August 20, 2012

Looking Up from the Streets of Downtown LA (Updated for 2017)

In New York City, looking up is discouraged. Casting your eyes upwards, chin to the sky, outs you as a tourist, or at the very least as a new arrival.

Don't ever look up at the buildings, or down at a map. Just stare straight ahead with blinders on. Don't make eye contact with anyone. Try not to trip.

Broadway Arcade Building (1924)

On the other hand, out in LA, we're usually inside our cars, and unless we're lucky enough to drive a convertible, we can't really look up at anything.

Eastern Columbia Building (1930)

Behind the wheel - whether commuting or stock car racing - it's best to keep your eyes as far ahead as possible, so you can see where you're going, and anticipate every curve.

Broadway Department Store (1912)

There's no opportunity to examine your surroundings.

The Chester Williams Building (1926) - the site of the former American Theater (demolished)

But once, when Downtown was its true city center, LA was explored on foot, or by elevated streetcar, both which allowed you to view the heights of the buildings that surrounded you...

The State Theatre (formerly Loew's State Theatre) (1921), currently home to Catedral de la Fe 
(no photos allowed inside) the theater marquees, the second floor cornices, the colored terracotta, the stone gargoyles, the marble relief sculptures.

Palace Theatre (formerly Orpheum Theatre) (1911)

Many of the beautiful architectural details of those old theaters, department stores and arcades still exist in Downtown LA...

Cameo Theatre (formerly Clune's Broadway) (Exterior) (1910), currently home to La Super Star, Inc.

but pedestrians have become distracted by the ground floor swap meets, produce stands, electronics shops, and jewelry centers (not to mention the peddlers, derelicts, and other colorful characters they encounter).

Cameo Theatre (Interior - La Super Star's stock room)

Public transportation passengers have either moved underground, or become drivers, never stopping to admire the LA that once was, in the first half of the 20th century.

Circa 2017

But sometimes, you have to look up to know where you are.

Circa 2017

Fortunately, the historic Bradbury Building, built in 1893 and one of the oldest commercial buildings still standing in center city Los Angeles...

Circa 2017 in great shape, is still being used for offices, and is fully accessible to tourists and photographers...

Circa 2017 long as you stay in the lobby.

Just be sure to look up the elevator shaft and the old mail chute...

Bradbury Building (1893)

...which is unfortunately no longer functional, in the wake of post-9/11 anthrax scares.

Clifton's Cafeteria (1935)

And then, occasionally, it pays to look down. You just might find some gorgeous terrazzo designs under your feet, like the one outside Clifton's Cafeteria (much of which is covered up by construction plywood now as they renovate the interior).

Not all of the historic locations on and around Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles are always accessible to looky-loos such as myself, but Los Angeles Conservancy (of which I'm a proud member) does its best to grant access on Saturday mornings. Since all of these buildings are still privately owned, they rely on good relationships and favors, with the exception of their "Last Remaining Seats" program which exhibits old movies in the still-functional classic theaters such as the Los Angeles Theater and the Million Dollar Theater (whose ownership just recently changed hands). Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (of which I'm a proud member) also arranges special tours of certain theaters, such as the Palace and the off-Broadway Grauman's Chinese.

The Ace Hotel group recently purchased the United Artists Theater and has supposedly promised to restore and retain much of the original design elements. In this case of adaptive reuse - as with the jewelry center - at least we'll get more public access to a historic theater, and will get to see it for ourselves, in person.

But when we get there, we may just have to look up to discover where we really are.


  1. Wonderful pictures and review of the LA Conservancy tour. Getting into L.A.'s historic buildings is always fun. One correction though, the ownership of the Million Dollar Theater did not change, just who is renting the theater. Unfortunately the theater is now empty as the person that was leasing the theater for the last few years has now terminated their lease. However the ownership has not changed.