Clean lines, pastel stucco, palm trees and manicured shrubbery define the built environment of LA on television and in film. Surprisingly little architectural evidence remains from the period before WWII, after which the emergence of the automobile culture and suburban communities established the city’s popular image. In 1920, however, Los Angeles had already grown into the largest city on the West Coast, and was its economic center—a budding metropolis to rival Chicago and New York. Even to most Angelenos, images of Jazz Age Los Angeles are barely recognizable, showing Victorian mansions and green lawns in the Financial District, crowded street cars, and wide streets crowded with smartly dressed pedestrians. In these boom times, entrepreneurs invested in new buildings to accommodate their growing businesses, favoring the eclectic and lavish Art Deco style that had become the rage in Europe. As the Great Depression took its toll, development came to a screeching halt, and would not begin again until after the war.
In the 1950’s satellite communities like Hollywood and the Hills flourished, but the Historic Core was abandoned. The theatres, hotels, department stores on Broadway were demolished, boarded up, or occupied by squatters. In the 1970’s and '80s a redevelopment effort promoting the construction of corporate spaces brought new life to Downtown LA , but resulted in the demolition of many older buildings. Despite this, quite a few stunning Jazz Age buildings have survived. Unlike in past decades, current efforts at redevelopment are focused on restoring these icons and adapting them for contemporary use. These serve Downtown’s growing population of young, creative professionals and entrepreneurs who appreciate the glamour of these forgotten icons. The re-emergence of high-end retail, dining, and residential spaces in the Historic Core, as well as the much-anticipated revival of the Downtown streetcar loop suggest that the boom times have returned to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles’ unique interpretation of the Art Deco style was in jewel-tone Technicolor, employing Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Mesoamerican motifs in and shades of sea green, pink, bronze, and bright gold. The Eastern Columbia building at 849 S. Broadway is one of the most outstanding examples of this ornate and colorful style. The bright blue terra-cotta tiles and golden ornaments create the illusion of an ancient palace rising above the downtown skyline. The building was designed by Claude Beelman in 1929 to serve as the headquarters and retail center for the Eastern & Columbia clothing and furniture companies. In 2007, the building was restored and converted into luxury lofts and units were reportedly purchased by actors John Stamos, Frankie Muniz, and Johnny Depp. In keeping with the building’s history, the ground floor is now the location of the Angelo: HOME Boutique, and will soon be welcoming trendy Swedish clothing retailer Acne.
Also designed by Beelman, The Sun Realty Building at 629 S. Hill Street is known for its unique jade green color and sculptural details. The ground floor is currently a fine jewelry wholesale mart, and has since been renamed The Los Angeles Jewelry Center. Beelman’s less colorful 1929 Garfield Building at West 8th Street has not yet been repurposed, but its ornate metalwork façade and sunburst marble mosaic can be admired from the street. Its corner of the sidewalk is decorated with terrazzo sunbursts, which are a bit worse for the wear, but still bright.
Overshadowed by postmodern office towers, The Los Angeles Central Library and Maguire Gardens at 630 West 5th Street are a strange oasis within the bustling financial district. Designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, the library plex was inspired by ancient cultures and exotic locales. The second-level rotunda is decorated with an expansive Byzantine-style mural. Egyptian and astrological motifs prevail throughout the original sections of the building. A renovation and restoration in the 1990’s following a fire created an additional wing in the Beaux-Arts revival style while preserving the most important aspects of Goodhue’s design. The pyramidal tower is decorated with mosaic tile images of suns and a torch that represents the “light of learning.” The adjacent Maguire Gardens, completed in 1988, attract thousands of visitors weekly, looking for some shade or a quiet place to read near the fountains.
Perhaps the most remarkable survival story is that of the Oviatt Building. Designed by Walker and Eisen, the Oviatt Building was the former headquarters of Alexander & Oviatt, the city’s premiere men’s clothiers. James Oviatt, the owner, originally planned a Romanesque-style building in the space, but quickly switched to the more ornate Art Deco style after being inspired by the pavilions at the 1925 Paris Exposition. At the time of its completion in 1928, the Oviatt Building was one of the most lavish in the city, featuring ornate interior glasswork by Rene Lalique and Gaëtan Jeannin, as well as a thirty-ton glass ceiling in the outdoor lobby. Lalique’s original cast glass panels that decorate the elevator doors are each valued at more than $10,000. Tons of fine marble were imported from France to decorate the interior. Shockingly, the building was abandoned after Oviatt’s death, and his widow sold off many of these treasures to settle accounts. According to security staff, the entry had been occupied by local homeless before restoration began in the 1970’s.
Oviatt’s restored penthouse apartment on the top floor is open for tours and also serves as a glamorous event space for weddings and private parties. On the lower level, patrons can travel back in time to Downtown LA’s golden age at the Cicada Restaurant. The Cicada was used in 2012’s Best Picture, The Artist, to create an authentic setting for Peppy and George’s premiere-night dinner. This ritzy venue transforms into Maxwell De Mille’s Cicada Club on Sunday nights. Guests dress in vintage eveningwear, sip retro cocktails, and dance to live music. Everything old is new again, and in Downtown LA, it seems, you really can go back.
Maxwell De Mille's Cicada Club is located at 617 South Olive Street in Downtown LA.