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SURROUNDINGS / DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES

The Bradbury Sparkles as Jewel in City Landscape

A century old, the building retains its mystic, awe-inspiring interior presence.

October 10, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bradbury Building is renowned mainly for its elaborate black wrought iron and the extraordinary play of light and angles in its vast atrium. The iron latticework fills five floors within the century-old brick building, running like dense ivy along the indoor balconies, wrapping around the twin "bird cage" elevators.

Sunlight filters through a pitched glass ceiling, creating an ambience that glows golden by day and darkens, by evening, into an eerie beauty.

The mystical feel is appropriate, for mysticism played an integral role in the building's stunning design--at least according to legend. The structure is the legacy of Lewis Bradbury, a 19th century gold-mining and real estate tycoon who, late in life, decided to erect a monument to himself in downtown Los Angeles. His chosen architect, the eminent Sumner Hunt, drafted plans that proved uninspiring, so Bradbury instead offered the job to one of Hunt's young draftsmen, George Wyman.

Leery of usurping his boss' work, Wyman is said to have consulted a planchette, a precursor of the Ouija board. A message from his dead brother, Mark, made the choice clear: "Take the Bradbury assignment," the board supposedly spelled out. "It will make you famous."

It did. Wyman is credited with designing a masterpiece that one critic labeled "a fairyland of mathematics," a jewel concealed behind a rather drab brick facade at Broadway and 3rd Street. Completed in 1893 for $500,000--nearly triple the original budget--the Bradbury Building endures as one of the city's most admired spaces. It remains in use for offices and figures prominently in ambitions for reviving the Broadway corridor, once a thriving theater district.

The Bradbury atrium's ornate latticework, its huge paneled skylight, its Belgian marble staircases and scalloped oak railings offer a mesmerizing degree of symmetry and visual complexity.

To stand at one end and look across the atrium is comparable to standing alone in an old-growth forest or gazing toward the ceilings of Westminster Abbey.

"It's awe-inspiring, cathedral-like," said Stephen Kanner, chairman and co-founder of the Architecture + Design Museum of Los Angeles, which occupies ground-floor exhibit space in the Bradbury Building.

The suites and balconies have been used in a long list of films, including "Pay It Forward," a 2000 release starring Kevin Spacey, and "Wolf," a 1994 feature with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. Most famously, the Bradbury's carefully darkened lines established the haunting noire tone of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," the 1982 classic about life in a bleak Los Angeles of the distant future.

"The real point about the Bradbury is it's timeless," said Francine Lipsman, the building's general manager, who concedes that filmmaking in the structure has waned due to excessive exposure. The Bradbury's look is far too distinctive to keep using it over and over.

"Unlike some other places," Lipsman said, "when you're here, there's no doubt you're here."

Walking in from the Broadway entrance, the full grandeur of the interior does not strike the visitor right away. The narrow lobby, framed by high brick walls, has the look of a Parisian alley of arched windows and doorways. One strolls some distance before gaining a full view of the wonders overhead.

Looking up then, one sees that the open area is somewhat V-shaped, like the steel structure of a boat hull. The gap between the second floor balconies is far wider than the floor of the lobby. The gap between the upper floor balconies is wider still. At the very top are rows of windows, which open with hand cranks for ventilation, and long, rectangular panes of glass that make up the skylight, supported with wire mesh.

Many fixtures, such as the iron wall sconces, are original, despite a $7-million renovation completed 10 years ago.

Sounds echo through the atrium--voices, doors slamming--but the hand-operated, open-cage elevators glide up and down with a beguiling noiselessness. Atop the shaft cages, huge wheels spin, moving cables and counterweights. They are really an elaborate ruse, Lipsman said, since the elevators were converted to hydraulic power many years ago. The 28 large bricks that are bound into each counterweight are now painted Styrofoam.

"We learned from the film industry," she quipped.

A report filed years ago with the Library of Congress calls the Bradbury "an early and excellent example of a break with facade architecture and the acknowledgment of the unpleasantness of a busy city street." Once inside, in other words, Broadway and its heavy traffic all but cease to exist. The art nouveau iron work--briefly displayed at the 1892 Chicago World's Fair--is "a remnant of the Cast Iron Age, which began with the iron bridges in the early half of the 19th century," the historical report notes.

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