may get extended – or move to Mullin’s other car museum).

Mullin Automotive Museum (1)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Mullin Automotive Museum (2)

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

6. Downtown L.A., Los Angeles

There are so many Art Deco treasures in L.A.’s Downtown area that it’s impossible to choose just one, so it’s best to do an architectural crawl to hit several of them. Start your journey at Union Station, whose design – particularly the exterior – mixes Art Deco and Streamline Moderne with Mission Revival influences. Have a drink at the ornate Traxx Bar, which is open daily until 9:30 p.m., and then head over to City Hall, completed in 1928. Its stepped pyramid tower (there’s the ziggurat I mentioned) is quintessentially Art Deco, though its interior is more eclectic. Check in with security and take the elevator up to the 27th floor observation deck, which is free to visit – if it’s open. (Government business and security concerns sometimes keep it closed.) From there, proceed to the editorial headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, whose “Globe Lobby” is open to the public and is a major sight to see, especially with its 10-foot murals, painted by Hugo Ballin (who also did the Griffith Observatory rotunda) in 1934. Or, better yet, take one of the free educational tours that are offered monthly during Art Walk to explore even more of this nouveau landmark. Next, see how the 1925 Paris Expo inspired haberdasher James Oviatt to incorporate Art Nouveau ornamentation to his shop at the Oviatt Building, both inside and out – including some lovely Lalique glass doors and an etched glass ceiling (hence reproduced) in the forecourt. You can enter the interior of the former haberdashery by visiting the Cicada Club and cutting a rug during one of their live musical performances, or you can chase the ghost of James Oviatt upstairs in his former penthouse at one of the private events (like weddings) that are frequently hosted there. Finally, although you may not be able to afford your own penthouse in the Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway, you’ve got to at least see the outside of it, with its decorative clock tower and turquoise-colored terra cotta tiles. You can gaze up at it from street level for now, or you can wait until the rooftop garden of the Broadway Trade Center (currently being renovated) opens to the public, which puts you practically at eye level with that Art Deco clock.

Los Angeles City Hall

Los Angeles City Hall. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Union Station (1)

Union Station. | Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: Griffith Observatory, Griffith Park

Griffith Park has become so popular with tourists and locals alike, I’m not sure there’s anyone left who doesn’t know about it or recognize its Art Deco façade. (Thanks, Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land). As you’ve scuttled over to the planetarium for a show, you may have sailed right past the Hugo Ballin ceiling mural, “Advancement of Science from Remote Periods to Present Times,” without looking up at the vaulted ceiling in the rotunda. The Deco mural, completed in 1934, celebrates classical celestial mythology – and, although the figures themselves are of a Classical period, the nods to space, technology, and engineering still seem incredibly modern.

Griffith Observatory

Photo: Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

 

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