A Research Report and First-Person Narrative regarding Southern California Architecture in the 1930s
Characterized by abstract shapes and curves, Art Deco gained popularity during the 1930s for its notable combination of economical thrift, earthquake resistance, and aesthetic flair. People today may find this architectural style in such sites as Fullerton and the downtown area of Los Angeles.
BY ALBERT ALIX
In 1925, the world opened its eyes to the next generation of art that would dominate the world. The Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes introduced and showcased this innovative, modern art movement. The Art Deco style influenced not only architecture, but also a wide variety of mediums: furniture, textiles, metalwork, glass, ceramics, paintings. When Art Deco was in fashion, a term for the style itself was essentially unknown; the terms “Modernists” and “Style Moderne” were used instead to describe the distinct artistic movement. It was not until 1968 that Bevis Hillier, a British art critic and historian, coined the term “Art Deco” for the Paris Exposition’s decorative arts.1 The Art Deco movement remained fashionable throughout the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s, but eventually lost popularity in the 1940s with the coming of World War II.
Art Deco architecture was influenced by Classical, Beaux-Arts, Gothic, Egyptian, and Pre-Columbian styles with which it shared a similar vocabulary.1 The architecture is mainly based on geometric and jumbled shapes; in addition, it is ornamented with spirals, zig-zags, and triangles. An opulent art form contrasting with the austerity of World War I, Art Deco is characterized by stepped forms, sweeping curves, chevron patterns, and the sunburst motifs.2 There are two primary Art Deco styles: Zig-zag Moderne, which features “straight lines with decorative towers and setbacks,” and Streamline Moderne, which accentuates “simplified lines that emphasize the horizontal, curves, and speedlines.”3 Zig-zag Moderne developed from classical Gothic themes. Its principal characteristics were a central tower, sunken, patterned vertical windows, setbacks, and symmetry. On the other hand, Streamline Moderne was more influenced by science and the mass produced consumer goods. Its curving and sweeping horizontal lines were “derived from the principles of aerodynamic design.”4 In context, Art Deco was a modern art style which responded to the machines and materials of the time. Stainless steel, glass, aluminum, chrome, and concrete materials also characterize the Art Deco architectural style. With these materials, builders were able to open up their imagination and create original architectural masterpieces.
Although Art Deco originated from France, it soon became a prominent architecture style in California as if it was destiny. On March 10, 1933, “a massive 6.25 earthquake rocked Southern California” primarily in Los Angeles County; this natural disaster paved the way for both Long Beach and Los Angeles to “rise from the rubble as … Deco cit[ies].”3 The earthquake killed about 120 people who generally died from falling debris.5 Buildings, including many schools, collapsed or were severely damaged. However on some, only the front collapsed, with the sides and rear still standing, leaving the building “ripe for modernization.”6 This paved the easiest way for Art Deco to showcase its style. In Long Beach “nearly three quarters of the city’s educational buildings were destroyed.”3 As a direct result of the earthquake, on April 10, 1933, the California State Legislature passed the Field Act. This Act required all ensuing structures, specifically schools, to be earthquake resistant. Consequently, many school buildings were broken up into segments around campus and connected by passageways, rather than being one large building with multiple stories.7 Since its enactment, “no Field Act school has ever collapsed in an earthquake”; thus, no children have died or been injured as a result of the partial or complete collapse of a Field Act building.3
During the 1930s, Art Deco architecture became the popular choice in Los Angeles because it was stylish, while adhering to the earthquake safety criteria. The most important construction medium was concrete – the perfect material. Concrete “was wonderfully sculptable (allowing for geometric massing), inexpensive, and capable of withstanding earthquakes when reinforced.”8 Helping further the Art Deco movement were wooden molds; unlike plaster casts, they were both reusable and economical. Their implementation during construction influenced some architects to move away from the Spanish colonial revival style and join the Art Deco movement. Also, metals began to adorn the Art Deco buildings. Metals created formality and intricate details especially on building entrances. The Art Deco ornamentation was “concentrated heavily on a building’s entranceway—exterior grillework, doors, [and] vestibule”—to add prestige and grandeur.9 The city of Los Angeles maintains its own unique Art Deco style “due to the indigenous elements, curling waves, rustling palm trees, Hollywood glamour, and automobile motifs.”10 A taste for “glitter created a desire for lush facades of gold [and] black” including blue and green.10 Moreover, terra cotta was one of the signature materials applied to Los Angeles Deco buildings; it was structurally strong, vibrant, and fire-resistant. In essence, terra cotta both strengthened and protected buildings, while adding color to the city. The location of Los Angeles influenced and tweaked the Art Deco style. For example, implying a sense of energy and movement, the streamlined design, based on nautical elements because Los Angeles is close to the sea, heavily impacted the Los Angeles architecture. Other motifs of foliage, fruits, birds, and paradise adorn the architectural style. Art Deco soon became the predominant architectural style for commercial and public buildings. In Los Angeles, “Art Deco affected many types of buildings: governmental buildings, strip and suburban low-rise office buildings, shopping centers, manufacturing plants, and warehouses.”11 Furthermore, the Art Deco style led to the rise and boom of skyscrapers in Los Angeles. Skyscrapers were the ideal buildings for Art Deco because of their tall appearance, symmetry, lines, and patterns. The public could easily view these edifices that reached the skies, and these buildings were usually the most famous. This inspired a vertical downtown commercial area and helped Los Angeles become a prominent city in the United States.
