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Chasing streetlights

Get turned on to LA’s remarkable streetlamp designs—you’ll never see the city the same way

Urban Light, one of the most photographable art installations in Los Angeles.
Rocket Photos - HQ Stock/Shutterstock

As a child, Glen Norman had a streetlight directly in front of his family’s house in Westchester. It was a simple concrete post-top model, crowned with an acorn-shaped luminaire. He remembers how, every few months, city technicians used to clean the glass and replace the filament inside.

In 1957, just before he turned five years old, Norman’s family bought a house in North Hollywood. This time, his block had no streetlights. Some of the tracts to the north had them, as did the neighborhoods to the west: Van Nuys, Panorama City, Winnetka, Canoga Park. But homes on his two-block stretch of Cohasset Street, wedged between Goodland and Bellaire Avenues, dated to 1956, just before a city ordinance made streetlights a requirement in new subdivisions. Before that, it had been the real estate developer’s call.

“I guess I felt a little cheated,” Norman says.

In 1968, when he was a teenager, Norman began to photograph streetlights. Armed with a roll of Verichrome Pan black-and-white film loaded on his Kodak Hawkeye Flashfun camera, he would rush home from summer school to catch the overheads going up on newly laid suburban roads and freeway overpasses in the Valley.

The neighborhood was changing. He had noticed curbs and sidewalks being installed—signs that new lights weren’t far off. He had seen streetlights burning during daytime, evidence of municipal electrical tests. Construction of the 170 freeway which links the 5 to the Ventura Freeway, was nearly complete, so he couldn’t ride his bike there anymore.

Los Angeles isn’t particularly well known for its streetlights. Maybe it should be.

Not because we have the most streetlights (today that number hovers around 220,000, while Chicago’s Department of Transportation oversees more than 300,000). And not because LA is the best-lit major city in the United States (we have miles of dark patches, while there isn’t an unlit street in all of Motor City). But with more than 400 different types of lamps scattered over nearly 470 square miles, LA is one of the most diverse streetlight ecosystems anywhere in the country.

More than 100 years ago, streetlights were defining features of LA’s landscape. In 1907, the head of the local electrical bureau boasted of the “numerous inquiries during the past year from various large cities regarding our ornamental lighting system.”

In 1968, Glen Norman began photographing streetlights around Los Angeles. Pictured here are utilitarian streetlights, which are mounted on wooden power poles.
Glen Norman

In 1909, Charles Mulford Robinson, the renowned urban planner and architect of the “City Beautiful” movement, praised LA’s streetlight system as the “handsomest in the United States.” (It was pretty much the only aspect of progressive municipal development, the New York-bred urban planner believed, that Los Angeles had going for it.)

These days, it’s the artists who are more likely to notice them. First was Sheila Klein, whose Vermonica (1993), a single sequence of 25 vintage lamps, stood for decades in an East Hollywood strip mall parking lot median.

In late 2017, the installation was unexpectedly moved a few blocks east, sparking impassioned debates about place and provenance (not surprising given that the artwork is named after the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard).

Representing dozens of LA neighborhoods and more than 70 years of infrastructural history, Vermonica—an “urban candelabra,” as Klein called it—responded to the violence of the 1992 LA Uprising, when the original East Hollywood location had nearly burned to the ground.

Better known is Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008): a temple-like arrangement of 202 lamps from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s now configured at the south entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Vermonica was conceived as a symbol of healing and remembrance. Traversing Urban Light, with its repetition of patterns and fluted columns, can feel almost otherworldly; Burden once likened the experience to walking through classical architecture.

Urban Light quickly became an LA icon, the backdrop to thousands of photo shoots for quinceañeras, engagements, music videos, and online dating profiles. When LACMA celebrated the sculpture’s 10th anniversary in February, the mayor showed up. It’s more Instagrammed than the Hollywood Sign.

Do Angelenos have a thing for streetlights? It’s hard to say. Most of us probably don’t notice the lamps we pass daily.

