Historical Tours: Los Angeles (Aug 9, 2014)

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.

Our Los Angeles Conservancy Walking Tour Guide.
Our Los Angeles Conservancy Walking Tour Guide.

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?

The Biltmore Hotel (1923) built in the beaux-arts style, designed by architecture firm Schultze & Weaver.
The Biltmore Hotel (1923) built in the beaux-arts style, designed by architecture firm Schultze & Weaver.

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!  

Entrance to the Biltmore Hotel
One of the entrances to the Biltmore Hotel. This one leads to the Rendezvous Court, which used to serve as the hotel’s lobby.
The Rendezvous Court inside the Biltmore Hotel. Set up for afternoon tea service.
The Rendezvous Court has been seen in numerous TV shows and films, including: Daredevil, The Nutty Professor, and Mad Men.
Bronze and crystal chandelier, imported from Italy in 1923, hangs inside the Biltmore Rendezvous Court.
One of two bronze and crystal chandeliers, imported from Italy in 1923, which hang inside the Biltmore Rendezvous Court.

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).

Pyramid, mosaic roof. Totally Egyptian inspired. LA Public Library.
LA Central Library mosaic roof, Totally inspired by the Egyptian pyramids.
An intricately painted ceiling and one panel featuring the history of California inside the rotunda of the LA Central Library.
An intricately painted ceiling and one panel featuring the history of California inside the rotunda of the LA Central Library.
A sphinx statue in the LA public library
A sphinx statue in the LA Central Library.

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. 

Million Dollar Theatre
Million Dollar Theatre.

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.

Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market.
Grand Central Market.
The produce-selling side of the Grand Central Market.

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.

Bradbury building: the most romantic office building I've seen.
Bradbury building: the most romantic office building I’ve seen. Note the period after the BRADBURY.

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.

Interior of the Bradbury Building: French ironwork, Belgian marble, and Mexican tiles.
Interior of the Bradbury Building: French ironwork, Belgian marble, and Mexican tiles.

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. 

Inside One Bunker Hill, marble everywhere.
Inside One Bunker Hill, marble everywhere.
One Bunker Hill: amazing ceiling tiles, gold everywhere!
One Bunker Hill: ceiling tiles in a beehive pattern!

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.

Ancels Flight: an elevator/ tram that was used to pull people over Bunker Hill.
Ancels Flight: an elevator/ tram that was used to transport people over Bunker Hill.
One reminder of the old Bunker Hill neighbourhood: the retaining wall.
One reminder of the old Bunker Hill neighbourhood: the retaining wall.

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. 

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