Stiles Oliver Clements (March 2, 1883 – January 15, 1966) was a major architect during the Art Deco movement. He studied architecture at the renowned French school École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which inspired and trained many American architects in the Beaux-Arts style. He partnered with Octavius Morgan and John Walls in the firm of Morgan, Walls, and Clements. Stiles Clements was known for his “exuberant themed designs that included the Wiltern and Mayan theaters, as well as the famous Richfield Tower.”12 Many of his famous Art Deco buildings were built in Los Angeles: El Capitan Theatre (1926), Mayan Theater (1927), Richfield Tower (1929), Dominguez-Wilshire Building (1931), Pellissier Building and Wiltern Theatre (1931). He developed many commercial buildings in Los Angeles County in his Art Deco style. Especially noticeable in figures of the now-demolished Richfield Tower, Clements emphasized the Deco colors of black and gold, the tall vertical lines, and the ornate, elaborate details.
Another important architect of the time was Claud Beelman (1883-1963) who designed many buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.13 He designed buildings in the Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, Spanish Revival, and Renaissance Revival styles. His notable Art Deco buildings in Los Angeles included the Garfield Building (1928), Harris and Frank Building (1930), the Sun Realty Buildling (1930), the Eastern Columbia Building (1930), and the U.S. Post Office in Hollywood, California (1937). His contributions of Art Deco architecture to Southern California were invaluable; he furthered the Art Deco movement as he constructed timeless pieces of masterful architecture.
After researching the Art Deco style, I searched for commercial buildings or theaters of the Art Deco style in Los Angeles and Orange County that were built in the 1930s. My first priority was to find Art Deco architecture in Orange County because those were closer to home. I found two buildings nearby in Fullerton that displayed the particular style: the Val Vita-Hunt Wesson office building and the former Rialto Theatre. But because Los Angeles is heavily influenced by the Art Deco style, I decided to expand my trip and visit Deco buildings in Downtown Los Angeles. I believed that the buildings in Los Angeles would best exhibit the Art Deco style. I called numerous historical societies such as the Historical Society of Long Beach, the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, and the Historical Society of Southern California; only the last was helpful. The Art Deco Society of Los Angeles did not answer their phones and the Historical Society of Long Beach could not quickly pinpoint Art Deco buildings for me; however, the Historical Society of Southern California courteously redirected me to the Los Angeles Conservancy. Although the Conservancy did not have the time to locate specific buildings for me, the secretary told me to visit their website. On the website, I learned that the Los Angeles Conservancy actually hosts an Art Deco tour through Downtown Los Angeles on Saturdays at 10 A.M. I chose to take pictures of the Art Deco buildings on the tour, but on my own time. Furthermore, some of the buildings on the walking tour were built during the 1920s, so I limited myself to those built during the 1930s: the Southern California Edison Company Building, Title Guarantee and Trust Company Building, Sun Realty Building, Harris and Frank Building, Ninth and Broadway Building, and the Eastern Columbia Building.
