— Steven Millhauser in his 1983 essay titled The Fascination with Miniatures
Millhauser says the "fascination of the miniature is in part the fascination of the mountain view. To be above, to look down, to take into the yearning eye more at a single glance: here we are at the very threshold of the lure of the miniature." Yet, as Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne has noted, in talking about the glass Skyslide attached to the side of the U.S. Bank Tower, there are few opportunities in Los Angeles to become familiar with its "top-down view." For the uninitiated, miniature Los Angeles can provide a way to wield in the unwieldy.
My own fascination started when I crafted a California mission in fourth grade—still stored in my mom’s attic, though rats chewed off the head of Father Serra. As an adult, my interest stems from seeking both a light-hearted and deeper understanding of the city. I’m not alone.
One Los Angeles couple was so captivated by miniatures, they opened the Carole & Barry Kaye’s Museum of Miniatures, which sat on Museum Row until their collection moved out of Los Angeles when they died in 2001. A recent short documentary profiled Gerald W. Cox, an 81-year-old miniature-maker who recreates local landmarks to help preserve the city’s past. With Los Angeles’ ever-evolving landscape, these tiny tangible representations of "what was" and "what still is" make them an important historical record of the city.
As Curbed looks this week through the magnifying glass at micro-living in Los Angeles, here’s a glimpse of miniature landmarks and historic scenes that illustrate Southern California’s past and present. The 11 models and dioramas listed below are just a sample of the ways in which people have attempted to reduce Los Angeles into a digestible size.
↑ The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA) has a wonderful large scale model of a 1930s downtown Los Angeles, before freeways and skyscrapers altered the landscape. Built by WPA architects and draftsmen, the model was constructed as a planning tool to help study downtown. By the 1970s, the dusty room-sized model had been left in warehouses and almost forgotten. Some suggested throwing away the outdated model. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and it’s now a popular display in the history museum’s "Becoming Los Angeles" exhibit.
↑ The NHMLA also has 20 small dioramas that depict important moments in California’s history. Created in the 1930s, these dioramas often portray a romanticized version of the region’s past that was popular of the time. The dioramas were displayed in the now-closed Lando Hall of California History, though the diorama that features Los Angeles’ founding families (pictured) is part of the "Becoming Los Angeles" exhibit.
↑ Building a California mission is a right of passage for many fourth graders in the golden state. For inspiration, parents can see all 21 missions in miniature in the courtyard of the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. Last year, a litter of kittens made their home in these miniature missions, which are at least as old as the 1927 playhouse.
↑ As one of the oldest attractions at the Los Angeles County Fair, the Fairplex Garden Railroad in has been in the same location since 1935. The Pomona exhibit started with a model of the Pacific Electric Railroad trolley next to a diorama of the nearby Puddingstone Reservoir. Now grown to 100 x 300 feet, the Garden Railroad features many miniature Pomona Valley landmarks as well as some from Los Angeles, including the Plaza Church, Randy’s Donuts, and a Van De Kamp’s Bakery. Just last year, engineers added the (now-gone) Echo Mountain House with a moving Mt. Lowe funicular.
↑ In 1910, the Dominguez Rancho hosted the first aviation meet in the United States, which is credited for helping launch the region’s aerospace industry. In one of the Dominguez Museum rooms sits a 7- by 12-foot model of Aviation Field as it looked on that January day in 1910. According to museum volunteers, actor Danny Thomas raised money to help construct this model so that it could illustrate the rancho’s integral role in this historic event.
↑ The oldest building in San Marino, El Molino Viejo (a.k.a. The Old Mill) is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year with a gala on September 30. Built around 1816, the mill provided grain for the San Gabriel Mission. Once the missions were secularized, the mill passed through several owners, including Henry Huntington, who made it the clubhouse to his nearby golf course. The diorama, located on the bottom floor, has an operating water wheel.
↑ In the long tunnel entrance of the Southwest Museum, there are 20 niches in the wall where vintage dioramas once sat. These dioramas depict the daily life of local Native Americans. Artist Elizabeth Mason created many of dioramas between 1929-1942, consulting the Southwest Museum’s staff for historical accuracy. Since tunnel leaks and temperatures were not conducive to preservation, the historic dioramas have been removed and are now in storage.
↑ Opened in 1939, Gilmore Field hosted The Hollywood Stars which was a baseball club owned by celebrities. According to Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason, Gilmore Field continued to thrive until the Major League came to Los Angeles and the Dodgers agreed to play here in 1958." While Gilmore Field was demolished in 1958, visitors can still see this small version displayed at the Original Farmer’s Market.
↑ The legendary Garden of Allah was a bungalow-hotel for Hollywood’s glitterati and literati from 1927-1959. After the demolition of this celebrity playground, its smaller version was displayed in a bank at Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. Eventually, the model was relocated to an empty storefront, where it was discovered and preserved by hairdresser David Meyers.
↑ When Union Station turned 75-years-old in 2014, a model of the Art Deco station was created for the Los Angeles Public Library to compliment the Getty’s "No Further West" exhibit. Starting with a model train kit, the model builders also referred to Bill Bradley’s book The Last of the Great Station, 40 Years of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. Building the small Union Station replica took several months as the Harvey House, South Arcade, and Baggage building were among those that had to be recreated from scratch (affixing the roof tiles took the most time). A detailed account of this model can be found here.
↑ San Pedro’s Maritime Museum displays a number of miniature representations of the region’s nautical past, including this 1908 scene. When the U.S. Navy’s "Great White Fleet" arrived in Southern California in April 1908, about 200,000 Angelenos greeted them. As part of a worldwide tour, the fleet made stops in San Pedro, Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Redondo. At the time, it was considered the most powerful fleet ever assembled under the U.S. flag.