Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Recently, I attended a walking tour offered by the Los Angeles Conservancy, a charitable organization tasked with “preserving and revitalizing greater Los Angeles’ architectural heritage.” (Don’t laugh.) These tours are offered every weekend of such places as the Victorian homes of Angelino Heights, Union Station, and the Biltmore Hotel. Noir fan that I am, I opted for the Art Deco tour.
We started in Pershing Square at 10am on a Sunday.
Designed by Ricardo Legorreta, the purple pylons are supposed to evoke mountains and water flowing to the orange spheres that are meant to represent L.A.’s citrus industry. Hey, crazy idea: why not just plant citrus trees instead of some goofy abstraction? It’s only been this way since the early 90s but, shock of shocks, the design has never been popular. A redesign is in the works.
For the sake of comparison, here’s what the area looked liked from the 20s until the early 50s.
No joke, they tore that out so they could build an underground parking garage. (Pausing so can shake your head or facepalm.) Apparently the park was a notorious spot for homosexual hook-ups. Hart Crane (who was himself gay, it should be noted) observed, “The number of faggots cruising around here is legion.”
But we’re here to talk about Art Deco, not anonymous gay sex. (I’ll save that for another post.) Although it had roots in pre-WWI Europe, the style gained prominence after a 1925 trade show in Paris dedicated to the applied arts. Camille Paglia notes that while the style catered to the elite in Europe, “[i]n the United States in the 1930s, Art Deco became a more populist style favored by businesses and public works commissions,” not to mention Hollywood “from Cedric Gibbons‘s chic set designs to Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic dance routines.” Art Deco artists and architects drew from a number of styles, including Greek, Roman, Gothic, and Pre-Colombian art. King Tut’s tomb had been recently discovered in 1922, so there is a pronounced Egyptian influence.
Title Guarantee Building, Parkinson & Parkinson, 1929-1931
Designed by the father-son team of John B. and Donald D. Parkinson who are also responsible for Union Station, L.A. City Hall, the L.A. Coliseum, and the Bullock’s Wilshire Building. Creators of some of L.A.’s most beloved structures, they were skilled at many styles apart from Art Deco including Beaux Arts, Mission Revival, and Romanesque Revival. Pretty significant local figures, if you ask me, yet while researching this post I couldn’t find a single book or museum retrospective devoted to their work. Originally a commercial building, today the Title Guarantee is fancy lofts.
Click on the photos to enlarge.
SCE Company Building, Allison & Allison, 1931
The headquarters of Southern California Edison, this was appropriately the first all-electric building in Los Angeles. The firm responsible for this building also designed UCLA’s Royce Hall.
Oviatt Building, Walker & Eisen, 1927-1928
A haberdasher, James Oviatt would take annual trips to Europe to stock his store that, at the time, was the most expensive men’s clothing store in Los Angeles. In 1925 he attended the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris and hired a number of designers to decorate his store.
Sun Realty Building, Claud Beelman, 1931
A couple of notes about the construction. These building are, for the most part, concrete covered in a very thin terra cotta skin that’s not even an inch thick. Furthermore, most are no taller than 150 feet as that was the maximum allowed for by the city’s building codes. If an architect wanted to exceed that height, the structures above 150 feet had to be unoccupied, e.g. house electrical or elevator equipment only. The city restricted building heights to prevent the “canyonization” effect from the construction of large skyscrapers one could see in Chicago and New York. They didn’t want to block the famous California sunshine.
Eastern Columbia Building, Claud Beelman, 1930
This building took nine months to erect. As the docent pointed out, nowadays, an environmental impact report will take you at least a year. The building originally housed two retail stores, Eastern and Columbia Outfitting, whose motto was, “You supply the bride, we’ll supply the house.”
The building’s main entrance. Even with a washed-out iPhone snap, it’s still spectacular.
By the end of WWII, Art Deco faded from popularity, giving way to Modernism and the International Style. Paglia writes:
After it became passe in the 1940s, gay male collectors kept Art Deco alive as “camp,” laying the groundwork for the style’s later revival and its current high value at auction. But Art Deco is still underrepresented in major museums and minimized or ignored by many art historians, partly because it does not support the ruling paradigm of art as leftist resistance. On the contrary, Art Deco was promptly adopted for political posters and public architecture by fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, and Russia.
Thus Art Deco remains, like Victorian Academic art, a style that is enormously popular with the public yet derided and dismissed by the critical establishment.
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The tour was two and a half hours of walking, so we worked up an appetite. Luckily, we finished right next to UMAMIcatessen, the latest restaurant in the Umami Burger empire. How about some shredded pig ear and a cheese plate?
Finally, a trip to downtown L.A. ain’t complete without paying homage to Santa Muerte.