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Architecture

Law & Order, Special Fugly Unit: Parker Center, 150 N. Los Angeles St., Downtown

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Tue, May 1, 2012 at 11:02 AM
click to enlarge WENDY GILMARTIN
  • Wendy Gilmartin

The building that housed the LAPD's headquarters between 1955 and 2009 starred in TV shows like Dragnet in its heyday, but its slow, 50-year slide into disrepair gave it a real-world stigma that's left it tarnished and crumbling from the inside out -- most obviously because the community doesn't care to defend it.

Well-known architect Welton Becket (whose other L.A. projects include the Capitol Records building and Cinerama Dome, to name but two) designed the main Parker Center building in 1952. Then, after Chief William H. Parker's death in 1966, the main building and surrounding complex were dedicated to and named after Parker, the notorious lead in the development of the corrupt, militia-like LAPD of the 1950s and beyond, and a known white supremacist. So it's no doubt Parker Center has long been a place of contention, and 20 years ago this month, it was a place of protest, pelted with Molotov cocktails and drawing angry crowds and smoldering bitterness in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

But Parker Center is also a historical landmark. Its City of Tomorrow style exemplifies what L.A.'s best architects achieved in the 1950s: bold, simple forms and sterilized white volumes that offered wide views of the hills and city below. Streamlined and a vision of the future for some, to others the front face of the building was a 10-story wall that separated the public from the police force hidden inside. And what exactly were those cops doing inside anyway? When a building comes to symbolize decades of brutality, cover-up and intolerance, there's nothing any architecture critic or preservation society board can say or do to convince an outraged community that the building is worth saving.

Former police chief William Bratton even joked once that Parker Center could be blown up if Hollywood ever needed a money-shot explosion with a downtown setting.

Since the riots 20 years ago, LAPD has transformed itself, and fittingly so has its new headquarters, completed in 2009. With a public lawn and glass facades across the expanse of the street side, the architectural moves at the new headquarters are intended to communicate that transparency and public interaction are a top priority.

As for the fate of the old building at 150 N. Los Angeles, the city began the process of deciding whether to renovate it or to tear it down in 2009. The Bureau of Engineering's report is due out this summer, and we're hoping city leaders propose new strategies for retrofitting the original structure, as opposed to erasing the thing with a wrecking ball.

Once blown to dust, a replacement building for Parker Center would cost millions in taxpayer dollars to construct. But a reused building would save on costs, minimizing waste and use of new construction materials. Downtown is already ahead of the rest of the city in creatively re-cultivated buildings, from SCI-Arc's conversion of a railroad freight depot building to the Toy Factory lofts, the Standard, the old State Theater (now a Pentecostal church, Catedral de la Fe), the Brock jewelry building (the restaurant Mas Malo is there now) and more. Good retrofit projects are even possible with a politically contentious building.

One example from outside L.A. is the recent retrofitting of the similarly stigmatized public housing tower at Boise Le Pretre on the outskirts of Paris. Built in 1961, the tower had a bad rep for housing residents who battled chronic unemployment, drugs and persistent poverty inside its depressing, corroded shell. Shootings and muggings were frequent. The dignified intention of modern public housing had gone very wrong. A public competition for ideas called for architects to keep the existing core but update the exterior, giving residents more space, bringing light into common areas and repurposing spaces for public use and better public interaction. Miraculously, the building reopened in 2011 to heaps of success and fanfare (and it came in under budget). The tower was even featured in an exhibition last year at MoMA in New York.

Councilwoman Perry and others take note: Parker Center is a stain now, but maybe it shouldn't be a crater. Its nefarious fugliness could be mitigated by innovative thinking a la the Boise Le Pretre tower, so why not open up Parker Center's imminent retrofit to a public design competition? You never know what the city might come up with.

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