The Bradbury Building, Angel’s Flight and Grand Central Market…Looking Backward

Bradbury Building, Los Angeles, California 1968.

I remember first going to the Bradbury Building on Broadway and 3rd street in downtown Los Angeles in the late 1960s when I was in kindergarten and first grade.

At that time my grandmother still lived in the Pico-Union neighborhood just west of downtown. Our visits to see her usually included a trip to Angel’s Flight, the Bradbury Building and Grand Central Market.

When my sister, brother and I rode Angel’s Flight, the three of us would try to stand up and balance without using our hands while the car moved up the track. For the way down, we switched cars and tried the same balancing act. As the youngest, it was always more of a challenge for me.

Even though Angel’s Flight, the Bradbury Building and Grand Central Market were so close, really just across the street from each other, it was always an adventure…and so different from riding my bicycle in the middle of the street on the cul-de-sac where we lived. The visits downtown were happy times with my grandmother, my mom, brother and sister. My dad was in Vietnam, so he missed out on the fun. He knew these places from his days working in the accounting office at the Nabisco Building. My dad always referred to it as the National Biscuit Company, not Nabisco. Not sure why. When he worked there during the early-50s, he’d have lunch at a food stand, across the street. Almost 70 years later, he still recalls the chili beans he’d order with cheese, and then crumple saltines on top.

As a child, Grand Central Market was like nothing I had seen before. I have some vague recollection, at an even younger age, of the open food markets in Europe when we travelled to France and Germany. To me, Grand Central Market was more crowded and more exciting. The variety of foods and the displays of fruits, vegetables, fish, meat always drew my attention even if I didn’t know what I was seeing. The usual and out of the ordinary were all sold by individual vendors. There were places to eat but it was really where people did their grocery shopping. Not the smorgasbord of eateries it is today.

I wish I had noticed the business back then across from Angel’s Flight, just down from the market. The business there now and for years is a club called La Cita where I’ve spent many, many, many-many, Friday nights dancing to punk music. When I go, I look across toward 3rd street where Angel’s Flight stood and see my five-year old self with my brother and sister.

…and I suppose that’s part of the reason I wanted to revisit the Bradbury building and my childhood experience of it, but also to explore the building’s history, some of which I’ve picked up from reading and on walking tours and other events. I knew it as a building where we shopped.

Many of the businesses in the building were part of the garment trade then. It was not until much later, during the early 80s when I become aware of its historical and architectural significance.

I suppose because I was a little kid and everything and everyone was bigger than me, the building always seemed to be filled with people moving up and down the stairs making room for each other and passing through the halls. When I first saw the elevators, I thought they were cages and couldn’t understand what people were doing in them.

From my childhood experiences and on-going interest in the Bradbury Building, I decided to look beyond what I knew, to see what more I could learn about it…more than 50 years after I first walked into the building.

The building, completed in 1893, is located at 304 South Broadway at 3rd street, on the southwest corner. There is nothing too out-of-ordinary about the exterior. People generally refer to it as Italian Renaissance-style. It is considered the oldest remaining commercial building in the historic core of Los Angeles.

Various tenants of the Bradbury Building over the years have included the headquarters for the Santa Fe Railroad, the general offices for the Southern California Railroad Company, offices for attorneys, a beauty salon, a coffee shop, a cutlery shop, offices for dentists, doctors, an employment agency, a hat shop, an income tax office, insurance offices, oil company offices, a photo studio, offices for real estate brokers, and a thrift shop. During the 1920s it was home to the LA Jockey Club before the stock market crash. And before that, some of the earliest tenants were different types of mining companies — gold, copper, ore. The Southern California chapter of the Architects Institute of America, the AIA, were also tenants, though much later in the late 60s. One of the long-term tenants of the building has been the Internal Affairs Division of the LA Police Department.

What’s exceptional about the building is the interior which features an incredible atrium, about 3,000 square feet. To simply call the open space a lobby, ignores the 50 by 120-foot skylight, above the building’s five stories. There are ornamental balconies of French wrought iron, Rose-colored Italian marble stairs, oak floors, Mexican tilework, and open-cage iron elevators and clerestory windows, which can all be experienced standing in the atrium.

The overall feeling of the interior design defies easy reference. It is ornate and more like Art Nouveau, a popular style at the time, but that description limits the experience of the space. The design is genre-bending in its ability to serve as a backdrop. The building has appeared in an expansive range of hundreds of films, television shows, music videos, commercial work and advertisements.

This is part of the building’s attraction and how it can project so much while remaining unchanged. I suppose you could say it’s the architectural equivalent of Meryl Streep, in how it transforms from one character to the next.




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