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Emeritus professors build community involvement as LA architecture tour docents

"Los Angeles Conservancy’s Historic Downtown Walking Tour"

10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

Pershing Square at Sixth Street

$15 general public

By Drake Gardner

August 18, 2019 10:18 pm

Appreciating the Millennium Biltmore Hotel for its Beaux Arts architecture and interior usage takes some Los Angeles immersion and education.

To raise awareness for LA’s historic landmarks, Michael Goldstein and his wife, Judith Siegel, emeritus professors for the UCLA School of Public Health, serve as volunteer docents for the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Historic Downtown Walking Tour. The tour, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, begins in Pershing Square and includes historic landmarks such as Bunker Hill, the Biltmore Hotel, Grand Central Market, Angels Flight Railway, the Bradbury Building and the LA Central Library. Along the way, they stop at the CalEdison building downtown, which was constructed by Allison & Allison, the architecture company that constructed Royce Hall.

By leading people through LA, Goldstein said the Conservancy aims to make people more aware of the city’s architectural and cultural history. The tour is meant to encapsulate the history of iconic LA buildings and the importance of preserving these historic sites – preservation laws in LA for historic structures are weak, which has lead to the loss of many buildings already, he said.

“The main things I’m concerned about is that people appreciate the heritage and that they understand that there’s something they can do about (its preservation),” Goldstein said. “They can become active in groups like the Conservancy or others that want to maintain the architectural heritage that we have.”

LA has always been a developing city, said Bruce Scottow, the Conservancy’s volunteer and program coordinator. He said the evolving architectural designs of the buildings featured on the tour are due to the city’s rapid development in demographics and infrastructure since the late 19th century. Architects from the 1880s to the 1950s saw LA’s ability to foster burgeoning industries, such as those of aviation and film, as well as architecture – ultimately transforming Los Angeles from a frontier town to the second largest city in the country, he said.

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The tour primarily consists of walking to sites and pausing in front of them to discuss how the architecture reflects Los Angeles’ history, Siegel said. The 1923 Biltmore Hotel, for example, utilized the French architectural style of Beaux Arts, which she said was popular for commercial buildings in the United States from the 1880s until the 1930s. Goldstein said this style’s popularity stemmed mostly from the desire of the architects who wanted people to associate their buildings with European culture, which was perceived as elegant and sophisticated.

To view the city from a bird’s eye view, the ride aboard Angels Flight – a funicular railway in which two cars balance each other, one going upward and the other downward – allows tourists to look down on the city’s historical and contemporary buildings from Bunker Hill. The railway was initially built to transport residents to their homes at the top of Bunker Hill, Siegel said.

But when Bunker Hill became the financial district and lost its residents, Siegel said there was no need for Angels Flight to shuttle residents. As a result, the railway was placed into storage in the 1960s until it was rebuilt in the late 1990s near its original location downtown. However, Siegel said it took about twenty years afterward before it received stable funding for its upkeep.

“(Angels Flight) became just really more of a tourist destination,” Siegel said. “Not something that people were really using, because people weren’t living on the hill anymore and (society’s mode of transportation) had changed.”

The purposes of some of the historic sites on the tour have changed as the culture of Los Angeles evolved. Adaptive reuse, evident in several of the downtown buildings, occurs when a structure is constructed for one reason and then over time its interior is repurposed, Goldstein said.

For instance, the interior of the Bradbury Building was originally used for workshops, he said, but is now reconfigured as an office building used by city agencies like the police department. Similarly, the PacMutual building was occupied for most of its history by a single company, but is now used by several since its many interior floors have been remodeled, Goldstein said. Although the buildings’ interiors have been altered, their structures are still fundamentally the same.

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“I think many people just think of Los Angeles as a place that’s very spread out … and they have this image of the Hollywood people and glitzy Beverly Hills,” Siegel said. “I don’t think they are often in tune to the history of LA and so I think that when they go on a tour like this, they get to see the buildings downtown as they were. They’ve been restored but basically unchanged since they were built.”

The cultural uses of the sites have evolved as well. The Biltmore Hotel hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1960 and hosted the Academy Awards for a time, eventually serving as the headquarters for the 1984 Olympics, Siegel said. And the Grand Central Market was initially where people went to buy their food and had different food sections like produce and seafood, but has now transformed into mostly individual restaurant stalls, she said.

Scottow said the essential mission of the Conservancy is to promote architectural preservation to the public and change how people interact with their built-in environment.

“We’re trying to get (people) involved and educated … so when something’s threatened, there’s a community conversation,” Scottow said. “I think what happened in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s is that the developers tended to be the only ones at the table making these decisions, and now we’re trying to get the community at the table to make a decision that’s right for everybody.”

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