Saving LA’s architectural wonders

(Beneath all that superficial and ephemeral glamor and glitz we associate with America’s Tinsletown, Los Angeles has a serious, cultural side to it in the form of great and inspiring architecture that sprung mostly during the first half of the 20th century.

(This entry below came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer sometime in November 2006 soon after I joined a week-long fellowship organized by the Los Angeles visitors and conventions bureau, also known as LA Inc. I’m sharing with you again this piece, which reflects my fascination for history, architecture and old buildings. May LA’s example inspire us and our leaders to conserve our own historic structures for future generations. Have a great day, guys!–AYV)

THIS old building in LA was saved, thanks to adaptive reuse. After being abandoned for decades, it was turned into high-end apartment units with commercial spaces on the ground floor.

THE next time you visit Los Angeles, you might want to stop for a few hours and do a walking tour of downtown before you head to more popular attractions such as the Universal Studios, Rodeo Drive and Hollywood.

Home to the finest examples of Art Deco and Beaux Arts buildings, some of which date back to the turn of the last century, LA’s downtown area is perhaps the city’s best-kept secret as far as lovers of architecture and history are concerned.

THIS beautiful building, which used to house a light and water company, is now occupied by a bank

These historic structures now seem modest in height compared to LA’s gleaming steel-and-glass towers that jut out as you zip through or crawl along (depending on the time of day) the city’s freeways.

From such vantage point, these newer buildings have totally obscured older, smaller ones that once bore witness to certain episodes of LA’s glorious as well as benighted past.

Squat beauties

There was a time, however, when such buildings as the Biltmore Hotel, Title Guarantee, and Trust, Pacific Finance and Southern California Edison Company—all built sometime in the 1920s and ’30s—hogged the cityscape.

Apart perhaps from the dearth of technology and motivation to build skyscrapers back then, Angelenos were just being mindful of the law that required them not to build anything taller than city hall.

This rule may have inspired architects of the day such as Schultze and Weaver (Biltmore Hotel), Whittlesey (Mayflower Hotel), and Goodhue and Winslow (Los Angeles Central Library) to focus their energies on designing buildings that commanded attention because of their beauty rather than their height.

The lifting of height restrictions in the ’50s started to change all that, as LA, like most cities in the United States, went on a building frenzy that favored homogeneous-looking skyscrapers over short, but iconic architectural gems.

Thus, as demographics shifted and more businesses moved out of downtown, a number of old buildings fell into disrepair or were simply abandoned and later demolished to make way for taller, more cost-effective structures.

Fortunately, not a few have managed to survive and ward off the wrecking ball of greed and public apathy—perhaps a building’s worst enemies—to become workable examples of adaptive reuse.

The Subway Terminal Building, which had its heyday when LA and its environs were conveniently connected by an extensive network of railway lines before car manufacturers began to slowly undermine the mass-transit system soon after the war, underwent a $60-million renovation early in the new millennium.

When it reopened in late 2005, the building on S. Hill Street known for its Beaux Arts style and Italian Renaissance ornamentation had transformed itself to become the Metro 417 loft-style apartments.

Another success story, which followed a similar route, is that of the Million Dollar Theater on S. Broadway Street.

But before its upper floors were turned into apartments, a great deal of wheeling and dealing among LA’s water and power executives reportedly transpired within the building’s four walls. That particular episode in the city’s history became the basis of the 1970s classic film “Chinatown.”

INSIDE the bank’s imposing and “cinematic” lobby

Steeped in Churrigueresque style (inspired by designs created by 18th-century architect and sculptor José Churriguera), the building’s façade is noted for its lavish terra-cotta ornamentation of whimsical Wild West imagery.

Don’t be surprised if the theater’s façade bears some striking resemblance to cathedrals of yore, as its designers employed the same techniques as church artisans did. In lieu of saints and biblical characters, they focused on secular images and symbols.

Retail flagship

A block away from the theater (on W. Fourth Street) is an Italian neoclassical style building that used to house the Los Angeles Broadway Department Store, once the flagship of California’s largest retail establishment.

As the retail biz dried up, the building was abandoned in 1973, until the state of California decided to restore it 20 years later. It has since been renamed the Junipero Serra State Office Building.

Through countless volunteers like educator Mike Goldstein, the Los Angeles Conservancy (www.laconservancy.org), a nonprofit organization that works through education and advocacy to recognize, preserve and revitalize LA County’s historic architectural and cultural resources, conducts regular walking tours of the downtown area.

“Conservancy [in LA] is important,” said Goldstein, “and the key to its success is to make the public aware of it.”

A MORE secular rendition of a technique used for cathedrals

THE Los Angeles Public Library

Angelenos in general are aware of the situation, he added, but a substantial number of people still remain either ignorant or indifferent. They seem to snap out of such apathy only when a building is about to be torn down.

Los Angeles Conservancy was born on the heels of such crisis in the mid-’70s, when the eclectic-style Los Angeles Central Library was about to be demolished. Before it came to pass, citizens rallied to save their beloved library and prevent similar crises from happening again.

Thus, the Conservancy was formed and, thanks to its vigilance and efforts at advocacy, a stay in the demolition of the library (which has been extensively refurbished after two fires and numerous fund-raising projects) and other priceless structures that dot downtown LA continues to hold to this day.

The author, together with journalists from China, Japan and New Zealand, recently participated in the inaugural Los Angeles Sister Cities Visiting Journalist Fellowship.

A FINE example of an art deco building

4 thoughts on “Saving LA’s architectural wonders

  1. There are also several houses designed by Frank Llyod Wright which were unfortunately damaged by the earthquake of 1994, I think. With the current economic downturn restoration of some houses have stopped and looking for private individuals who would spend lots of money to restore them is difficult! …If only there is an oversupply of money for you and me, I’d suggest let’s go and buy one FfLW house in LA!

    • Yes, Myrna, if we only have the money. But I guess even if we do, we would run out even before we’re finished with Manila’s remaining architectural gems. It takes political will and imagination to save these buildings. It’s easier said than done, especially if you’re dealing with both government and public with low awareness over such issues. There’s money in investing in these structures if we only give them a chance to draw businesses and tourists in.

      • I totally agree with you Alex! There must still be some hope for the Metropolitan Theater and the Luneta Hotel!

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