clock menu more-arrow no yes
Arcade Building in 1953<br>

Filed under:

The Downtown LA that just won’t quit

These then-and-now photos show off buildings and public spaces that have endured for decades

The Spring Arcade Building in 1953.
| Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The story of Downtown Los Angeles is one of continual renovation, repurposing, and rebranding. But a surprising number of buildings and public spaces have endured for decades, from the gilded age, to the roaring twenties, to today. Below, take a look at a dozen Downtown stalwarts that have had more comebacks than Cher.


1. Pershing Square

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and photo.ua / Shutterstock
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

In 1866, the area known as Pershing Square was formally recognized as a public square, making it LA’s oldest park. The square would go through many iterations over the years, most notably in 1910, when it was redesigned by the legendary architect John Parkinson, whose name is found frequently in the history of Downtown architecture. The park would have many names. It eventually became known as Central Park, until World War I when it was renamed in honor of General John Pershing.

For much of its existence, Pershing Square was shady and green, filled with well-heeled tourists from the nearby Biltmore Hotel, who would pass by the Square’s statue of Beethoven on their way to the opera.

But during the Great Depression, according to historian Nathan Masters, out-of-work men began to congregate in the park. They were soon joined by the homeless and inebriated. This led the city to redesign the park in the 1950s. “A narrow path around a sprawling, fenced-off lawn stripped the square of much of its park-like character,” he writes, “confining the public and discouraging the assembly of crowds.”

This removal of nature was completed in the 1990s, with a post-modern nightmare redesign that left much to be desired. A long-awaited makeover, overseen by the French architectural firm Agence Ter, will supposedly begin in the next few years, and hopefully restore a sense of community-and some leafy foliage- to L.A.’s oldest park.

2. Grand Central Market

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Wonho Frank Lee
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Wonho Frank Lee

LA’s famed market at 317 South Broadway started its life as a Beaux-Arts style commercial office building in 1898. Designed (once again) by architect John Parkinson, it was perfectly situated near Angels Flight and the mansions of Bunker Hill. In 1905, it expanded to Hill Street, to make room for “Ville de Paris,” a large dry goods store that moved into the ground floor. The expansion was built on a gradual incline so that it was possible for customers to see all the wares for sale in the store.

In 1917, Homer Laughlin Jr. and C.A. Gross took over the Ville de Paris space and opened Grand Central Market. The market quickly became home to over 100 local produce and food vendors, many of whom were recent immigrants.

For many decades, the market offered quality food at cheaper prices than many local grocery stores and was patronized by an increasingly diverse clientele. In the past few years, it has experienced a renaissance along with the rest of downtown. Prices have gone up, and trendy eateries like Eggslut and Belcampo Meat Company have moved in. It was sold this November to Langdon Street Capital, which says it plans “to continue the incredible improvements the Market has implemented over the past half-decade and the legacy that proceeds us.”

3. Angels Flight

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and By Let Go Media / Shutterstock
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Touted as the “shortest railway in the world,” Angels Flight, at Third and Hill, was formally opened on January 1, 1902. Two train cars, Olivet and Sinai, traversed the steep incline connecting residential Bunker Hill to commercial Downtown Los Angeles.

Built by Colonel James Ward Eddy, it was seen as an important step in the city’s movement from Wild West outpost to major metropolitan city. At its opening, a large crowd gathered on a platform atop Bunker Hill to watch the cars move for the first time.

Angels Flight was soon joined by a sister incline railway named Court Flight, which linked Civic Center buildings to the neighborhoods in the hills above; it ran from 1904 to 1943.

Angels Flight continued to operate until 1969 when Bunker Hill was dismantled. It was put into storage until 1996 when it was reopened a half a block away at 356 South Olive Street. The tiny railway had a troubled second life, with numerous openings and closings due to accidents and mechanical problems, before closing indefinitely in 2014.

It reopened once more on August 21, 2017, and now costs $1 one way, but with a Metro Tap card it’s only 50 cents!