Still, the popularity of the city’s streetlight sculptures testifies to the lamps’ enduring powers of enchantment, especially when relieved from their quotidian duties and offered to the world as art. After all, Burden created many other streetlight installations. There are ones in Claremont and Waltham, Massachusetts. None have struck a chord like Urban Light.

Los Angeles is also the only city in the U.S. to have its own streetlight museum, which quietly opened to the public in 2015. It welcomes visitors just a few hours each month and only by appointment. That’s where I met Norman. On the day I went, we were the only two visitors.

The single-room museum lies behind rows of empty gray cubicles on the second floor of a government office building. Step inside and flip on the fluorescent lights; you’ll find a miniature forum of infrastructural fragments roped off, not unlike ruins, behind red velvet stanchions.

Nailed to one wall is a chronological display of lighting technologies (mercury vapor, metal halide, high-pressure sodium, LED) while an automated recording rattles off facts about the fixtures on display.

“Hollywood Special” outside the Hudson Apartments on the Walk of Fame.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

There’s a boxy blue 1960s-era Hollywood Special leaning against one wall flecked with fading red stars along its length.

There’s an overhead buttressed with a Chinese dragon designed for the 1932 Olympics. Many of them still line what used to be Tenth Street that now, thanks to the games, has been renamed Olympic Boulevard.

Viewed out in the wild, suspended 30 feet in the air, the fixtures don’t look much different from our indoor domestic lamps. They look disarmingly larger up close.

Public lighting has been around for centuries: first by resin, then by oil, and then, in the 19th century, by gas. Yet these technologies depended on fragile wicks and flames, easily compromised by wind, rain, and forgetful lamplighters.

The industrialization of public lighting—severing it from the idiosyncrasies of season, time, and weather—was intertwined with electricity. By 1880, one year after America’s first outdoor electric lighting demonstration took place in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, metropolitan centers across the nation were rushing to install “moon towers” or “artificial suns” of their own.

The late Eddy Feldman, a former attorney and municipal arts commissioner, chronicled LA’s early adventures with the technology in his 1972 book, The Art of Streetlighting in Los Angeles. In early 1882, the month-old Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article describing a 200-foot tower recently installed in San Jose. “Electric Light,” the headline blared. “Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.”

“With a touch of a magic wand and in a garden of rare color, Broadway burst into bloom” with the installation of 135 streetlamps in 1905.
Courtesy of the James H. Osborne Collection, Gerth Archives and Special Collections CSU Dominguez Hills

Home to roughly 13,000 people, San Jose was scarcely bigger than LA at the time. A light, the boosters claimed, would build the latter’s reputation as a “live, go-ahead, progressive town.”

They got their wish. By the end of the year, seven 150-foot masts had been constructed throughout what is now DTLA. The lights went on the day before New Years Eve.

Inaugural lightings were occasions for huge civic celebrations. In 1905, thousands turned out for the lighting of 135 seven-globe posts installed along a mile-long stretch of Broadway from Aliso Street to what is now Olympic Boulevard.

“With a touch of a magic wand and in a garden of rare color, Broadway burst into bloom last evening,” the Times feverishly proclaimed: “Like its more illustrious namesake in New York, the Broadway of Los Angeles finally has a great white way.”

In 1914, a group of film producers arranged a massive parade and carnival (replete with “wild animals, cowboys, the cavalry and exhibitions from the Universal ranch”) to celebrate the first cluster lights in Hollywood.

In 1920, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Gloria Swanson were among the 100,000 people celebrating the long-awaited replacement of the Broadway lamps with larger and more elaborate upgrades. (World War I had delayed the project for several years).

The staggered placement of Spanish Renaissance-inspired “Broadway Specials” and their efflorescent siblings, the “Broadway Roses,” were praised by the Journal of Electricity as “a new note in street lighting.”

