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Downtown LA Digs: Architecture

When you’re in downtown Los Angeles, it seems like you’re never more than three feet from a significant building. This city is the perfect canvas for the world’s most creative and innovative architects. It’s dotted with beautiful skyline art. Together, those dots tell about 100 years of stories…

The Figueroa Corridor

We don’t even have to leave our beloved Figueroa Street to find some of the city’s most architecturally important buildings. Let’s start due south of Hotel Figueroa, in Trojan turf at Exposition Park on the University of Southern California campus…


At Figueroa & Jefferson

Exterior of Shrine Theater in Downtown Los AngelesThe Shrine is kind of a big deal. It’s been home to all the major awards shows: the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars, some upwards of ten times. When it opened in 1926 with 6,700 seats, it was the largest theatre in the US.

It’s still the largest proscenium arch stage in North America, 90 years later, as well as the largest theater in Los Angeles (at 6,300 seats). Designed by John C. Austin and Abram M. Edelman, the Moorish Revival building is one of the city’s great examples of Masonic architecture. Austin was actually a 32nd-degree Mason, who also designed gems like the Hollywood Masonic Temple (now Jimmy Kimmel’s stomping grounds, the El Capitan), as well as having a hand in City Hall and Griffith Observatory.

All places that, if you’re visiting our fine city, will likely make your list. The exterior looks like an Arabian mosque with Moorish arches and white Persian domes. But when you step inside, it feels like you’ve teleported to a luxurious European opera house—which was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, who also did the El Capitan, plus the Orpheum and the Wiltern. These guys were like a greatest-hits dream team! And just in case there was any doubt about how important the Shrine is, I’ll leave you with its baller full name: Al Malaikah Shriners Ancients Arabic Order Nobles of Mystic Shrine. Mic drop.



At Figueroa & West 18th

Exterior of Bob Hope Patriotic Hall Downtown LA Near Hotel FigueroaUp the road from the Shrine and also dedicated in 1926, the Romanesque Bob Hope Patriotic Hall (then simply called Patriotic Hall, duh) was and is a living monument to veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I. At the time, it was LA’s tallest building at twelve stories. During World War II, it was home to on-leave service members and those who entertained them—Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamar and Bob Hope (phew, solved that mystery). Designed by Allied Architects Association in the Italian Renaissance Revival style typical for civic architecture, the building features a symmetrical façade, rusticated ground level, strong division of floors, a colonnade and arched windows. Sometime during the 1970s, the Hall’s original murals by artist Helen Lundeberg mysteriously vanished, Scooby Doo style. They’ve since been replaced by artist Kent Twitchell, but—it’s not often you hear about art running away from home. About ten years ago, the city of Los Angeles poured $75 million into the Hall’s restoration, earning a Conservancy Preservation Award. And for that I salute you, BHPH.



At Figueroa & West Olympic
Variety Arts Center Downtown LA Black & White PhotoDirectly across the street from Hotel Figueroa, the Variety Arts Center opened as the Friday Morning Club in 1924 (a year before us). Home to some of Hollywood’s best vaudeville acts and designed by Allison and Allison (which sounds like a vaudeville act), the six-story structure has more in common with us than just an eye line—it was originally developed by a woman.

Caroline Severance—suffragist, abolitionist and founder-lady several times over—moved her family to Los Angeles in 1875, settling into a Victorian manse on historic West Adams Street. Along with her husband, Theodoric (I promise that’s his name), she founded the Friday Morning Club in 1891 when she was 71 years young. It was LA’s first women’s political club (and sweet Caroline would later become the first woman to register and vote in the State of California in 1911 at the age of 91). In 1899, she broke ground on a two-story clubhouse, which was ultimately razed after her death to make room for the five-story Italian Renaissance Revival building that stands today. The building had offices, lounges, a library, dining room, art gallery, 500-seat assembly room and 1200-seat auditorium. The club’s motto is still etched over the entrance: In Essentials Unity – In Non-Essentials Liberty – In All Things Charity.

Louis O. Macloon and his partner in all things, Lillian Albertson, leased that auditorium, called The Playhouse. On May 5, 1924, their first play Romance opened, starring Doris Keane with Will Rogers as emcee. In the house that night were Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille. That same year, Clark Gable is said to have made his acting debut in Romeo & Juliet. Throughout the ’20s, Hollywood screenwriters penned original plays that featured silent and talkie talent alike—early greats like Pauline Frederick, Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Mackaye (actress and former felon), Laurel & Hardy regular Mae Busch and horror-man Dwight Frye. In the ’30s, The Playhouse hosted badass lady speakers like Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Parker (swoon). Plus, comedy was always a constant: Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante all performed there, to name but a funny few.