4. Broadway Trade Center

Los Angeles Public Library and Sterling Davis
Edward H. Mitchell/Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection and Photo by Sterling Davis

Designed by architect A.M. Edelman for A. Hamburger & Sons Department Store, this “white and many pillared mansion of commerce” at 830 South Hill Street opened to great fanfare on August 10, 1908. That first day, an estimated 75,000 people streamed through the mammoth Beaux-Arts structure, which featured the first escalator in California. According to the Los Angeles Times, visitors were greeted by “15 acres of floors,” featuring thousands of items for sale.

The opening of Hamburger & Sons was credited with spearheading the evolution of South Broadway as the new entertainment mecca of Los Angeles. In 1923, the Hamburger family sold the store to the equally upscale May Company, which ran the department store for the next 50 years. After the May Company moved to smaller quarters in 1986, the building fell on hard times and was renamed the Broadway Trade Center. Today, the building is being redesigned by the LA-based architectural firm Omgivning and is slated to be reopened in 2019 as a multi-complex, complete with a Grand Central Market-style food court.

5. Spring Arts Tower

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and By Kit Leong / Shutterstock
Los Angeles Public Library/William Reagh Collection

Designed by John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom, construction of this spacious commercial building at 453 South Spring Street began in 1914. When it was finished in April of 1915, it featured 11 upper-floors with space for 450 offices, and a handsome ground floor occupied by the Citizens National Bank (which also occupied two upper floors). On opening day, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The officers of the bank, from the president down to the various tellers, shook hands steadily for hours. Bankers and men of affairs by the thousands were on hand to extend their congratulations and to praise the new rooms. All were cordially welcomed and stayed to inspect the bank and to listen to the music of an orchestra concealed behind a bank of flowers in the cashier’s quarters. All afternoon and evening the crowds swarmed through the various departments.

During the first half of the 20th century, the bank was part of the thriving financial district in downtown Los Angeles, concentrated around Spring Street, which came to be known as the “Wall Street of the West.”

Today, the building is known as the Spring Arts Tower and is home to an arts collective, The Crocker Club, and the beloved The Last Bookstore, where many of the bank’s original features can still be seen.

6. Brockman Building

Los Angeles Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection and Hadley Meares

Designed by the firm of Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, this 12-story Beaux- Arts building at 700 South Grand Avenue was built in 1917. According to the Los Angeles Public Library, it was the first reinforced concrete and steel building in downtown Los Angeles. It also featured a copper cornice and a luxe multi-colored terracotta façade that is still visible today. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy:

The building's original owner, developer John C. Brockman, hoped that this building at the intersection of Seventh Street and Grand Avenue would be the anchor in his plans to extend the downtown commercial district westward. The building housed a variety of upscale clothiers throughout the years, including longtime retail tenant Brooks Brothers, who occupied the ground floor of the building from 1965 to 1989.

After years of vacancy and a bumpy 2000s, which included a bankruptcy and foreclosure, the building, now called The Brockman Lofts, is a residential-retail space owned by the Simpson Property Group. Bottega Louie, home to the best Earl Grey macarons in town, has occupied the ground floor since 2009.

7. Spring Arcade Building

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Hadley Meares

Originally called the Mercantile Arcade Building, this mammoth structure at 541 South Spring Street was designed in the Renaissance Revival style by Kenneth MacDonald and Maurice Couchot during the heady building boom of the 1920s.

The site had formerly been occupied by a quaint alley of shops known as Mercantile Place. In an attempt to preserve the charm of the old alley, MacDonald and Couchot designed a complex that included two twelve-story towers. The towers were connected by a shopping arcade which linked Spring and Broadway.

The arcade was modeled after London’s famed Burlington Arcade. The exterior featured granite and terracotta finishes, while the interior included hardwood floors, ornamental iron, and high-speed elevators.

The building’s opening on February 14, 1924, was a major event. Some 4,000 people attended, including acting mayor Boyle Workman, Charlie Chaplin, and screen vamp Pola Negri. The LA Times wrote:

…it is unlikely that there will be any single building operation during the current year which will outrank the Mercantile Arcade Building in size or importance. Erected at a cost of approximately $6,000,000, the new Mercantile Arcade Building stands among the most noteworthy structures of this kind in the country, and is the largest building of its kind on the Pacific Coast. No expense has been spared to make the twin office buildings, with the connecting arcade, among the best in the country, and in exterior and interior finishes, the structure is believed to be without peer.

