How many of these marvels have you actually stopped to appreciate?
An omnipresent celebrity culture means that it can be easy to ignore other contributions to L.A.’s creative scene, including its historic buildings. The bulk of that history is concentrated in downtown, one of the oldest parts of the city, and a treasure trove of architectural wonders.
For architecture nerds, a proper survey starts with giving some shine to the lost skyline of downtown Los Angeles, and few know more about it than tour guide Chris Westbrook with ExperienceFirst. The company hosts affordable, locally-minded walking tours in 12 cities and counting, and guides like Westbrook take visitors — and curious locals — through curated itineraries. “ExperienceFirst wants to help people from all over the world go and see their cities and treat it like you’re spending time with a friend,” Westbrook tells InsideHook.
Here’s his quick guide to a few of the most fascinating architectural gems hiding in plain sight in downtown L.A. If you like what you see here, trust me when I say it’s even better to experience all this in person, namely because there are Guisados tacos involved.
“The tour starts at the Spring Arcade Building. It’s a good food location — I always get the taco sampler from Guisados — but the interior is also beautiful. It’s the kind of spot a lot of people would miss. It’s filled with string lights and a pathway right through the heart of the building. Originally, it was a private little shopping street called Mercantile Place. In 1924, a competition was held for architects to design something that would go around Mercantile Place, while keeping the spirit of the shops intact. There’s a skylight based off the Burlington Arcade in London, so there’s about 15,000 square feet of glass up above you. And it’s worth it to go outside the building and look up at the arch — there are Spanish Baroque-style exteriors with neoclassical elements like arches and twisted columns. It’s a dramatic building from the exterior.”
“The Bradbury Building is the crème de la crème and one of the most special buildings that we have in Los Angeles. For architecture nerds, it’s an absolute must-visit. It’s one of the oldest buildings that we see on the tour; it’s from 1893, and has an incredible history. Originally designed by Sumner Hunt for the millionaire mining tycoon Lewis L. Bradbury, the project was handed over, somewhat forcibly, to his draftsman George Wyman. It’s got that Richardsonian Romanesque style on the inside with ironwork and marble and beautiful materials, and piston-powered elevators moving silently through the building. Walking in, it’s immediately apparent why it’s been such a popular filming location, and everything from Double Indemnity to 500 Days of Summer to Blade Runner has been shot there. Really, everyone must go and see the Bradbury Building.”
El Dorado Building (Formerly Hotel Stowell)
“Head to Spring Street and stand across from what’s called the El Dorado building today [which was originally the Hotel Stowell, built in 1913] to get a great great example of that Art Nouveau style from the early 1900s. This was an artistic movement out of France from the late 1800s and early 1900s, up until about the start of World War I, that really encapsulates the idea of decoration for decoration’s sake. It’s about trying to recreate the idea of nature through architecture and art form. There are almost no straight lines in Art Nouveau, because there are no straight lines in nature, and then you get the polar opposite with some Art Deco examples on the other side of the street.”
“The Trust Building from 1928 is an amazing zigzag-style Art Deco building. You find all of those straight lines, those geometric patterns of the Machine Age post-WWI. It’s really, really gorgeous. But see it from both sides of the street. Start on the Hotel Stowell side, looking across at the Trust Building, and you’ll think, ‘Oh my God, that entire building is made out of marble.’ Then you go across the street and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, they tricked me — they did a great job of painting this building to look like it’s made out of marble.’ But you can go into the lobby on weekdays, and you get the beautiful real marble inside, and for anyone who’s a big fan of TV right now, The Lincoln Lawyer has his offices inside of that building. There’s more of the geometric patterns and zigzags on the walls and floor, and gold leaf on the ceiling.”
“Finally, for the architecture fans, you have to see City Hall, because it’s one of our most famous buildings. It’s 454 feet tall and was built in 1928 — an important height and an important year. It was built 300 feet taller than just about everything else in Los Angeles; at the time there was a height limit of only 150 feet. L.A. wanted to capture an aesthetic quality that would mirror Paris and harmonious lines, to be one short flat level all around. The way the Eiffel Tower emerges from Paris — our version was meant to be City Hall. It’s hard to imagine now, but go stand at the top of Grand Park, look down at City Hall and imagine it as taller than everything else around; it was even the tallest building in California for a bit. It’s a beautiful combination of styles, too, a little Spanish colonial, some neoclassical and Art Deco, all rolled into one.”
Book the DTLA tour here.
This article was featured in the InsideHook LA newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Southland.