How to do Los Angeles: The Downtown Walk Part 2

Continuing from Part One, we go into the heart of our walk: the Civic Center, Historic Core, and the Financial District/Bunker Hill. Our previous post left us at Fletcher Bowron Square.

Fletcher Bowron was the 35th Mayor of Los Angeles, serving from 1938-1953. Unlike his predecessors, Bowron was known for his honesty and steadfastness against corruption and he was much beloved until Joseph McCarthy put his sights on him. Fletcher Bowron Square also marks the locations of LA’s first newspaper, the Los Angeles Star, LA’s first hotel, the Bella Union, and of the last capital building of Mexico’s California. Inside the square is the Triforium, an iconic and often detested art piece that was the world’s first sculpture to integrate light and sound through a computer.

Photography by Mathtinder. CC-SA 3.0

Continuing through the square, take the bridge over Temple Street, then turn right, heading back to Main Street and towards ** Los Angeles City Hall.

Built in 1928 and influenced by the previously constructed Central Library, City Hall’s design was reportedly inspired by the Greek Mausoleum of Mausolus. At 454 feet, it is the tallest base-isolated (an earthquake protection technique) structure in the world and after it was built, the city refused all permits for buildings taller than 150 feet, ensuring that City Hall would remain dominant in Los Angeles’s skyline. And although that ordinance has passed, City Hall is still the tallest building in its own neighborhood and is a striking contribution to Los Angeles’s architectural scene.

Photography by Brion VIBBER. CC-SA 3.0

Continuing on our journey, cross to the west side of Main Street, then turn left and head down the backside of City Hall; half a block down is the visitor entrance. Go inside, through the security checkpoint, and tell security you want to go to the Observation Deck (open weekdays 9am-5pm). They will ask for ID, give you a pass, and then give the following directions: take one of the four express elevators to floor 22, then transfer to a second elevator and go to floor 26 (the Tom Bradley room, filled with portraits of Los Angeles’s former mayors). From here, you can take a third elevator or the stairs to floor 27, the observation deck. The deck provides spectacular views of Los Angeles and if you look west, you can even see the Hollywood sign.

To get back down, head the way you came with one exception: on the express elevator, exit on the third floor. This floor exhibits some of City Hall’s most impressive interior architecture and also displays gifts given to the city from Mexico, Korea, and Japan. The third floor also contains the employee entrance; exit here (west side of the building), head down the Spring Street steps, and onto Spring Street.

Across Spring Street is the twelve acre * Grand Park. Opened in 2012 as part of Los Angeles’s plan to revive downtown, Grand Park provides a pedestrian connection from City Hall to Bunker Hill. Maintained by the Music Center, Grand Park contains a dog run, a wide array of plants from all over the world, an American flag tribute with all former US flags on display (19 in total), and a large fountain that you can play in. Lining the park are some of the Civic Center’s most important buildings, including the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, the Hall of Records, and the Criminal and Federal Courthouses.

Head through Grand Park, up two blocks to Hill Street, then turn right. Walk to Temple Street, then turn left, walking down the north side of the street, where you’ll find Los Angeles’s grandest church, * Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Photography by David McConeghy. Rotated and cropped. CC 2.0

The second largest Catholic church in the United States, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was built after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged downtown’s previous Catholic church, the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana. Opened in 2002, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels features a post-modernist design using obtuse and acute angles while avoiding right angles. The Church has been criticized for is cost and extravagance, and for departing from California’s historical mission-style aesthetics, but it is hard to deny its striking presence, especially from the inside. The courtyard also offers a great view of the School of Visual and Performing Arts, the swirly building located across the freeway.

Heading back to Temple Street, turn right and continue west, then turn left on Grand Avenue. We are now at the far end of Grand Park, near the fountain, which offers a spectacular view of City Hall. Behind us is the Music Center, location of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum, and Ahmanson Theater. The Music Center also has a fountain that you can play in, although it is not as grand as Grand Park’s.

Continuing on Grand, head to 1st and Grand, also known as Ernest Fleischmann Square. Ernest Fleischmann served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Executive Director for 30 years and is credited with upgrading the formerly undistinguished orchestra to one of the top ranked orchestras worldwide. This intersection is named after him because the Philharmonic’s old venue, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is located on the NW corner, and their new venue (when they are not playing at the Hollywood Bowl), the world famous ** Walt Disney Concert Hall, is located on the SW corner.