Since then, the venue has changed names many times. It’s been the Times Theater, the Figueroa Playhouse and finally, the Variety Arts Center in 1977, so named by William Larsen of Magic Castle fame. In its heyday, the Friday Morning Club was a major hub for vaudeville in the United States. And though not many know it, vaudeville did just as much to establish Hollywood as the movie business—after all, the first slate of stars cut their teeth on a variety stage first, and the silver screen second. And to think, they were all just a stone’s throw from Hotel Figueroa.



At Figueroa & Pico
Arial View of Los Angeles Convention Center Near Hotel FigueroaAh, the Los Angeles Convention Center. It’s no beauty queen, but it’s also an entire city block of square footage right next door to Hotel Figueroa that simply can’t be ignored. Designed by Charles Luckman, the LA convention center has been part of the downtown Los Angeles landscape since 1971—and was once one of the largest of its kind in the US, before losing a northeast chunk to make way for the Staples Center. You’ve seen this contemporary glass structure in films—it’s the spaceport in Starship Troopers and the backdrop for the final fight in Rush Hour. But watch this space: a $470-million overhaul of the LACC is coming. Early reviews of the designs are mixed, but colorful and modern seem to be on tap for this downtown mainstay.


**This is the point of the tour where you’ll pass Hotel Figueroa. Right there, on the left! For a few stories about our architecture, check this out.**


At Figueroa & Wilshire
Wilshire Grand Center Downtown LA near Hotel FigueroaI’m including this unfinished building as more of an I.O.U. When it opens in 2017, the Hunjin-owned and A.C. Martin-designed Wilshire Grand Center will be the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles at 73 floors and 1,100 feet, including the spire and iconic sail-shape design atop the roof (common in cities like Shanghai), that will light up at night.

And not to be outdone, reigning record-holder US Bank Tower has just added an exterior glass slide that shuttles you from the 70th floor to the 69th, where you can take in the views from California’s largest open-air observation deck—if you dare.



At Figueroa Between West 4th & 5th
Westin Bonaventure Hotel Downtown Los Angeles Near Hotel FigueroaFurther up Figueroa, the golden Westin Bonaventure glitters like a cluster of Oscar statuettes. An architectural landmark with 35-story glass towers, the postmodern hotel designed by John Portman in 1976 features curved glass and futuristic exterior glass elevators. These famous glass elevators are where Harrison Ford gets shot in In The Line of Fire, and into which Arnold Schwarzenegger rides a horse in True Lies. When the Los Angeles hotel opened, it was big departure from standard designs of the day. Sure, it had poured concrete like the others, but its curved glass had an alluring lightness. Plus, every room literally had a view. With the Bonaventure, Portman also brought back the atrium as a trend, particularly in hotel design. At one full city block—still the largest LA hotel to this day—the Bonaventure was designed to be a “City Within a City,” with a mall, restaurants and anything else you might need in its six-story atrium. Inspired by the futurism movement of the 1970s, the idea was that this golden city would be an urban oasis. It continues to be a significant part of LA’s architectural history, as well as a frequent co-star on screens big and small.


Figueroa Adjacent

Of course, not all of downtown Los Angeles’ significant buildings are on Figueroa. Let’s pop over to Grand Avenue—and loop back to Hotel Figueroa—to discover a few more of my favorite things.


South Grand & West 2nd
The Broad Contemporary Art Museum Near Our Downtown LA HotelOne of downtown LA’s newest buildings, The Broad (pronounced “brode”) pioneered the “veil-and-vault” element in architecture. Most museum collections collect dust behind closed doors, but these guys made their “vault” the heart of the space. It’s there when you walk in and stays with you as you roam. Its underbelly shapes the lobby, while its back is the exhibition space floor. And whenever you feel like being a vault voyeur, viewing windows invite you to peek at the depth of The Broad’s collection—which is about 2,000 deep.

The “veil”—a honeycomb-like casing that spans the gallery and filters in natural daylight—surrounds the vault. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler, the 120,000-square-foot building houses two floors of gallery space and doubles as the headquarters for the Broad Art Foundation’s global lending library.

Built by billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad, the museum is part of a much grand-er plan to develop Grand Avenue into its own cultural district, which includes the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street and the Walt Disney Concert Hall next door…


South Grand & West 2nd
Exterior of Walt Disney Concert Hall In Downtown Los Angeles Near Hotel FigueroaThe Walt Disney Concert Hall was designed from the inside out. For architect Frank Gehry, function inspired form. Outside, sleek stainless steel panels are like silver sails, echoing the billows of the auditorium and the bowed cornice of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next door (which was home to the Oscars for about 25 years). As the story goes, Gehry’s original vision for the Hall was set in stone. Literally. But after his titanium Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao made such a splash, they convinced Gehry to use metal—which enabled him to create those silver sails that instantly made the building iconic.

