Photos by Larry HirshowitzNot long ago I went to Union Station to pick up my nephew. He was arriving on the Coach Starlight Express, which is legendary for arriving hours later than scheduled. Of course, I called to get the arrival time train running two hours late and showed up, only to find it would be yet another 90 minutes. Maybe. Those Amtrak employees can be cagey about committing to a specific hour, stringing me along with the possibility that the train would make up time somewhere outside of Santa Barbara. Yeah, I know, call me a sap, but I waited. Which turned out to be okay. Better than okay. Even though the train ended up being nearly another two and a half hours late and the parking cost nearly 20 bucks. Because I like to watch. And that, fundamentally, is what a great lobby is all about: Watching people. And their dreams. Simple or profound. Like the desire to go home. I listened to a tale of woe the late trains, the connections missed from a road-weary grandmother, her three grandchildren folded into the elegant leather chairs, trying to catch a snooze against the hustle-bustle soundscape: the a cappella lilt of a busker duo punctuated by the scrape of suitcases being dragged across tile floors and a combo jazzing up the hepcat set at Traxx bar. Then we discussed things great and small, those conversations you only ever have with a stranger. Ive always been intrigued by how the act of waiting breaks down our social reserves. Such encounters make the world a little less complicated, at least for a moment. Lobbies are also about the urge to create a cultural center. Although the Music Center appears somewhat dispirited these days next to the silvery swoops and swirls of the Disney Concert Hall, it proudly announced at its opening in 1964 that Los Angeles was more than just a reel city with a bunch of aimless suburbs. We got your culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (named for the downtown doyenne who arm-twisted the elite and crossed the WASP divide to do it into forking over the dough to build the Music Center), with its golden dome, grand staircase, marble walls and crystal chandeliers. Its the lobby as symbol of civic pride. But enough with the rah-rah. The true thrill of the Chandler lobby is the parade of freaky and fabulous fashion, especially on opening nights, that always makes my head twirl like Linda Blairs in The Exorcist.
In lobbies, we discover other worlds. Over at the downtown Central Library, I know that there are more impressive areas, but I always find myself lingering in the main lobby, under Renee Petropoulos strikingly colorful and complex ceiling mural. Its the intersection of types and archetypes, the people we are and the people we want to be. A few steps into the library or out onto the street, the million stories of the naked city and then some await.
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Many find refuge in lobbies, a vacation from everyday life. Every Christmas night for the last decade or so, a few friends and I have invited everyone we know whos in town to meet at the Biltmore Hotels dramatic, dazzling lobby (on the Olive Street side). To share the spirit of the season, or raise the spirits. Maybe its an escape from family, or an embracing of one. The more adventurous might go across the street and take a spin or two around the ice rink set up every year in Pershing Square. If youre around this Christmas, join us. But Id avoid the $18 Black Dahlia martini.
Finally, lobbies are perfect places to appreciate the beauty of the improbable. Such as a mere draftsman designing the enthralling Bradbury Building after consulting a Ouija board. Whether the last bit is true or not hardly matters. Los Angeles has always been the place of invention past and present. There arent any cozy chairs in the lobby from which to while away an afternoon, marveling over the gloriously intricate ironwork that defines the space. As for the people-watching, well, sightseers and LAPD Internal Affairs coppers not that theres anything wrong with that. But for me, this is the lobby that conjures up all the L.A.s dream machine, Midwestern pluck, exotica, émigrés and immigrants. Forever the city of the future. Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St., downtown. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. Biltmore Hotel, 506 S. Grand Ave., downtown. Bradbury Building, 304 S. Broadway, downtown.