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Downtown LA History

The following account of some interesting moments in Downtown L.A. history have been graciously provided by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the largest membership-based local historic preservation organization in the country, dedicated to the recognition, preservation, and revitalization of the architectural and cultural heritage of greater Los Angeles.

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As the birthplace of Los Angeles, Downtown has a long and intriguing history. The following account of some interesting moments in Downtown L.A. history have been graciously provided by the Los Angeles Conservancy , the largest membership-based local historic preservation organization in the country, dedicated to the recognition, preservation, and revitalization of the architectural and cultural heritage of greater Los Angeles.

El Pueblo, with City Hall in background
El Pueblo, with City Hall in background
PHOTOGRAPHER-DICK WHITTINGTON / Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The Historic Core of Downtown
Los Angeles

On September 4, 1781, a group of 44 settlers founded El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles ("The Town of the Queen of Angels"). The pueblo flourished and, by the late 1840s, Los Angeles was the largest town in California. The center of the city lay a little to the north of the present Downtown, in the area we now call El Pueblo.

In the 1880s, Los Angeles experienced a land boom fed by huge tracts of available land, cheap transportation by newly arrived railroads, outrageous promotion, and hordes of Midwesterners eager to retire from snowy winters. Between 1880 and 1896, Los Angeles went from a population of 11,000 to 97,000. By 1889, the boom subsided, but Los Angeles had established itself.

The Historic Core of Downtown Los Angeles
Bradbury Building interior
HERALD-EXAMINER COLLECTION / Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, businesses began migrating south from El Pueblo toward the area that we now refer to as the historic core. Although a few buildings from this era still stand (notably the Bradbury Building, 1893), the true explosion of commercial growth in the area came during the 1910s, '20s, and early '30s. Many of the buildings near Pershing Square are from this period, including the Biltmore Hotel (1923).

Broadway and 5th Streets
Broadway & 5th Streets
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Los Angeles' strict height limit on buildings was lifted in 1957, triggering another building boom. But even as huge skyscrapers dramatically redefined the city's skyline, regional shopping malls, entertainment complexes, and business parks were luring consumers out of the city center - and sending Downtown into a decline.

Downtown began a renaissance in the mid-1990s that continues to this day, as revitalized residential, business, and arts communities are once again redefining the way we view the city. The reuse of historic buildings in the area, coupled with new construction, once again poise Downtown as the heart of the City of Angels.

The Birthplace of LA
Pershing Square with Biltmore in background
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Pershing Square in Downtown
Los Angeles

The five acres that make up Pershing Square are original pueblo lands whose ownership can be traced back to 1781, when Spain granted them to the City of Los Angeles. In 1866, the area was set aside as a public park known as La Plaza Abaja ("the lower plaza"). Improvements, including the planting of cypress and citrus trees, were made to the park in the 1870s. In the 1880s, it was given its first official layout by city engineer Fred Eaton.

During Los Angeles' real estate boom of 1910-11, architect John Parkinson redesigned the park in a formal Beaux Arts style. In 1918, one week after the end of World War I, the square was renamed in honor of General John Pershing, the commander of the American forces overseas. Over the ensuing decades, a variety of design changes were made to the Olive Street between Fifth Street and Sixth Street square, most notably the addition of an underground parking garage in 1951.

With access ramps to the garage effectively cutting off the park from the surrounding area, the square gradually fell into disuse and disrepair throughout the 1960s and '70s. In 1984, it was cleaned and replanted for the Olympics, but it was almost a decade later when the square received a full facelift. This current design, by architect Ricardo Legorretta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, includes a number of works of public art that allude to the city's history. To help reconnect the square to the surrounding city, the ramps to the garage below have been made less intrusive and a public sidewalk around the square has been added.

The Birthplace of LA
Bunker Hill with Central Library in foreground & City Hall in background
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Downtown's Evolving Skyline

Picture postcards of Los Angeles often feature sleek skyscrapers set against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. These skyscrapers, which define the contemporary Los Angeles skyline, are located on and around Bunker Hill in the Central Business District in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.

These skyscrapers are predominately in the Corporate International style that prevailed from the end of World War II through the 1970s - tall, monolithic structures with smooth façades of steel, glass, and stone, embodying corporate strength and efficiency. During the 1980s, innovations in design and engineering led to buildings in the Late Modern and Postmodern styles, which celebrated the exuberance of the period with new shapes, vivid colors, textured materials, and highly stylized interpretations of classical elements.

Scattered among these giants of glass and steel are earlier Beaux Arts and Art Deco office, civic, and retail buildings. These older structures give historic perspective to the area, making a walk through the Central Business District a lesson in how corporate architecture has evolved over the past century, reflecting changing values in business and society.

One of the ways older buildings survive is through expansion by addition, a good alternative to destruction when handled in a sensitive manner. Adaptive reuse - restoring and rehabilitating a historic structure for a new use - is a powerful way to use preservation for community and economic revitalization. When done according to preservation standards, it maintains the building's historic integrity while meeting the changing needs of owners and the community.

Shifting cultural tastes have certainly contributed to the evolution of the area's built environment. Invariably and inevitably, styles become passé before they become classic. Prevailing tastes typically equate "new" with "progress" and "old" with "old-fashioned," as when Victorian structures were razed in the 1920s and 1930s to make way for "modern" Art Deco buildings. It typically takes considerable hindsight to recognize the true value of a building or style, and buildings often succumb to demolition long before - or in some cases, just before - they get their due. Yet, lamentable as the loss of historic structures may be, their successors are starting to be recognized for their own architectural and historic merits.

The diversity of the architecture in the Central Business District not only conveys how the concept of Downtown itself changes over time, but also how historic preservation plays a vital role in helping Downtown celebrate its past while forging its future.

Info from L.A. Conservancy walking tour brochures © Los Angeles Conservancy
Images from Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Travel Ideas

Travel Ideas

Need some travel ideas?
With all there is to experience in Downtown, it can take a while to explore. To make it easier, weve compiled a few lists of notable landmarks. More
Videos and Podcasts

Videos & Podcasts

See Our Videos About Downtown
Take a tour of Downtown L.A. with Huell Howser, or watch Join Us! to hear about Downtowns renaissance from developers, local politicians, and community advocates. More
Interactive Maps

Interactive Maps

Useful Downtown LA Maps
Browse our online maps to explore Downtown LA neighborhoods, as well as detailed information on every residential and office building. More

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