Today, the structure, now branded the Spring Arcade Building, is a gorgeous multi-use residential and retail space with restaurants and bars.

8. Fine Arts Building

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Hadley Meares

One of the most beautiful buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the Fine Arts Building at 811 West Seventh Street was originally conceived as a space where local artists and artisans could make and sell their works. Designed by the firm of Walker and Eisen, the Romanesque Revival building was opened on December 8, 1926, to over 27,000 impressed guests. The exterior of the 12-story building featured ornamental gargoyles, spires and griffins, and sculptures by the artist Burt William Johnson.

But it was the magnificent lobby which really set tongues wagging. “Show windows of a most interesting architectural handling” ran the length of the great lobby, “affording the upper story tenants an opportunity for a display and exhibition of their various lines.” The lobby also featured customized tiles by Pasadena’s Ernest A. Batchelder and murals by famed muralist Anthony B. Heinsenbergen.

The building flourished as an epicenter of art and culture in Los Angeles for a short time, before the depression forced it to become a more traditional commercial structure.

Over the years it was known as the Signal Oil Building and the Havenstrite Building, and went through a variety of owners. It was rechristened the Fine Arts Building in 1983, when it was restored by the legendary historic-preservationist developers Ratkovich, Bowers and Perez, under the architectural direction of Brenda Levin. In April of this year, it was sold for $43 million to a Santa Barbara investment firm “on behalf of a wealthy family.” It currently houses co-working spaces and offices.

9. Ace Hotel

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Liz Kuball
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

In 1927, the United Artists Theater opened within the California Petroleum Corporation Building (later known as the Texaco Building) at 933 South Broadway. The large office tower was built by Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, while the theater (which took up around half of the complex’s space) was designed by noted Detroit-based theater architect C. Howard Crane.

The Spanish-Gothic theater served as the flagship movie palace of United Artists, the film production company founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. It was considered “the final word in theater construction,” featuring new innovations in movie palace design. According to a 1928 issue of Motion Picture News:

The general interior arrangement differs radically from other Los Angeles houses in that a great deal of attention has been given to both the entrance lobby and foyer…the lobby is done in black, gold, red and buff marble, with large gold mirrors set in frames of antique design of antique gold. The balcony is panoramic, and in its rear is a promenade, with a passageway leading into the foyer…Every seat in the big auditorium is alike. The chairs have been especially designed for this theater, and have deep cushions and air inflated backs, a new feature in theater construction… The new Los Angeles theater is regarded somewhat as a parent theater to a group that will arise in at least 12 cities.

The building would change hands several times over the decades, and the theater ceased showing movies by 1989. It became the home of televangelist (and epic conspiracy theorist) Gene Scott’s University Cathedral until his death in 2005. In 2012, it was lovingly repurposed and reopened as the Ace Hotel and the Theater at Ace Hotel, and has become the lynchpin in the resurgence of South Broadway as a social and cultural hotspot.

10. James Oviatt Building

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Hadley Meares

This Art Deco masterpiece was spearheaded by James Zera Oviatt, the bespoke haberdasher to the stars of 1920s Los Angeles. In 1927, he began to build a new Alexander and Oviatt flagship store at 617 Olive Street, near the decade’s most fashionable hangouts, which included the Biltmore Hotel and the Hollywood Athletic Club.

Oviatt had dreamed up a luxe, all-purpose 12-story building- his store would occupy the first three floors, while the other floors would be rented out to other high-end businesses. Designed by the firm of Walker and Eisen, Oviatt’s building was luxurious in every sense of the word- French gray marble was featured throughout the building, and even toilet bowls were painted a rich tan to complement the dark woodwork.

Thirty tons of custom-made Rene Lalique glass, imported from France, was commissioned for the building- including a ceiling, doors, mail-boxes, and elevator panels. Most impressive of all was Oviatt’s personal penthouse, which he called the “castle in the air.” The ten-room apartment, designed by the French firm Saddler et fils, featured a Turkish bath, and a rooftop garden and pool with imported sand from France.