The Los Angeles Times hailed the installation as “one of the most elaborate jobs of ornamental electroliers ever made on the coast.” The Broadway Specials no longer exist, but the Broadway Roses still light up West Sixth Street between Olive and Flower Streets. They also make a cameo in Urban Light.

Downtown Los Angeles wasn’t the only place touched by the mania for street lighting. Between 1900 and 1930, LA’s geographical area expanded 10 times over, and its population multiplied by 20, precisely when illuminated streets became prerequisites for attracting respectable buyers to new neighborhoods.

Considered stationery policemen that you didn’t have to pay for—“each standard is a sentinel on duty throughout the night,” claimed one catalogue—streetlights were touted in ads for new developments alongside painted curbs, paved sidewalks, proximity to schools, and restrictive housing covenants.

Union Metal’s Pacific line on Bunker Hill, photographed here before the neighborhood was leveled.
California State Library

Designs were frequently named after LA streets: the Pico, the Beverley [sic], the Hollywood, the Western. Many neighborhoods commissioned their own lamp designs, known as “specials,” to mark their boundaries, providing a sense of history and character to communities built overnight.

There were haters of course; Feldman’s book cites a city electrician who griped about the excessive numbers of approved designs. But no one else seemed to care.

That didn’t necessarily make streetlights local products. Other than a handful of Southern California manufacturers, such as DTLA-based Llewellyn Ironworks and Long Beach-based Southwest Foundry, LA’s taste for fashionable lamps was often fed by Midwestern industrial titans such as Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric and Missouri-based King Luminaire.

Ohio-based Union Metal, which got its start as a porch column manufacturer, designed its Metropolitan line of streetlights—easily spotted by a peculiar “bundle” design decorating its collar—specifically for Hollywood. Moree 23,500 of them were shipped to LA over the first half of the 20th century, many of which are still here: Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevards are great examples.

The company’s Pacific line—similar to the Metropolitan, but with longer torches and jewel-like cabochons around the collar—was more popular still. It colonized old Bunker Hill (before it was bulldozed into oblivion), portions of Koreatown, Westlake, and Pico-Robertson, as well as coastal cities from San Diego to Portland.

Manufacturers frequently emphasized the craftsmanship of their standards, which were supposedly designed by real artists. Many are laden with neoclassical details like palmettes, meander patterns, and acanthus leaves; others showcase Art Deco or Asian-inspired designs.

Other motifs are harder to identify, such as the mysterious “bundle” markings on the Metropolitans. There are several theories about what these designs might be, ranging from bowties to Greek lightning bolts to Roman fasci. But as it goes with many works of commercial art, it’s hard to know for sure.

Over pizza at LACMA’s outdoor restaurant, where Norman and I could watch museumgoers snapping selfies at Urban Light, I learned more about his hobby. Despite the ardor of his early expeditions, Norman gave up streetlight photography during the early ’70s (ironic, he reasoned, given that he finally had graduated from an Instamatic to a 35mm camera).

A very rare twin Olympic Special designed for the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, featuring a cast iron dragon arm, fruit bowl top ornament, and a base section (not pictured) with flowers.
Glen Norman

It wasn’t until 2000, while vacationing in New York City, that he noticed a lone Type 24 Twin—two elegant teardrops linked together by a wrought iron scrollwork pattern—on the corner of 32nd Street and 5th Avenue. Next thing he knew, he was hustling down to Los Angeles to photograph the Chinese dragon overheads lining Olympic Boulevard.

Norman, who now lives in Fremont, California, credits the internet for rekindling his teenage interest, allowing him to connect with like-minded aficionados on Yahoo groups and online message boards. Along the way, he explored other niches of urban archeology: ceiling fans, stoplights, vintage neon signs. Nothing stuck quite like streetlights.

Today, he has studied models everywhere from San Francisco to New York City to Mackinac, Michigan. He has published dozens of Facebook albums about our evolving illuminatory landscape, with titles like “The Los Angeles Crooks,” “Tujunga in Transition,” “The Robertson Boulevard Specials,” and “The Last of the Open Wire Incandescents.”

