In my career in the TV business, I made frequent trips to LA, and I was always enchanted by its eclectic blend of architecture, a mix of styles that come together to create a vernacular that is singularly Angelino: streamlined Art Deco and midcentury Googy commingle with various revival styles — Mission, Spanish, Colonial, et. al. — across a commercial and residential tableau whose range, to a life-long East Coaster, feels fresh and modern regardless of a building's age. There's also the occasional dash of ersatz make-believe dropped in -- a chateau from the Loire in West Hollywood, for instance -- that earns the LA area its title as an architectural wonderland.
But it is the region’s abundance of Art Deco that had me in total awe on many a trip: LA possesses what I consider the finest collection of Art Deco public structures in the nation, most constructed for the ages in concrete or stone either during the boom of the ‘20s or during the throes of the Depression when, much like the cathedrals that went up in the Middle Ages, people sought reassurance from their government institutions. These public buildings served as potent symbols of the nation’s continued promise, that it would endure when mass unemployment had led to general despair, and their construction offered the parallel benefit of putting a great many people to work.
Indeed, the public buildings featured in this series were designed to inspire the civic imagination, as they continue to do now: step into the Central Library, one of LA’s best kept secrets, with its jaw-dropping rotunda. Or travel up to the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium: its promontory on Mount Hollywood inspires awe and offers magnificent vistas of the LA Basin below. Or amble through Union Station: its amber-hued halls feel timeless, as if you were just stepping off a Union-Pacific train in the early '40s.
And with the exception of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, which is featured in the series and which has sadly been lost, these buildings serve as examples of what a group of organized citizens can do to preserve our built history in a country that too often belatedly realizes that what’s lost with the destruction of an “old” building is much more than just physical property: we lose a sense of ourselves, our shared history and our moorings to one another, as these public commons are often what increasingly unites us in a country splintered across various fault lines. We tip our hats to the Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservation organizations across the nation for their continuing efforts at protecting our public landmarks for posterity.
But conservation efforts sometimes fall short, as it was with the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, which came to symbolize the architecture of the entire region during the period but was lost to a fire in 1989 after years of neglect and decay. Originally built for a trade show — the National Housing Conference — in 1934, it had several lives over the years, and had it survived to this day, I’m confident that it would have found adaptive reuse, perhaps not unlike what’s going on with the Central Market downtown. We will never know though: it lives on in our popular culture and our imaginations, and we sought to feature a structure in the series that was no longer with us to be mindful of the critical need for preservation.
More about the series:
My collaborator and designer Brad Woodard had lived in Los Angeles, and the merry mapmakers at Herb Lester Ltd. in London had commissioned him to illustrate its "Old LA" map, so Brad was well acquainted with the Angelino terroir. I've loved Brad's bold graphic style for years, and I commissioned him to design a series of prints for the home decor market that would properly celebrate these architectural icons. After a five-day visit where I took almost a thousand pictures of each of the three surviving structures, we worked together to find the most dramatic angles to capitalize on each building’s best features. We chose to print in hand-pulled silkscreen in bronze and black with a different third color for each print. The prints measure 12 in x 18 inches in a first edition of 100.
In the end, in the same month that marks the 90th anniversary of the unveiling of the Central Library in 1926, it’s a profound privilege to commemorate what is surely one of the finest collections of Art Deco public buildings — if not the finest — in these United States. We need more buildings like them in the hopes that our civic wonder and promise can be stirred anew at a time when it’s much required in our local and national discourse.