A city’s changes in sharp relief

In a city famous for its panoramic views, the one from the top of Los Angeles City Hall offers something more than shimmering city lights, jagged mountain ranges and the distant glimmer of the Pacific Ocean.

From the landmark tower, Los Angeles’ history unfolds below: the pueblo that the city founders created, the grid of streets that first carried trolleys and horses and eventually cars, the imposing stone low-rise towers of L.A.'s prewar period, followed by freeways, parking lots and several generations of skyscrapers reaching ever higher.

“Los Angeles is instant architecture in an instant townscape,” Reyner Banham wrote in his 1971 book “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.”

But from atop City Hall, L.A.'s architecture looks anything but instant. Look closely and the layers show. There are the 100-year-old bank buildings on Main Street remade as lofts. There’s the spartan parking structure on Bunker Hill that was supposed to be removed by now for a now-stalled mega-development.

Both sets of photographs on this page were taken from the observation deck at City Hall, more than 350 feet above the ground, a vantage point that on a clear day offers up a skyscape from Santa Catalina Island to the San Gabriel Mountains.

When the first set was shot in January 1951, City Hall was California’s tallest building, a literal and figurative symbol of the power of the metropolis’ downtown. By law, no building could be built to overshadow the structure.

What surrounded it was a city in transition: The Hollywood Freeway had opened in December 1950, cutting through a swath of the area, and many beaux-arts and Victorian structures had already been razed for parking lots.

Both of those developments portended the coming domination of the car -- and the corresponding boom of suburbia that would mark downtown’s rapid decline.

The old Bunker Hill, a neighborhood of residential hotels and run-down Victorian apartment buildings, is visible in the photos.

But within a decade, most of it would be leveled to make way for skyscrapers and the Music Center.

“The city that had been was still there,” said writer D.J. Waldie of downtown L.A. circa 1951. “It all sort of went into mothballs at the beginning of the 1950s.”

In 1964, the city lifted the ban on buildings taller than the 28-story City Hall. An array of skyscrapers followed, creating the skyline visible from the observation deck in 2009.

Most of those buildings were constructed during the boom years of the mid-1970s through the early ‘90s.

But take the elevator to the top of City Hall today, and there are signs of new development in downtown as well.

There are the sharp angles of the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, which opened just across the street in 2009; a new train line that stretches to the Eastside. And the downtown skyline keeps growing, this time to the south with a cluster of new condo and hotel towers rising near Staples Center.

Some of the more profound changes are harder to see. Those skyscrapers at one time housed the headquarters of major corporations. But the corporate logos for Arco, First Interstate, Security Pacific and other companies no long crown these towers, a sign of the corporate exodus from L.A.

From the top of City Hall, it’s hard to tell that 40,000 people now live downtown, a dramatic demographic shift that is more easily detected on the streets of the city center.

“It is not the land of Oz,” Waldie cautioned. “It’s not the Emerald City.”

But it’s not an instant city either.