If the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels doesn’t contain any right angles, I think it’s safe to say the Walt Disney Concert Hall doesn’t contain any angles at all. Designed by Frank Gehry and built to a tune of $274 million, $50 million of which was donated by Walt Disney’s wife Lillian, the insides are an acoustic dream, receiving nothing but praise from musicians, conductors, and critics alike. The outside however, was a different story. While undeniably striking, the glare from the panels increased traffic accidents and the reflective heat resulted in sidewalk temperatures rising above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, with local air conditioning bills skyrocketing. To solve these issues, the offending panels were sanded and dulled, removing unwanted glare and reducing heat to the pre-Disney Hall temperatures.

Photography by Carol M. Highsmith. Cropped. Public Domain

From here, we have the first optional detour on our walk. For the short route, follow the italics below, and for the long route (an extra 0.5 miles), which takes you through Los Angeles’s most recognizable unknown landmark, follow the bold text.

Short route: Continue south on Grand Ave, to 2nd Street, also known as Joel Wachs Square, named after a thirty year Los Angeles city council member who resigned to become the head of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York City. At the intersection, on the south-west corner, is the Broad, Los Angeles’s newest art museum. Admission is free. We, however, will turn left and head down Colburn Way (named after the founder of the music/dance/drama school on the south side of the street) to Hill Street. We are now in Los Angeles’s Historic Core.

Long route: Turn right on 1st Street, away from Grand Park. At Dewap Street, just past the John Ferraro DWP building, turn left and walk down the hill to 2nd Street. Cross 2nd, then turn left, into the most recognizable unknown landmark in Los Angeles: 2nd Street Tunnel. One of Los Angeles’s most popular shoot locations, 2nd Street Tunnel averages almost a production a week, and if you’ve ever seen a car commercial, odds are you’ve seen this tunnel.

Photography by Maretta Stiles. CC 2.0

As you walk through the tunnel, notice the coated walls and ceiling, which create a light box effect that lights the tunnel beyond what is provided by its artificial lighting. These panels were purchased from Germany, a controversial decision, as the tunnel was built just after WWI. Also notice that the panels are filled with cracks, smudges, and other blemishes. In films, these are generally removed by Visual Effects artists during post production.

Emerging from the 2nd Street tunnel, we find ourselves on 2nd and Hill, and we’ll reconnect with the short route in Los Angeles’s Historic Core.

Continuing east on 2nd Street, cross Broadway and turn left on Spring, at the LA Times Building. Built in 1935, this building was the home of the fourth most circulated newspaper in America for eighty years, until the newspaper relocated in 2018. The building surprisingly is not listed as a federal, state, or city landmark, but the architecture is beautiful and it is yet another contributor to downtown’s architectural scene.

Taking Spring to 1st Street, we arrive at City Hall Park, just south of City Hall. At the NE corner of the intersection are signs pointing to all of Los Angeles’s sister cities; the closest, Vancouver, is 1081 miles away (did you know that Los Angeles is closer to Vancouver than Mexico City?) and the furthest, Jakarta, is 8977 miles away.

Turning right on 1st, walk one block east, back to Main Street. On the SE corner is the 2005 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters. In main plaza is the commemorating plaque, with actor/bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger listed as governor.

Photography by Alossix. CC 3.0

From Cal Trans 7, head south on Main, to 2nd Street. On the SE corner is Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, the church that was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake that lead to the construction of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Built in 1876, this building has since been restored and now serves as a theater and event space.

Photography by C.C. Pierce & Co.. Public Domain

Continuing on Main, head to 4th Street. This intersection, known as Woody Guthrie Square, is named after the famous singer-songwriter who spent many of his struggling years in this area.

Turning right onto 4th Street, we’ll now head into the Old Bank District, home to many of Los Angeles’s oldest bank buildings. This street is another popular filming location, although local business owners hate the constant commotion that goes with the filming. One time, a business owner even went so far as to cover his entire building in white drapes, preventing a production from obtaining any useable footage.

At the far end of the Old Bank District, on the southeast corner of 4th and Spring, is the Continental. The Continental was Los Angeles’s first skyscraper and was built in 1903 (before the 150 foot building height ordinance). It is 151 feet tall and was the tallest building in the city for three years.

