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Lofty Plans : Downtown Los Angeles Has a Rich History, But an Architect Says People Have Trouble Appreciating It. His Blueprint for Change: a Museum of Urban Los Angeles.

July 03, 1994|CARL DAVIS | Architect Carl Davis, 49, is a graduate of Yale University and the University of London who has lived in the Downtown loft district for 15 years. He and his wife, architect Virginia Tanzmann, are partners in the Tanzmann Associates firm. They were involved in designing the Los Angeles Mission and rehabilitating the Los Angeles Convention Center and are currently working on the design of the North Hollywood subway station for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He was interviewed by Karen E. Klein.

I really love Downtown, the whole Downtown area. But I think most people don't know much about Downtown Los Angeles and the history of the city. They do not know how it developed.

For instance, in the area where I live, the loft district, there are all these remnants of the railroad culture. East of Alameda, from the Hollywood Freeway to the Santa Monica Freeway, there are still railroad tracks running down a lot of the streets and behind the buildings. The area is full of old warehouses that served the railroads.

For a while, I lived in one that was originally a furniture and luggage warehouse. It was where everybody would come to collect their furniture when it was shipped out here after they had moved to Southern California from the East.

It was the railroad that carried everybody here, the railroad that really developed Los Angeles--not the automobile, like everyone thinks.

We need to re-educate ourselves about Los Angeles and its history. Most inner cities in the East are developing themselves as an attraction zone for people to come for entertainment and education. We're failing to do that.

In reality, I think we're afraid of our old city. But we should not be. The city needs to be saved and preserved.

My idea is to create a Museum of Urban Los Angeles. I was on a panel that did a study of the old Herald Examiner building, one of the premier pieces of architecture in Los Angeles that now sits vacant. We studied converting it into artist housing, into low-income housing. My idea was to turn it into a museum--the Museum of Urban Los Angeles.

We would have MoCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) on one end of town and MOULA on the other. The acronym is intentional--making it in Los Angeles culture has always been about making money, about "moola."

I think it would be a marvelous attraction for that area. The museum would focus on a highly interactive theme. Touring it would be almost like playing a game. You would learn when the city started to grow and how it grew.

There would be a section focusing on Los Angeles and the detectives--the Raymond Chandler stories and so many other detective stories and shows are set in Los Angeles. There are so many other things that Los Angeles is famous for, there would be a lot of displays you could do.

From the Herald building up to the Grand Central Market is one of my favorite parts of L.A. From the Million Dollar Theater to the Bradbury Building, almost everything is original. It hasn't all been blown up for parking lots. I'd like to see it preserved as an intact piece of early 20th-Century street-scape.

The museum I envision would celebrate some of the great, unsung things about Los Angeles, like the bridges over the Los Angeles River. They are wonderful. There are at least eight different bridges, built from the 1920s on--each distinctive and each with wonderful details on it.

One even has an under-section with rooms now occupied by the homeless. Some are Art Deco, some are classical, some Italian Renaissance.

There are marvelous little bungalows all over the city. Some are Spanish style, some look like medieval castles, with turrets and towers. Back when they were built, the developers were selling a whole Southern California lifestyle. It was like you could have your own smaller and cheaper version of a Beverly Hills mansion or a Highland Park-area home.

And there are great old cafeterias, with loads of history behind them, that should be remembered.

Then there's the signage. I think Los Angeles is great for its exuberant and wildly different signage all over the place. In Koreatown, there's some very strange signage that I love. One building has an elk on top of it.

The Herald building is a perfect location for the museum. It is one of the premier buildings of architect Julia Morgan and the man who built it, William Randolph Hearst, was one of the earliest people to hype Los Angeles and encourage its development.

The area around the building is under-utilized and could definitely be revitalized. There is a job corps center near there that could train people in computers and in the running of a museum.

I've also thought about a computerized library of Los Angeles being in this museum. You could come in there and--for a fee--get all the files you would want on your house, your block, your neighborhood.

Instead of having to go to City Hall and wait in thousands of different lines, you could come to MOULA and get all the information you would need.

There is so much history in that older Downtown area that people really don't know about. This could be a way to bring some of it to life and bring people back to the inner city.

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