First, I drove to the Rialto Theatre in Fullerton. Although it was built in 1905, the Rialto Theatre’s façade was remodeled in 1930. It is a great example of the Zig-zag Moderne style on a commercial structure. Plainly seen, the structure exhibits the vertical lines, symmetry, and adornment of the Zig-zag Moderne (Figure A). The elaborate, patterned black metalwork above the entrance is also characteristic of the Art Deco style (Figure B). However, it is no longer known as the Rialto Theatre. It soon became the First National Trust Bank and eventually, as I saw today, it became the Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu Gym and other offices.
Next, I continued to the Val Vita-Hunt Wesson Office Building built in 1939. It was built in the Streamline Moderne fashion as evidenced by the three, long, sweeping curves that circumnavigate the building (Figure C). Although the Office building lacks much decorative arts, its symmetrical appearance reveals its Art Deco style (Figure D). I was amazed to find out that the Val Vita-Hunt Wesson Office has become a Korean Deaf Center; I did not expect this, but after looking at my immediate surroundings, it made sense because this area of Fullerton maintains a lot of Korean influences.
Adjacent to one another, the Sun Realty Building and the Harris and Frank Building, in the Jewelry District are a couple blocks walk from the Eastern Columbia Building. The Sun Realty Building, standing on the right, was built in 1930 also by Claud Beelman. Typical of the Art Deco style, the building showcases the turquoise terra cotta tiles, symmetry, long paneled windows, metal golden bars, and intricate terra cotta panels (Figure J). The turquoise terra cotta tiles of the building grabbed my attention, because it added color to the Downtown area. The vertical lines that run up the building, along with the setback of the middle of the structure, display the influence of Zig-zag Moderne. Observing carefully, I was able to discern the sunburst motif pattern that embellishes the upper half of the façade. The Harris and Frank Building also resembles the Art Deco style with its white and peach terra cotta tiles, symmetry, and sunken windows (Figure J). As seen by the vertical lines and setback, the Zig-zag Moderne style is prominent in the architecture.
Subsequently, I continued to Pershing Square to photograph the Title Guarantee and Trust Building built in 1930. Located at a street corner, the building prominently displays the Zig-zag Moderne and Art Deco architecture styles. The entrance to the Title Guarantee and Trust Building is outlined in gold and has golden doors; the color gold is characteristic of the Art Deco style, as well as the peach-colored terra cotta tiles that cover the building. For adornment, patterns of squares, circles, fleur-de-leis (that represent Art Deco’s French heritage), and zig-zags are effortlessly seen on the building (Figure K). Also, the top of the building’s flying buttresses reveal Art Deco’s Gothic influences (Figure L). Just like the Eastern Columbia Building, this building now leases apartments as well.
The last buildings I wanted to visit were the Pellissier Building and Wiltern Theater that were built in 1931 by Stiles O. Clements, but due to lack of time, I was unable to view the building. The Art Deco style is showcased on the buildings: both are built of steel reinforced concrete covered in the distinctive blue and green terra cotta tiles, symmetrical, and have sunken, patterned windows (Figure O). Above the ticket booth of the Wiltern Theater, a large, plaster Art Deco sunburst (an important motif) hangs from the ceiling; and on the mahogany wooden doors, the Los Angeles Art Deco motifs of flowers, scallops, fronds, and plants are embossed (Figure P). These motifs are specific to Los Angeles due to the city’s climate and location. Also, the Zig-zag Moderne style is easily seen along the exterior façade of the Pellissier Buidling with zigzag patterns embellishing the first two stories, the setbacks on the tower, and the long, vertical lines that run along the building (Figure Q). As seen in the figures, this building is clearly one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in Southern California.
After researching Art Deco architecture, calling historical societies, and photographing buildings, I have learned a lot about the Art Deco style and its distinctive characteristics. Today, many of these Art Deco buildings I visited are no longer commercial buildings nor are they used for their original purpose as offices; they have been converted to lofts or now used by other companies. I gained a greater understanding of research and the time it takes, while also learning how fun it is to visit these historical places. My eye has now been trained in discerning Art Deco buildings; it will be enjoyable to find Art Deco architecture everywhere I go. Not only was this project fun, but it was also a great learning experience.
1: Breeze, Carla. L.A. Deco. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. 8.
Albert Alix was born on May 23, 1993. He lives in Irvine, California with his brother Andrew, his mother Rica, and his father Alex. He attends Irvine High School and is a member of the water polo, soccer, and swim teams. In his spare time he enjoys building longboards.
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