Photography by Los Angeles. CC 3.0

Continuing on 4th Street, cross Spring and on the north side of the street turn right at the first sidewalk (just past the parking lot and before the driveway to the parking structure). From here, walk north, and past the entrance to the parking structure is Biddy Mason Park. Biddy Mason was a slave taken to California by her master. But because California was a free state, Biddy petitioned and won her freedom. She then became a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, and one of the first black land owners in Los Angeles. Biddy Mason Park, featuring plaques and a unique water-spouting pipe sculpture assembly, pays tribute to her.

From Biddy Mason park, continue north, past the plaques and around the brick building, to 3rd Street. From here, turn left, and walk half a block west. On your right you’ll find a 100 foot tall mural depicting Anthony Quinn in his Oscar winning role as Zorba the Greek, created by the Victor Clothing Company. Across the street (ie behind you) is the * Bradbury Building.

Built in 1893, the exterior of the Bradbury Building, while impressive, pales in comparison to its interior, which somehow manages to be elegant, futuristic, antique, and incredible all at the same time. The interior has been featured prominently in several films, most notably Blade Runner. Enter the building through the 3rd Street entrance (the building is open 9am to 6pm on weekdays, on weekends it closes one hour earlier) and round the corner to the main stairwell/lobby/hallway. Once finished, exit straight ahead, onto Broadway.

Photography by Luke Jones. Edited to enhance color. CC 2.0

Across Broadway, directly across from the Bradbury Building, is the Million Dollar Theater, the northernmost theater in the Broadway Theater District. Opened in 1918, the Million Dollar Theater was one of the world’s first movie palaces and was designed by Sid Grauman, who would later go on to design Hollywood’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters. The popularity of these theaters caused a shift in Los Angeles’s film scene, resulting in the Million Dollar Theater (along with all the theaters in the Broadway Theater District) changing to live entertainment venues. Currently, the Million Dollar Theater hosts Spanish theater.

To your right is Broadway and 3rd, one of two of downtown’s Ira Yellin Squares, named after a prolific Los Angeles real estate developer who, amongst other projects, restored the Million Dollar Theater and Grand Central Market. Grand Central Market, formerly the largest open air market in Los Angeles (now it is mostly a food court), is where we will head next, and you can get there by crossing Broadway, either at Ira Yellin Square or at a conveniently placed crosswalk to your left after exiting the Bradbury Building.

Grand Central Market is located in the building that neighbors the Million Dollar Theater, the Homer Laughlin Building. The building was built in 1896, with the market as its ground tenant for 90+ years. We will enter Grand Central Market through the Broadway entrance and walk all the way through, exiting on Hill Street.

At Hill, turn left, then make a quick right at the pedestrian crossing, arriving at * Angel’s Flight. Known as the world’s shortest railway (298 feet at a 33% grade), Angel’s Flight was built in 1901 to connect the wealthy residents living atop Bunker Hill with the rest of the city. Dismantled in 1969 then rebuilt in 1996, then shut down again in 2001 and reopened in 2010, Angel’s Flight offers quick and unique transportation into Bunker Hill. The names of the two cars: Sinai and Olivet.

Photography by Alossix. CC 3.0

A one way ride on Angel’s Flight is $1, or 50¢ with a metro day/week/month pass. So hop on board (pay at the top, exact change not required) or take the neighboring stairs if you forgot your fare. At the top, we enter Los Angeles’s main skyscraper district, Bunker Hill.

Our first stop is actually not in Bunker Hill, rather it is near the top of the stairway up the hill, so if you took Angel’s Flight, turn around and head down a couple flights, into Angel’s Knoll. A small park overlooking Los Angeles’s Historic Core, Angel’s Knoll offers amazing views of downtown’s Historic Core, most notably the previously visited Continental Building. If the view looks familiar, it’s probably because this was Tom’s favorite spot in 500 Days of Summer.

Heading back to the top of the stairway, we will now enter Bunker Hill. As mentioned earlier, after City Hall was built, the city refused all permits for buildings taller than 150 feet. This policy ended in the 1960s, when Bunker Hill was cleared and developed into a sleek, modern, high density region.

