Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - by Scott S. Smith
If you ask most residents of central Los Angeles, they won’t be able to tell you exactly where Hancock Park is: “Near Koreatown, I think” or “probably south of Wilshire.” The core area is mostly residential and there aren’t many reasons for outsiders to go deep into the neighborhoods, which is a relief to those who live there, as L.A. keeps setting new visitor records (48.3 million in 2017; where are the special effects people when you need them, making the Rose Parade seem to be taking place in deep snow, to discourage people from moving here?).
As always, Laura Massino Smith of Architecture Tours L.A. www.ArchitectureToursLA.com (323/464-7868) was a fountain of fascinating details about the homes, buildings, architects, celebrities, and companies in the area over more than a century. We covered territory broader than the Hancock Park Historic Preservation Zone (one of 30 in the 500 square miles of the city), including adjacent Windsor Square, with Melrose on the north, dipping south past Olympic, as far west as Fairfax, and east to MacArthur Park. In other words, south of the Hollywood Sign, favored by those who can afford a quiet, high quality of personal life in a bustling city that is always in the limelight. Much of what we saw in over two hours is depicted and discussed in Laura’s Architectural Tours L.A. Guidebook Hancock Park/Miracle Mile.
We started at a most unlikely place, the world’s only KFC designed by a prestigious architect to look like part of a bucket of chicken, and we were off and running, noting buildings that were being restored everywhere, some moved from their original location because they were in the way of development.
Many were in the subdued and solid American Craftsman style, a reaction in the first three decades of the 20th century to both the excesses of Victorian design on the one hand and the industrial revolution’s dehumanizing influence. These were built with low-pitched roofs and simplicity of form, close to the earth, emphasizing handcrafting over mass production, local natural materials, and appropriate interior and landscape design.
While Craftsman homes tended to dominate their neighborhoods, one street over might be extraordinarily eclectic. Hollywood moguls often used set designers to recreate something from their homeland or imagination. But regardless of the source of wealth, neighborhoods tend to reflect the eclectic tastes of the original owners. The official mayor’s residence is in the Tudor Revival style (with half-timbering, steep roof, slate shingles, and diamond window panes). The Chandler family (which published the Los Angeles Times for most of the 20th century) bought a Greek-Roman mega-mansion constructed by the Janss real estate family in the Classical Beaux-Arts style in 1913. There are also many French chateaus (fond memories for veterans of the Great War), full-blown Victorian mansions (lots of ornamentation, turrets, steep roofs), and homes in the Spanish Revival style (earth colors and red tile roofs).
Hancock Park and Windsor Park are especially notable for their tall trees, many 80-100 years old. It was, says Laura, the Beverly Hills of the early 20th century. Kat von D. of the tattoo reality show bought a Victorian for $6.5 million a couple of years ago and was restoring it in an unusual red color. Other celebrity residents include Patricia Heaton of “The Middle” and Drew Scott of “Property Brothers” and there are lots of consulates, as well, including Britain, Germany, France, and Turkey.
There are two massive and surprising features in the midst of all these grand homes: the prestigious Marlborough School (a college-prep for grades 7 through 12 with an extraordinary placement record), built in 1927 and since remodeled, and the exclusive Los Angeles Country Club, which has 36 holes for golf, as well as tennis courts.
Art Deco and Miracle Mile
More modest quarters include apartment buildings where stars like John Barrymore, Marion Davies, and Mae West lived (studios sometimes built them because actors weren’t welcome elsewhere due to their unreliable income and partying). One had a Streamline Moderne design, a slick Art Deco style that made the building look somewhat like a ship.
Art Deco’s name came from the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. It expressed modernity with luxury materials and craftsmanship, drawing on everything from Cubism to exotic styles from China, Japan, Persia, and the ancient Egyptians and Maya. It was mostly used for commercial buildings and in the 1930s, it began incorporating chrome, stainless steel, and plastic.
Neon lights were popular in commercial areas until 1942, when the West Coast was considered a target of potential Japanese attacks and all lights had to be kept off or covered at night. Neon came back in fashion in the late 1990s, as L.A. staged a renaissance from the bad old days of urban decay and violence.
One of the most striking contemporary homes was the corrugated steel house designed and once lived in by architecture star Scott Johnson, which recently sold for $6 million.
The “Miracle Mile” is a long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that was once a walkable shopping mecca, but is now thick with museums, such as the massive L.A. County Museum of Art, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits (in which prehistoric mammals were trapped), the Craft and Folk Art Museum, and the newly remodeled Petersen Automotive Museum, whose striking exterior is meant to represent the air streams flowing over a red Ferrari (another museum is being constructed for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
Further towards downtown on Wilshire is the former site of the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. In its place is a K-12 public school in a park that has signs with inspirational quotations from many leaders. There is also a former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, which has stunning sculptures of historic figures on its exterior, which was recently reopened as the Marciano Art Museum.
Two of L.A.’s most impressive Art Deco buildings are on Wilshire: the Wiltern Theatre (opened in 1931), which has the offices of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the former Bullock’s Department store, which is now the Southwestern Law Library.
There are particularly striking places of worship here, including the Hon Michi Shutchosho Temple (for the Japanese Ten Rikyo faith), the domed Wilshire Boulevard Temple, St. Basil’s Catholic Cathedral (vertical concrete sculptural forms, interspersed with sections of stained glass), and the Neo-Romanesque Wilshire Christian, built in 1927 and bought by the Oasis Church in 2012.
I found this the most surprising of the tours I’ve taken because even those of us who are natives have little idea of what is in Hancock Park, beyond some of the major buildings on Wilshire. For those who are architecture buffs, it’s like discovering a new world.