Inside, the lobby—a “living room for the city” bathing in light—creates a symbolic bridge between everyday life and the inner sonic sanctum. At the building’s core is a 2,265-seat, Douglas fir-lined auditorium with steeply raked seating surrounding an Alaskan yellow cedar stage. Here, there are no balconies, boxes or even proscenium arches—because former Executive Director Ernest Fleishchmann believed that those kinds of things got in the way of the experience. Wherever you sit here, you’ll feel like you’re directly in conversation with the orchestra.

In the courtyard, a small garden with a rose fountain creates a lovely oasis. Dedicated to benefactor Lillian Disney and made from broken pieces of Delft China (her favorite), the fountain is a source of beauty and peace. Gehry named it: “A Rose for Lilly.”


South Hope & West 1st
Exterior of John Ferraro Building in DTLA near Hotel FigueroaBehind the Music Center—home to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theater, Mark Taper Forum and the Walt Disney Concert Hall—is the John Ferraro Building, formerly known as the Department of Water & Power headquarters. A landmark built in a mid-century contemporary style, the design team from A.C. Martin created a strong and simple building with the kind of features that had never been seen before its opening in 1965. The horizontal lines of the building take on a translucent quality, with “illumination” incorporated as an overall design element as well. They created a building that had a “balanced environment” in terms of cooling and lighting. But perhaps most famously, it had a cameo in the film Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, says of the Ferraro Building: “We both wanted a house, but we both loved skyscrapers. In the real world, we had to choose. Not here.” It’s a mid-century dreamland, in this world and Leo’s. And in Leo we trust.



South Grand & West 1st
Arial View of Grand Park in Downtown LAAcross from the Music Center, and extending to City Hall, is Grand Park. I mention it because it’s the newest city park in downtown Los Angeles, having opened in 2012. With tree-lined sidewalks, an interactive fountain plaza, performance lawns and courtyards, twelve-acre Grand Park is one of the great urban parks. It’s also a fabulous place to cop a squat and marvel at some of the architecture you’ve just discovered…



North Grand & Temple
Exterior of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown Los AngelesAround the corner from Grand Park sits the modern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the largest in America and the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be constructed in the West in more than 30 years. Designed by Spanish architect Raphael Moneo and completed in 2002, the eleven-story Our Lady of the Angels was built when Victorian-era Saint Vibiana Cathedral was deemed unsafe after the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

Our Lady of the Angels lies at the heart of the city, alongside the Hollywood Freeway, which Moneo saw as LA’s “river of transportation.” The various buildings on 5.6 acres recall the Franciscan missions of California’s past. The church itself is a contemporary masterpiece with almost no right angles—and a concrete design so intricate that the margin of error was only 1/16 of an inch. Moneo used plain yet beautiful materials: colored concrete evoking the sun-baked adobe walls of the Missions, alabaster, wood, stone and bronze. You enter the building (on the south side, not the center) through huge bronze doors cast by sculptor Robert Graham. A 50-foot concrete cross “lantern” hangs at the front of the cathedral, illuminated at night through glass-protected alabaster windows.

Elsewhere, the main building on the grounds features works of art from local artists (something we appreciate). The outdoor plaza is an oasis with three fountains: the Gateway Pool, Jerusalem Fountain and Meditation Garden Fountain. You see, Moneo wanted people to find something more than worship in this space—and if you visit, you just might too.



West Temple & North Spring
Exterior of Los Angeles City Hall Near Downtown Hotel FigueroaOn the other end of Grand Park you’ll find the iconic City Hall, built in 1928 and widely regarded as the archetypal city hall. Designed by a trio of LA’s leading architects—John Parkinson, Albert C. Martin and John C. Austin—the 32-floor building was the tallest west of the Mississippi until the mid ’60s. Its base is classical, while the tiered pyramid on top tips its hat to the Art Deco style that was so popular at the time. With all that height, it’s no wonder that it later became the first earthquake-proof building in Los Angeles. And if you think it looks familiar, you’re right. It was the inspiration for Dragnet’s city hall, has appeared on every LAPD badge since 1940 and became the model for just about every city hall that came after. Plus, there’s one helluva view from the 27th-floor observation deck. And it’s free.