1911 saw the passage of the Street Lighting Improvement Act, which put the financial responsibility for installing and maintaining the lamps in the laps of property owners.

Upon request by nearby residents or businesses, the Department of Water and Power can, today, be convinced to attach a metal overhead light to an existing electrical pole without an installation fee, but only for minimal traffic safety. Homeowners have to pay extra to install and maintain standalone electroliers (those old-fashioned street lights on concrete or metal poles), which is why we see more of them in wealthier neighborhoods.

The Colorado Bridge lit up by streetlights.
Angel DiBilio /

In 1925, the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting formed; it was tasked with designing, installing, and maintaining the new infrastructure, as well as the lights used in tunnels, bridges, and traffic signals.

It was a monumental task, rife with growing pains. Installation requests multiplied every year, exceeded only by an ever-growing backlog of repairs. In 1935, the bureau reported that damages to poles, glassware, and electrical conduits had cost $32,000 and necessitated 6,300 “personal calls.” Drunks and vandals were partly to blame, but cars were the pressing issue. The ornamental ironwork lamps were becoming liabilities.

“Any illuminating engineer can tell you that these horse and buggy street lights are 25 years behind the automobile’s development,” declared the Los Angeles Times in 1939. “... horse-and-buggy lighting is not good enough for this automobile age!”

It wasn’t just a matter of candle power. The whirr of automobiles “jostled the posts, caving in their sides and knocking the supporting urns and bulbs off their perch,” claimed a 1959 report. In one case, an arm fell off a five-globe lantern “and… killed a hapless pedestrian.”

The base of a “Broadway Rose,” still standing in Downtown Los Angeles. The shafts and luminaires from the original 1919 installation were removed, but the bases remain.
Glen Norman

The electrical topography of postwar Los Angeles was dominated by the cobrahead. Stark, slender, wrought from galvanized steel, its alien curve bowed toward the veins of the growing desert metropolis. In 1962, the Bureau of Street Lighting passed a resolution to repaint all the khaki green ornamental lamps gray in order to mimic its modernist aesthetic. (For one or another reason, they never followed through.)

New luminaires accompanied the new lighting structures. Incandescent lights needed to be replaced every six months or so, but mercury vapor, which gave the atmosphere a slight blue lilt, was more powerful and longer lasting. In 1967, a lighting project in Little Tokyo pioneered the use of high-pressure sodium vapor lamps, which shone twice as brightly as mercury. Dimly lit roads and alleyways, meanwhile, remained reviled as threats to public safety.

Would the violence in Watts have been so destructive, some asked, if the roads had benefited from modern lighting? (We’ll never know, but the Watts Rebellion did rattle illuminating engineers. In 1969, 500 new lamps were installed in the neighborhood, and a massive streetlight building phase throughout LA soon followed.)

Still, if the bureau wanted a completely illuminated city, it never quite finished the job. According the Bureau of Street Lighting, 89 percent of LA’s streets now have some form of lighting, but there are still wide swaths of the San Fernando Valley that remain dark: pockets of Van Nuys, Reseda, and North Hollywood.

That’s not necessarily due to neglect; many communities don’t like too much light, and have resisted the advances of LEDs. Not me. On my block in East Hollywood, all we have is a four-foot metal sodium vapor overhead attached to a wooden electrical pole. It doesn’t work that well; people remind me of that whenever I turn onto my street. “It’s so dark out here!” They always say. “Look out; it’s dangerous!”

You’ve got to be a little bit of an outsider to be a streetlight connoisseur. They require you to divert your attention from the spotlight to the background: to the trees instead of the forest, to the marginalia instead of the text. They’re the domains of the nameless, the authorless, the commercially-minded, the mass-produced. They are unapologetically architectonic—providing mood and romance to millions of streetscapes—but only provisionally do they count as art.

