No Tall Buildings : Aesthetics, Not Quakes, Kept Lid On

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Times Urban Affairs Writer

During a half century or so that extended well into the post-World War II years, people flocked to Los Angeles in record numbers. Not even the city’s notorious reputation for earthquakes could keep them away.

It was common knowledge during that time that Los Angeles had a building height limit, which was blamed for its low profile and contributed, city planners said, to its widely publicized urban sprawl.

There also was a prevailing belief that earthquake fears and the 150-foot height limit went together, like ham and eggs. Almost everyone figured that the height limitation became law to keep buildings reasonably low so a temblor would not knock them down.


Not so.

There is nothing in the records to show that the two public actions establishing the building height limit in the early 1900s were inspired by earthquake dangers, according to Paul Gleye, an authority on the subject. Nor were the city’s lawmakers and the voters swayed by earthquake arguments, so far as he could tell, Gleye said.

Gleye, an architectural historian, said the idea that earthquakes and the height limit were linked became a popular misconception--and took its place as part of the city’s lore--only because of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and the widespread 1933 Southern California temblor.

“There was a tremendous discussion that Los Angeles not become another Manhattan,” said Gleye, who researched the city’s early 1900s records for his book, “The Architecture of Los Angeles.”

“The main factor was aesthetic. People came to Los Angeles to get away from the ‘dark, walled-in streets’ of Eastern cities.”

Los Angeles’ building height limit, which remained in effect until 1957, had its origins in a City Council ordinance that set the ceiling at 130 feet in 1905. Subsequently, there were so many requests for variances that city voters approved a City Charter amendment, effective in 1911, establishing the familiar 150-foot height limit, which remained for nearly half a century.

Gleye, head of the Pasadena Planning Department’s urban conservation division, noted that the 1905 ordinance was studied, debated and approved before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Nowhere was there any reference to earthquakes, he said. Discussions instead revolved around the “safety and durability of structural materials” used at the time, he said in the book. He noted that architects and builders were uncertain then about the safety of tall buildings.


1904 ‘Skyscraper’

He also said that in a 1910 city Planning Committee report, before voter approval of the 150-foot Charter change, “structural safety was not mentioned . . . but rather ‘the development of our great city along broad and harmonious lines of beauty and symmetry’ ” was highlighted.

Gleye said there may have been still another reason for the early debates on height limits. It involved John Parkinson, a famed architect of that era who designed Los Angeles’ first “skyscraper,” now the 12-story Continental Building on Spring Street. It was completed in 1904.

Gleye said he suspects that Parkinson may have had an interest in imposing the original 130-foot height limit so that his building would remain the city’s tallest.

When Los Angeles voters rescinded the 150-foot height limit in 1957, it was with assurances that modern construction methods permit taller structures to be built safely. Earthquake dangers, The Times pointed out editorially at the time, were “largely illusory.”

Issue of Parking

Judging by the editorial, the principal issue was parking. Proponents of lifting the height limit prevailed when they promised to require additional parking for the extra floor space.

The first “skyscraper” to go up after the height limit was rescinded was the 18-story United California Bank building, also on Spring Street, in 1961. Planners believed that it would be the salvation of Spring Street as Los Angeles’ financial center, but instead there was a general exodus of banks and other financial institutions to downtown’s west side. First Interstate Bank, United California Bank’s successor, no longer owns the building. It was sold a few years ago to 600 South Spring Associates.