Born of a settlement consisting of just 11 Mexican families in the 19th century, Los Angeles grew to maturity as 1900 came and went, and people from around the world came to call the city home. The rich diversity of its population — Chinese, Mexican, Native American and Caucasian — was reflected in its architecture in the first half of the century, a period Huntington Library assistant curator of architecture and photography Erin Chase burnishes in her new show, "Architects of a Golden Age: Highlights From the Huntington’s Southern California Architecture Collection," on view through Jan. 21.
As the Atlantic Richfield Company’s downtown headquarters fell to the wrecking ball in 1967, many wondered how a glorious art deco structure, barely 40 years old, could be condemned to such a fate. The tragedy compelled Robert Clements, son of the demolished building’s architect, Stiles O. Clements, to donate papers belonging to his father to the Huntington Library in hopes that, if the wrecking ball could not be contained, at least the building could live on in history.
Some of those papers are on display in the new show, and many of the designs they depict are thankfully still standing, such as the Mayan, the kitschy movie palace on downtown’s Hill Street, which opened in 1927. Clements’ whimsical design graces the façade with elaborate painted tile and outlandish sculptures of seven “warrior priests” by Mexican sculptor Francisco Comejas. Viewing it in graphite on tracing paper, the eye becomes absorbed in the minutia — tall slender windows atop the marquee, elaborate headdresses of the warrior priests and ornately detailed edgings and finials.
Clements designed the theater under the aegis of his prolific company, Morgan, Walls & Clements, which also designed the neighboring Belasco Theater, the Wiltern Theater, the Deco Building, El Capitan and the Samson Tire & Rubber Corporation’s manufacturing plant (now the Citadel) in Commerce, a familiar sight along the Golden State freeway. Inspired by fanciful movie palaces springing up in the 1920s, and even by the excavation of a palace belonging to Assyrian King Sargon II earlier that decade, company founder Adolph Schleicher decided on his own Assyrian palace — to sell tires.
Less random is the rationale behind Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson’s Chinatown designs for immigration attorney You Chung Hong. With the construction of nearby Union Station, Chinatown was relocated to its current site after an association of Chinese community leaders, Hong among them, purchased the land with the intention of creating a commercially viable district for locally run businesses that would be convenient to tourists arriving at the new train station. Wilson and Webster’s colored pencil and pastel plans on tracing paper show a familiar stretch in the heart of present-day Chinatown — a pagoda, gate and structure opened in 1937, highlighting traditional Chinese influences combined with modern Los Angeles motifs.
Opened in 1939, Union Station itself is represented by chief designer Edward Warren Hoak’s moody nighttime vision of the Mission Revival structure rendered in charcoal on tracing paper. Parkinson & Parkinson, father John and son Donald, architects whose fingers touched many L.A. landmarks including City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum and the Bullocks Wilshire building, were under pressure to come up with a specifically Southern California design that included outdoor spaces. After proffering four variations, none of which satisfied representatives of the three railway companies linking to the terminus, Hoak modernized the façade, dispensing with ornamentation and conjuring a design that spoke to the region’s Mexican heritage, keeping one foot in the past and one in the present.
Another design on which the Parkinsons consulted is the Stock Exchange on Spring Street downtown, though their busy schedule necessitated hiring architect Samuel E. Lunden. The design, captured in two watercolors by artist Roger Hayward, features the Classical Moderne façade with fluted pilasters framing sculptor Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta's bas reliefs titled Finance, Research & Discovery and Production.
A second watercolor shows the ornate interior of the trading room floor, with a stained-glass ceiling designed by Julian Ellsworth Garnsey in Native American and Near East motifs. Not pictured is the second story “Cathedral of Money,” a tiny chapel with a smoking room featuring stained-glass images of naked women courtesy of Judson Studios, confirmed when half of a topless female figure was found in the studio basement. After breaking ground just days before Black Tuesday in 1929, developers forged ahead on the Stock Exchange, despite the crash, and it opened in 1931. These days, it’s a nightclub.
Chronologically, the new show pushes up against the next great phase in L.A. architecture, midcentury modernism, with a paint and graphite rendering of architect Edward Stone’s 1958 Stuart Company building in Pasadena, home to the pharmaceutical giant. Meant to be an ideal workplace, it featured outside garden spaces, a cafeteria and even an employee swimming pool. Today it’s the home of theater company A Noise Within.
Hanging alongside the image is an ink-and-watercolor rendering of an interior by actor-turned designer Billy Haines for the Brody residence in Beverly Hills, built by architect A. Quincy Jones. Haines’ Melrose Avenue shop was a favorite of Hollywood’s elite. There he designed all aspects of the interior — lamps, low-slung furniture, rugs, fixtures, electric drapes — and, in the case of the Brody residence, a cantilevered piano protruding from the wall.
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While "Architects of a Golden Age" represents a first look at the library’s extensive archive, urgently compiled in the 1970s to preserve what remained of the city’s battered architectural record, it also serves as a stark reminder of threats that persist today, as preservationists fight to save John Lautner’s Paul Weston Work Center in Woodland Hills, Welton Becket’s Parker Center in downtown and Kurt W. Meyer’s Lytton Savings building in West Hollywood, among many others. In the meantime, "Architects of a Golden Age" stands as more than just a wary admonition for the future — it is also a celebration of L.A.’s unique architectural past.
"Architects of a Golden Age" is on view through Jan. 21; Huntington Library, Art Collection & Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; Wed.-Mon., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. huntington.org.