The first stop on the modern skyscraper portion of our tour is One and Two California Plaza. Originally, it was going to be One, Two, and Three California Plaza, but after profits from the first two skyscrapers were less than expected, the third tower (to be located where Angel’s Knoll is now) was scrapped. Most striking here is the water court inside the plaza, with its fountains, dining areas, and water spouts. During summer weekend evenings (and some Friday and Sunday afternoons), free concerts are held here.

Photography by Bernard Gagnon. CC-SA 3.0

On the opposite end of California Plaza is Grand Avenue. Cross and continue past the Wells Fargo Center and KPMG Building, then turn left on Hope Street and cross over 4th Street. While on the bridge, check out the multi-circular building to your right. This is the Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles’s largest hotel, famous for (amongst other things) being the location of the motorcycle/horse chase in True Lies. Additionally, the famous shootout in Heat was filmed on the street just west of this building.

Continuing South on Hope, we reach what was formerly the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, the US Bank Tower. Originally named the Library Tower, the US Bank Tower was built when the Los Angeles Public Library system, needing money to renovate Central Library after an arson fire, sold the airspace above the library. Per Los Angeles building codes, a helipad sits atop the tower, making it the second tallest building with a helipad in the world. It is also the fourth tallest building in an active seismic region, and it held both of these records from the date of construction until 2004, when Taipei 101 was completed in Taiwan. But more than anything, the US Bank Building is most famous for being the first building destroyed in the 1994 blockbuster Independence Day.

Photography by Brion L. Vibber. Cropped and edited to enhance color. CC-SA 3.0

Next to the US Bank Tower lie the Bunker Hill Steps, which some call Los Angeles’s version of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Head down them, to 5th Street, the bottom of Bunker Hill.

Across 5th Street is * Central Library, the flagship library in Los Angeles’s library system. Built in 1926 using Egyptian and Mediterrenean architectural influences, Central Library is the third largest public library in the United States in terms of books and periodical holdings. The insides are well worth checking out (open Mon-Thurs 10am-8pm, Friday/Sat 10am-5:30pm, closed Sunday), as is the main entrance, on the opposite side of the building.

Photography by Walt Lockley. CC 2.0

After finishing at Central Library, head east on 5th Street, to 5th and Grand, also known as John Fante Square. John Fante was an American author who spent much of his formative years in Central Library. And he wasn’t the only famous writer who honed his craft here: the science fiction great Ray Bradbury did as well. The intersection to the west of the library, 5th and Flower, is known as Ray Bradbury Square.

Also, while we’re discussing sites around Central Library, behind the library is the Aon Tower, the third tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles. And behind that is the newly constructed Wilshire Grand Hotel, the tallest building west of the Mississippi. This is also the first skyscraper built in Los Angeles after the city removed its helipad requirement.

Continuing on our walk, make a right at John Fante Square and head south on Grand, then turn left into our next destination, the * Millennium Biltmore. One of Los Angeles’s grandest hotels, the Millennium Biltmore was built in 1923 and was the largest hotel west of the Mississippi upon its completion. The hotel has hosted a number of historic events, including the luncheon that founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, eight Academy Award ceremonies, the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and the hotel also served as the International Olympic Headquarters during the 1984 Olympics. Additionally, the Beatles stayed here on their first US tour, with crowds so overwhelming that the band had to be airlifted out, and numerous films have shot here, including Chinatown, Ghostbusters, A Star is Born, and Beverly Hills Cop.

Photography by milleniumbiltmore. CC 2.0

The Biltmore’s architecture is a mix of Spanish, Italian, and French designs, and the hotel contains many beautiful frescoes, murals, chandeliers, and fountains. Be sure to check out the hallway to the bathroom, which is eerily similar to the final scene of The Shining.

Once we’ve regained our energy, exit onto Olive Street. Cross the street, where we’ll enter Pershing Square. Pershing Square, a one square block park situated right in the center of downtown Los Angeles, has existed in various states for more than 150 years. The park was most recently redesigned in 1992, but the design has been heavily criticized, with complaints that the park feels unwelcoming, dirty, and is an eye-sore. Another redesign (number seven by my count) is in the works.

From Pershing Square, we have two options. If you’re tired or running out of time, you can head to the northeast end of the park and end your walk at the Pershing Square Red Line station. But if you have enough energy for just 0.7 miles more (part 3 of our walk), there’s still some great stuff left to see!

Featured image photography by Brion VIBBER. CC-SA 3.0


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