We weren’t even planning to do a walking tour of Los Angeles (LA). But at the suggestion of our Couchsurfing host, my friend and I joined a group on Saturday morning.
After gathering in Pershing Square, we began ahead of schedule. Throughout the course of the tour, our guide proved himself to be very knowledgable, and he was clearly passionate about preserving historic downtown LA.
The first landmark we talked about was the Biltmore Hotel, situated across from Pershing Square. Built in the beaux-arts style of architecture and completed in 1923, it’s one of Los Angeles luxury hotels.
A bit more about the beaux-arts style, it evolved during the Renaissance period and was influenced by Roman architecture. According to our guide, it is sophisticated, intelligent, and bourgeoisie. This style became popular in the US between 1890-1920, with the earliest examples found in New York.
Basic elements of LA beaux-arts buildings include:
- Elaborate details and artwork at the building base
- The first story features high-ceilings, arched windows, grand entrances and foyers.
- Simple shaft of the building
- Substantial ornaments at the roof, echoing the base
Can you spot these features in the photos below?
Although the tour group didn’t go inside the Biltmore Hotel, our guide strongly recommended that we do it later, and so we did. The interior was beautiful, but don’t take my word for it, go look for yourself!
The next location we learned about was Pershing Square. In the 1850s, it used to be a tent city, a landing point for immigrants. The settlers tolerated the campsite as it was far away from the town centre at the time. As LA’s population grew, and the campsite became more noticeable, the poor immigrants were forced to move, and the location was turned into a park. In the 1950s, due to the popularity of the automobile, the entire park was razed to the ground to build a 1800 car underground parking garage, which still exists today. This construction left only a thin layer of topsoil in the park, making it impossible to support large trees. The entrances to the park were also raised above street level, thus discouraging pedestrians from wandering in. Now, Pershing Square hosts concerts in the summertime, but otherwise doesn’t appear too exciting.
In the 1930s, Art Deco followed the footsteps of beaux-arts. Influenced by Islamic, Asian, Aztec, and Egyptian art, this style featured materials such as lacquer and glass. Examples of buildings in the Art Deco style include: the LA Central Library and One Bunker Hill (see below).
The Million Dollar Theatre, opened in 1918, features a large concrete arch (read more about the building here) and many Baroque statues of theatrical and mythical characters. Is it beautiful, or is it tacky? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. It was a grand theatre back in its day, and more recently, has housed Latino plays. Since the 1980s, its been largely underused.
The same company that owns the theatre also owns the Grand Central Market. A bustling indoor shopping area with plenty of inexpensive produce and fast food joints.
Our tour guide mentioned there’s an interesting mix of food stalls in the market, with one side being dominated by the old mom & pop shops selling mostly Mexican or Chinese food and the other by the new businesses frequented by the younger generation such as the ever popular brunch spot: eggslut.
One of the most beautiful and unique buildings on this tour was the Bradbury Building (1894). It was built in the Romanesque Revival style and still functions as an office space today. If I’m not mistaken, our guide mentioned the skylights was inspired by the science fiction utopian novel: Looking Backward: 2000-1887, where offices were lit by skylights. Other noteworthy details include the mixed use of iron, brick, and wood for the interior, and the decorative wood borders which is characteristic of the Chicago style. My favourite tidbit about this building? They filmed the last scene of 500 Days of Summer here! You know, the one where Tom meets Autumn at a job interview.
The last building I’ll take you to is One Bunker Hill, which was originally the home for a utility company: the Southern California Edison Company. The building was completed in 1931, when the Great Depression was at its worst, so the elaborate decorations and expensive materials inside probably weren’t great for the company’s public image at the time. Although it is still very pleasing to look at today.
Our tour concludes near Ancels Flight, located in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood. Once people figured out how to get water over Bunker Hill, the area above it began to develop. There were large, Victorian houses built and it became the neighbourhood for upper-class people. As LA urbanized and the population grew, Bunker Hill’s houses were subdivided to accommodate renters, and the wealthy moved out to neighbouring suburbs. By 1955, further suburban development pulled most people away from Bunker Hill. Soon, the entire area was demolished (including the removal of 30 feet of topsoil) for redevelopment. Two Victorian houses were saved and relocated, only to perish in a fire later. Nowadays, the area of Bunker Hill is filled with modern commercial skyscrapers, lofts inside repurposed office buildings, and cultural venues such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
We bid goodbye to our tour group around noon, and left with a curious eye for every building around us. The LA Conservancy showed me that historical remnants and the stories behind them are hiding in plain sight in downtown LA. With a knowledgeable guide and a willingness to learn, it’s all just waiting to be discovered.