South Broadway & West 3rd
Exterior of Bradbury Building Architectural landmark in Downtown Los AngelesA landmark imagined by a gold-mining magnate, the Bradbury Building is the oldest commercial building downtown Los Angeles—and remains one of the most important buildings in America more than 100 years after its dedication in 1893. Lewis L. Bradbury originally commissioned architect Sumner Hunt for the job, but on a whim changed horses in midstream and hired Hunt’s inexperienced draftsman, George H. Wyman, on the way out of the office one day. Just like that, Wyman won a half-million dollar gig—which was a little surprising even to him.

Wyman most likely executed Hunt’s original design, though we’ll never really know the full truth. The slightly Romanesque exterior is terra cotta brick, and rather unremarkable. The interior, however, is mind blowing. It’s a soaring 50-foot Victorian atrium, which had never before been attempted. But air conditioning had just been invented, which allowed for spaces of this size. The sky-lit atrium also boasts perhaps the first open “bird-cage” elevators, made of wrought iron and powered by steam. The interior may have been inspired by Edward Bellamy’s sci-fi book Looking Backwards, which describes a futuristic building with “a vast hall full of light received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome.” How fitting that the Bradbury Building would later become the darling of sci-fi fans everywhere, thanks to Blade Runner. Because when I think future, I think 1893.



South Hill & West 3rd
Rail Car going up at Angels Flight Railway in Downtown Los AngelesIf you’re into trains, pop over a block to Angels Flight. It’s the “shortest railway in the world” and one of downtown’s most beloved landmarks. Since 1901, this adorable funicular has carried passengers from Hill Street to the top of Bunker Hill. Designed in the Beaux Arts style by Col. J.W. Eddy, the railway has two cars, Olivet and Sinai. The railway that’s there now is actually a half block south of the original location (it’s been rebuilt)—and sadly isn’t operational at the moment. But they’re close to resuming service, so keep it on your radar.



South Broadway & West 6th
Historic Photo of Exterior of Los Angeles Theatre in Downtown LAOf all the movie palaces built on Broadway between 1911 and 1931—and there were about a dozen, making it both the largest historic theater district in the country as well as the first, beating out even New York City—the Los Angeles Theatre was the last and intended to be “the most lavish movie palace that downtown Los Angeles would ever see,” according to exhibitor H.L. Gumbiner. It not only lived up to the H.L.-hype—it was constructed in just five months.

Designed by S. Charles Lee in 1931 (who was inspired by San Francisco’s Fox Theatre), the million-dollar Los Angeles rivaled French Baroque palaces with its six-story lobby and 2,200-seat auditorium. And in 1931, French Baroque was an interesting choice—it was ten years past its moment during a time when Art Deco was all the rage. The façade features huge Corinthian columns adorned with angels, urns and vines, while the Palace of Versailles-based interior boasts mirrors, chandeliers, a crystal fountain and murals that recall Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Los Angeles also had engineering marvels like electric seat-indicators, soundproof “crying rooms,” a ladies’ lounge with sixteen private compartments each in a distinct marble—and a lower lounge where guests could watch the film playing in the main room via a periscope-like system of prisms.

The Los Angeles theatre opened on January 30, 1931, with the world premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The lavish theater attracted Hollywood’s lavish: Professor & Mrs. Albert Einstein, King Vidor, Cecile B. DeMille, Darryl F. Zanuck, Hedda Hopper, Marion Davies and Gloria Swanson. Outside the theatre, more than 25,000 fans gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse. But timing is everything, and “lavish” didn’t gel with the Great Depression, which was in full swing when the theater opened. The old girl changed hands many times after going dark—and finally closed as a movie house forever on April 28, 1994. But in another time, she’ll live forever.



South Broadway & West 9th
Exterior of Eastern Columbia Building - Art Deco building in Downtown LA near Hotel FigueroaOn your way back to Hotel Figueroa, take a minute to marvel at the Eastern Columbia Building. Designed by Claud Beelman in 1930 as the headquarters of the Eastern Outfitting Company and the Columbia Outfitting Company, this 13-story building was one of downtown LA’s tallest until after WWII. But what it’s really known for is that turquoise terra cotta exterior, accented with deep blue and gold terra cotta. It’s Art Deco design at its finest, down to the multi-colored terrazzo sidewalks with zigzag and chevron inlays. Now converted to luxury condos, the Eastern Columbia Building can still pull focus.


And now, my friends, my little tour has come full circle. Pop up West 9th Street about five city blocks, and you’ll be back at Hotel Figueroa. Our tour has spanned more than 100 years of design and what feels like 100 stories, too. Because this is LA, dammit, and even our buildings have stories to tell.‘Til next time,