Oviatt’s store closed in 1969. He lived in his penthouse until his death in 1974, one of the building’s only occupants. Today, his penthouse is a wedding and events venue. The site of his old store is the home of the retro Cicada Club, where modern-day men and women dress to the vintage nines to listen to big bands while sipping tiny glasses of the finest champagne.

11. Tower Theater

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Gina Power / Shutterstock
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

The first theater wired for sound in Los Angeles, this $500,000 Baroque Revival movie palace at 802 South Broadway was designed by architect S. Charles Lee. The smallest of South Broadway’s famed movie palaces, its exterior was finished in bright terracotta while its interior was modeled after the Paris Opera House. It was commissioned by H.L. Gumbiner, who would also build the Los Angeles Theater across the street. When it opened on Oct 13, 1927, the Los Angeles Times marveled:

One could dwell at length on the exquisite beauty of the Tower Theater. Following the influence of the Palace of Versailles, the interior represents the best of French architecture and decoration. The walls are French gray and rose with a liberal use of gold in scroll work. The lovely curtain over the screen is of deep, rich gold, too. Panelings of Italian marble in the lobby and again in the auditorium proper add a rich note to the ensemble. Features of the new theater which will please patrons are the luxurious lounge downstairs where music from the console organ can be heard, and the ‘cry room’ where mothers may take their children and watch the program behind sound-proof glass walls.

The Tower would cement its place in history as the venue which showed the sneak preview of the Jazz Singer in 1927. Over the decades it housed a Newsreel theater and became a popular film location for movies such as Mulholland Drive, Fight Club, and The Prestige. As of September of this year, it is rumored to be the future site of downtown’s first Apple store.

12. City Hall

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and stellalevi / Getty Images
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Getty Images/iStockphoto

During the 1920s, the construction of LA’s new City Hall, at 200 North Spring Street, was considered such a responsibility that three of L.A.’s most noted architects- John Parkinson, John C. Austin, and Albert C. Martin, were commissioned to design the building. These three men, working in a style Austin called “Modern American,” concentrated on the building’s exterior, while the interior was designed in grand style by architect Austin Whittlesey.

Symbolism was evident in every aspect of the building’s construction. City Hall was purposely designed to tower over Los Angeles, signifying the government’s overriding control of the city. According to cultural essayist Colin Marshall, the building was “built with concrete incorporating sand from each of California's 58 counties and water from each of its 21 missions”

Its three-day opening in 1928 was an epic affair, featuring a “three-mile-long parade, hundreds of floats, aerial bombs that happened to shatter a few of the building's newly installed windows, Civil War veterans, [and] a performance by Irving Berlin.” According to Marshall:

To cap off the festivities, President Calvin Coolidge pushed a button in the White House that lit up the Colonel Charles Lindbergh Beacon that capped off the building­ an event witnessed by young Lindbergh himself, who had completed his famous trans-Atlantic flight during City Hall's construction.

City Hall would remain LA’s tallest building for four decades, until the 516-foot tall Union Bank opened at Fifth and Figueroa in 1966. Today, you can view the city from City Hall’s once sky-scraping observation deck for free.

13. The CalEdison

Los Angeles Public Library photo collection and Elizabeth Daniels
Elizabeth Daniels

The 14-story building on Bunker Hill opened in 1931 as the headquarters for the Southern California Edison Company. One of the first buildings in the western U.S. with a heating and cooling system powered by electricity, it was, as the New York Times put it, a “monument to energy.”

The structure is framed in 3,500 tons of structural steel, and its lower stories are made of solid limestone. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, more than 17 different types of marble were used to make the lobby’s walls and floors, which are inlaid with a cubic Art Deco pattern that also appears on the facade.

Today, the lobby—where concrete coffered ceilings reach a height of 30 feet—is open to the public for all to enjoy. — Jenna Chandler

Santa Monica

How Santa Monica’s pedestrian mall became too successful for its own good

Los Feliz

LA’s ‘most recognizable and beloved’ building

Miracle Mile

LACMA is beloved. Its design never was.

View all stories in History