Friday, September 6, 2013

A 2-Hour Tour of Historic Downtown Los Angeles

I (Lara) have planned out a fun afternoon for you in Downtown Los Angeles! My office is in Glendale (about fifteen minutes away), and on a whim one recent Friday I brought my young son and his babysitter along with me to work so we could do some exploring after I finished.

We hit all of these historic places in about two hours (from 11:30a-1:30p), but you could probably power through them faster without a 3-year-old in tow.  On the flip side, you could spend all day at these locations because there is so much to see. So if you’ve got some free time, grab some water, cash (for parking and snacks), sunscreen, hat, and comfy shoes, and let’s get going.
1. Park underground at Pershing Square.  

 532 South Olive Street

In the early 1900s, Pershing Square (which is exactly a block in size) was known as Central Park and filled with trees. Now, it is mainly concrete and the site of many musical performances and events, with a cool fountain in part of the park. 
2. After you’ve checked out Pershing Square, head north on Hill Street, taking notice of all the gorgeous buildings around you, especially the Subway Terminal Building, which is now known as Metro 417.

417 South Hill Street
Opened in 1926, the Subway Terminal Building once had 65,000 people passing through it each day! It was part of the Pacific Electric Railway system, and this line allowed people to bypass the busy streets of Downtown Los Angeles. Yes, even in the 1920s people were complaining about the traffic! The tunnel has been filled in for decades now, but the Italian Renaissance Revival building has found new life as Metro 417, a luxury apartment building.
3. Continue walking up Hill Street, keeping an eye out for Grand Central Market on the right side of the street.
 317 Broadway
The Market first opened in 1917 on the first-floor of the Homer Laughlin Building (architect Frank Lloyd Wright once had an office here), and offered the finest open-air shopping experience in Los Angeles. The tradition continues today, with tons of restaurants, produce vendors, and specialty stands (we even spotted an herbal pharmacy). This is where you can fuel up with some java, and you will also find restrooms downstairs. 
4. Just across Hill Street from the Market is Angels Flight.
351 South Hill Street
Back in the day, wealthy folks that lived in the fashionable Bunker Hill neighborhood could take Angels Flight (which opened in 1901) down the hill to do some shopping at Grand Central Market, and then ride back home with their purchases. The cost? A penny!

Today, “The Shortest Railway In The World” will cost you 50 cents for a one-way ticket, or 25 cents if you’re a metro rail pass holder. My son called this the “rocket train” for its steep incline, and I saved the sweet souvenir ticket for his keepsake box.

If you don’t want to ride Olivet or Sinai (the names of the two cars), you can opt for a thigh and glute-burning workout and take the stairs right next to the tracks up the hill. Interesting note: Angels Flight used to be located half a block north of the current location. It was dismantled in the 1960s, and then brought back at 351 South Hill Street in the 1990s.
5. When you leave Angels Flight at the top, you will be at California Plaza.
350 South Grand Avenue
Take a moment to enjoy the sweeping view in front of you, including Los Angeles City Hall (1928) in all its splendor. Walk though the Plaza, past the buildings and little lake and stage for performances, and head down the stairs to Grand Avenue. 
6. Head South on Grand, and as you near Fifth Street you will see One Bunker Hill (formerly the Southern California Edison Building) on your right.  
601 West Fifth Street

Opened in 1931, this building features a classic Art Deco design, with setbacks, recessed and symmetrical windows, and strong vertical lines (representing progress). Also, as a nod to progress, there are decorative panels at the entrance with carved figures representing light, power, and hydroelectric energy. This was one of the first buildings in the U.S. to be electrically heated and cooled, which must have been life-changing in scorching Downtown LA in the summer. 
7. Cross Fifth Street, then cross Grand Avenue, and you will see the Los Angeles Central Library.  

630 West Fifth Street
Opened in 1926, the Central Library is still stunning, and most people would probably say that its most recognizable exterior feature is the tall tower topped by a pyramid with suns on each side. In addition to an Egyptian influence, you will see lots of Art Deco details and also a Mediterranean influence. And things just get better inside, with murals depicting the history of California, ornately patterned floors, and an art gallery. Check out the library’s fantastic gift shop, cafĂ© area for some fresh-squeezed juice, and (if you have kiddos) the wonderful children’s section complete with a puppet show theatre and tiny toddler amphitheatre.
8. Exit the library on Fifth Street and walk east to cross Grand Avenue. Walk just a few steps south to arrive at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
506 South Grand Avenue
Opened in 1923, the Biltmore Hotel (as it was originally known) is a wonderful hodgepodge of styles, from Mediterranean to Beaux Arts to Spanish-Italian Renaissance Revival. Between the crystal chandeliers, wood-beamed ceilings, frescos and murals, gorgeously embroidered tapestries and drapes, and a ton of bronze and gold, it is no wonder that the Biltmore hosted the Oscars in the ceremony’s early years; in fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded at a luncheon here in 1927. 

Walk down the long hallway Galleria that’s just off the lobby, and come down the large staircase into the hotel’s Rendezvous Court, which was the Biltmore’s original lobby. There’s a gently gurgling fountain in the middle of the room, and most likely tables set up around it; this is where afternoon tea happens most days. I recommend making a reservation and getting your hands on some homemade scones and clotted cream!

Walk out the back doors of the Biltmore, and there’s Pershing Square! You’re right back where you started, probably a little tired but happy, and with a phone full of beautiful pictures you’ll hopefully Instagram and share with the world. I hope that this little tour has intrigued you enough to check out more of the special buildings and historic neighborhoods that can be found in our city!

(This is by no means a comprehensive list of great buildings in the area! There are so many more—the Title Guarantee Building, Cicada Restaurant, the PacMutual Building, etc.—that we didn’t include simply to kept this little tour short. If you have a favorite building in the area that we didn’t mention, give it a shout out in the comments!)