“Careful!” Norman once wrote to me. “Chasing streetlights can become an addiction!” He may have a point; photos of Teardrops and Mission Bells are filling up my phone.

There’s something magical about stumbling on an old standard; it’s like beholding an old totem or a heraldic coat of arms. These lamps were once neighborhood emblems. They still invite a focused, deliberate kind of looking, even if many of their old meanings have fallen out of use.

The original streetlights on Wilshire Boulevard, photographed in 1936.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Each lantern is guarded by four silent, Thumbelina-sized, bare-breasted women.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Cruise down Wilshire Boulevard, and maybe you’ll see what I mean. Crossing from the west into MacArthur Park, you’ll notice that the bug-eyed ’60s-era Wilshire Twins give way to the shorter gaslight-inspired lantern designs installed 30 years prior.

Get out of the car, and give it a closer look. Each lantern is guarded by four silent, Thumbelina-sized, bare-breasted women—amulets of the communities that once relied on them for light.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. In New York City, thanks to organizations like the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, more than 100 lamps have been designated as historic landmarks. Same goes for the 327 three-globe lamps that make up the “Path of Gold” on San Francisco’s Market Street.

In LA, the city has designated hundreds of buildings, parks, signs, and even a few trees as historical monuments, but it has yet to name a single streetlight. But things might be changing.

During the 1990s, a group of homeowners between Exposition Park and Downtown enlisted an architectural historian to research the elegant 1920s-era lanterns that had been ripped out to make room for a road-widening project. It turned out they were Union Metal No. 1906s. Remarkably, the manufacturer had hung onto the original wooden molds after all those years. A large number of replicas went up in the early 2000s. Now, they’re all over DTLA.

In 2013, word got out that a bunch of ailing Union Metal No. 1747s (part of the Pacific line) would be ripped out on a stretch of Pico Boulevard between Alvira Street and Robertson Boulevard and replaced with modern, low voltage systems: bland steel poles with LED heads.

Neighborhood outcry led to the installation of replicas instead of utilitarian city designs. They’re a little shinier than the originals, but they’re looking pretty good.

In 1903, when ornamental streetlights had hardly begun to be a thing, Charles Mulford Robinson wrote about the great social potential of their designs. Even though “[c]ivic art is but just finding time seriously to consider its artistic possibility,” he argued that electric lighting was already inspiring a new kind of civic cooperation, citing, as an example, a recent design competition held in New York City.

“In what other period in the history of the world,” he asked, “have private citizens banded together and contributed money that a light fixture on a street might be beautiful?”

It’s a wonderful thought. Isn’t that the goal of public art: to mark a place, to ennoble our surroundings, to get us talking to strangers? But we rarely think of streetlights in this way, maybe because they’re so utilitarian, their makers are so unglamorous, or because their histories are so terribly murky. Still, there’s something alluring and ennobling about these fixtures of outdoor furniture. Little wonder why Klein and Burden found them such potent fodder for art.

As for Norman, he’s still snapping away. The Bureau of Street Lighting always has work to do: repairing lamps, laying new conduits, and upgrading the old high voltage lights with thin, machine-headed LEDs.

Still, his old North Hollywood neighborhood isn’t all that different from when he used to bike around on a three-speed with a can of Alpha Beta grape soda. There are older utilitarian overheads affixed to electrical poles at the intersections, providing some very minimal lighting, but there still aren’t bona fide electroliers on Norman’s old block.

His old neighborhood in Westchester, however, has changed quite a bit. Many of the older one-story homes have been remodeled; others are gone completely. There are nicer cars and more swimming pools.

Norman’s childhood home went on the market a couple of years ago after receiving an addition to its rear. The house had been purchased during the 1950s for less than 15 thousand dollars. Norman was shocked when he heard what it sold for: $1.2 million. But the streetlight he remembers—the acorn-headed concrete post-top—is still there.

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