Looking down from the terrace on to Pershing Square is like going back in time. To the right is an art deco skyscraper – butter-coloured with a hint of pink and streamlined with go-faster ribbing stretching up into the blue.
On the next side of the square is a Buckingham Palace-sized hotel, taking up the best part of an entire city block with three imposing beaux arts towers on top of a Corinthian-columned, classically arched bottom layer. At the kitty corner is a strange-looking building – a smooth white box lined with bas relief, blocky columns. Squaring off against it is a 1960s-style skyscraper that looks straight out of Johannesburg’s Central Business District.
LA, but not as we know it
Downtown Los Angeles is LA, but not as you know it. A world away from the beach towns, the sanitised streets of Beverly Hills and the avocado-on-toast joints of West Hollywood, this is where the city began. Pershing Square was originally a meeting place for the native American Tongva tribe. Later, it was a place where settlers would pitch their wagons and camp on arrival. When the railroad made tumbleweedy LA a boom town, architects rushed to erect the most modern, and most sumptuous buildings. Beaux arts titans – where neoclassical meets federal style – squared off against each other until the 1930s when art deco – sleek, chiselled, reaching for the skies – became all the rage.
There was a time, not so long ago, when downtown Los Angeles was not the place to go – especially if you were a tourist. Full of offices, light on hotels and with a huge homeless population, there was little in the way of sightseeing. But over the past decade, DTLA (as it’s now known) has gone from somewhere you looped as you navigated LA’s unending freeway network, to a freestanding destination that you’d cross the Atlantic for. Its bars and restaurants are some of the best in California and it’s becoming the cultural centre of a city often maligned as culture-light. But best of all is the setting – the wealth of early modern architecture that houses it all.
This rooftop bar, Perch – where Angelenos sprawl on rattan sofas between giant plants, drinking cocktails as the sun sets over the distant Pacific – floats on top of a stately office block from 1924. That palatial building opposite is the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, drawing gasps with its over-the-top displays of high-coffered ceilings, marble-drenched and fountain-flowing lobbies and Gone with the Wind-style staircases. Tucked away by the toilets is a corridor lined with pictures of Old Hollywood guests. Celebs have always loved the Biltmore – some of the earliest Oscars ceremonies were held here.
Hollywood before there was Hollywood
Downtown LA was Hollywood pre-Hollywood. Walk along Broadway today and you’ll see dollar shops squatting in lavish buildings that were once cinemas, the gaudy mosaics on the pavements outside charting their original names. The Downtown Jewellery Exchange is in a glam 1920 theatre once owned by Warner Bros – the former stalls are occupied by stands selling gold (most theatres were designed for both films and plays, as they weren’t sure whether the new-fangled movie business would take off). The Ace Hotel houses the United Artists Theatre, which looks like a Spanish cathedral with its frothy Gothic carvings around the stage – until you turn around and see the murals of founders Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and their mate Charlie Chaplin, clambering around the walls.
Then there’s Sid Grauman’s first theatre – built in 1917 and dubbed the Million Dollar Theatre, such was its lavishness. Less than a decade later, Grauman would effectively kill the downtown cinema scene by opening his Egyptian and Chinese theatres on Hollywood Boulevard. Today, like many of the historic buildings here, it sits empty, the knights errant and growling gargoyles carved on its facade staring blankly at passing buses.
Theatres aside, however, DTLA’s renaissance is continuing apace. Opposite the Million Dollar Theatre is the sci-fi Bradbury Building, designed by the otherwise unknown George Wyman, who consulted his dead brother via a ouija board before drawing up plans for his bizarre, brown-tiled atrium, where open-shaft lifts crawl up and down the walls, and wrought-iron staircases zigzag round the floors. It’s so futuristic, even today, that Bladerunner was shot here – and it’s so laidback that visitors are allowed to wander in and take selfies on the mezzanine.
On the same block is Grand Central Market, which opened in 1917. Today, the fruit and veg stalls have been replaced by food stands. Eggslut is the best known – every morning, queues for its egg-and-cheese brioches snake around the market – but this year’s most exciting new arrival is Lucky Bird, which does organic fried chicken. The XXL-sized, pillowy drumsticks are soaked in buttermilk, flash fried and served with locally sourced pickled veg. One taste, and you’ll never darken Nando’s door again. Outside is the bright orange Angel’s Flight funicular, which has been ferrying commuters up the hill to what’s now the most modern part of the city – all glass skyscrapers and modern art galleries – since 1901.
Why Angelenos are gravitating Downtown
Downtown isn’t the easiest place in LA to visit – it’s less sanitised than Studio City, less chichi than Malibu. That’s not to say it’s not posh; celebs including Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage have lived in the Miss America parade of early skyscrapers, like the Eastern Columbia Building – a turquoise-tiled and gilded art deco headturner near the Ace. Bars like The Wolves – which does a weekly “omakase” cocktail menu in its retro premises, where you pick locally sourced ingredients from a list and barman Kevin Lee improvises drinks around them – are being lauded city-wide. And the ever-increasing hotels converted from old banks and buildings are drawing as many locals as tourists to their Corinthian-columned bars, wood-panelled restaurants and toilets in underground vaults. But the rich-poor divide is strong, with the homeless sleeping on those gaudy Broadway mosaics and dollar shops between the bars.
From the viewing deck on the 27th floor of City Hall – the tallest building in LA from its 1928 debut until 1964 – the whole of Downtown spreads out beneath you. The sturdy beaux arts buildings; the soaring art deco reachers; the metal sinews of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and the concrete honeycomb block of The Broad gallery. And beyond Downtown: the supermodel-tall Beverly Hills palms, the Sunset Boulevard skyscrapers, the Hollywood Hills with their sign that launched a thousand dreams, and – on a clear day – the hazy Pacific in the distance. All of LA from a single building – in the place where it all started.
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from Heathrow and Manchester. Air New Zealand, British Airways, United and American Airlines also fly from Heathrow, and Norwegian from Gatwick.
THE BEST BUILDINGS IN DTLA
Eastern Columbia Building
A 13-storey art deco skyscraper from 1930. It was built as the flagship Eastern-Columbia Department Store and cost $1.25m.
LA Central Library
The 1926 paean to learning depicts study as the light of the world, with influences from Rome and Egypt in its art deco styling. It was badly damaged in a fire in 1986; today it tunnels several storeys underground in a main atrium.
The catholic cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels opened in 2002. A deconstructivist, post-modern building, its asymmetrical walls are devoid of right angles.
A bank turned bookshop. Downstairs, shelves of new books are stacked under the grand coffered roof and around thick columns. Upstairs the secondhand section turns books into sculptures – including a tunnel made entirely from old hardbacks.
Wildly ahead of its time for 1893, the Bradbury was built for gold mining millionaire Lewis L Bradbury. Today it is used as offices.
Most of the theatres are closed, but the Los Angeles Conservancy has walking tours of Broadway every weekend, with 12 stops including the flamboyant Los Angeles Theatre from 1931.