It’s hard to believe in a city that’s largely known for creating the decentralized urban form, but even during Los Angeles’ early years, shared public places were a given. Often, they didn’t take shape without a fight, and one of the most pleasant places in L.A., now known as the Exposition Park Rose Garden, is a result of such turf battles.
Agricultural Park, across the street from USC, was a locus of civic activity and pride during the late 19th century, and then became a center of vice. So it was the perfect canvas on which to apply ideas from the City Beautiful architecture and urban-planning movement. The lawlessness in Agricultural Park was hardly Grand Theft Auto material, but Methodist crusader William Miller Bowen hated what he saw. City Beautiful (the most notable example being the monumental grandeur of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition) gave Bowen and his team of reformers some ideas about how to clean up the place. The classical planning and architectural ideals could help show off Agricultural Park’s accomplishments, as well as borrow some architectural legitimacy. While other efforts to import City Beautiful elements to Los Angeles failed, they worked at what became Exposition Park.
Three imposing structures brought Los Angeles some badly needed cultural institutions, including one that became the Natural History Museum, and acted as a hedge against the gambling, prostitution and boozing that had been such a draw. And what better symbol than the chaste and dignified rose, planted in disciplined, orderly rows, to tame the memories of the area’s sordid past? By 1928, the central sunken garden was rededicated as the Exposition Park Rose Garden, an ideal venue to support the growing horticulture movement and contemplative passive activity. Fortunately for Los Angeles’ Olympic bid, the area was all dressed up and ready to go in eclectic Beaux Arts stylings when the games came to town in 1932.
Exposition Park today is no longer an idyllic, tranquil respite. Its location and scale don’t seamlessly mesh with its surroundings, a fault both of its own design and that of Los Angeles at large. But the thousands of rosebushes that remain are maintained with a precision that would have pleased Mr. Bowen, and the garden is open to the public year-round. While the Pasadena Tournament of Roses gets more attention, the Exposition Park Rose Garden endures as a reminder of Los Angeles’ ongoing battle with itself.
701 State Dr., L.A., (213) 763-0114. Open daily, 9 a.m.-sunset.