If you stand on the corner of 4th and Spring streets in downtown, it’s possible to view sections of at least 12 buildings designed by John Parkinson: the Los Angeles Theatre Center (formerly Security National Bank), the Title Insurance building and the city’s first palatial hotel, the Spanish Renaissance-style Alexandria Hotel, to name a few.
Oddly, the architect’s name is not widely known, but his landmark structures — Los Angeles City Hall, Union Station, the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and Bullocks Wilshire — have defined the city’s skyline since the early 20th century. His story is the subject of the book “Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles” by Stephen Gee (Angel City Press).
Gee, a producer for ITV Studios in Los Angeles, discovered Parkinson when his offices moved downtown. Invigorated by the change, he started exploring his new environment. “I went on tours, and this guy’s name kept coming up. I did a little research and found out he was from Lancashire, the same town my dad is from,” said the British expatriate on a recent guided tour of Parkinson’s buildings. “I was bewildered when I went to the public library and asked for the John Parkinson section and there was nothing, nobody there had heard of him.”
Gee believes that the giants of modernism that came after him such as Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, who are so well known, may have done more to excite academia but none of them did more than Parkinson to help the city become what it is. Of the more than 200 structures he designed, 50 remain. With the exception of the majestic Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire store (now Southwestern Law School), Parkinson’s buildings shared classic lines absent of excessive gaudy décor.
His life was a blueprint for the California dreamer. Born in 1861 the son of a mill worker, he dropped out of school at 13. After working as an apprentice for a building contractor, he traveled to Canada and eventually landed in Napa, then Seattle in time for a building boom and left after a bust, heading to California nearly bankrupt. “All he knew about California was that it was warm and tropical and you were well advised to be polite in order to avoid being shot or stabbed,” Gee said.
Parkinson arrived in L.A. in 1894 when the population was 50,000. When he died in 1935 it was more than a million. “He was the dominant architect over that time period when L.A. transforms from basically an outpost to a booming metropolis,” Gee said.
One of his first projects was the city’s first-class “A” steel-frame structure, the Homer Laughlin Building, now Grand Central Market, in 1896. Next was the town’s first skyscraper, the 12-story Braly Block building. USC was a small Methodist institution when he was asked to design a master plan for the campus.
“In a way Parkinson is more than just an architect, he’s a sort of a founder of Los Angeles, especially in the 1920’s,” noted Historian Kevin Starr.
Many believe the construction of Parkinson’s Memorial Coliseum was crucial to securing the 1932 Olympics. Yet his greatest achievement may well have been the soaring City Hall. “It speaks to this bold ambition and expression of the city reaching it’s potential,” said Gee.
Parkinson died in 1935 while designing the plans for new Union Station with his son Donald.
Speaking to Parkinson’s legacy, historian Kevin Starr cited the epitaph of English architect Sir Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: “‘Si monumentum requiris circumspice mi,’ meaning, ‘If you seek my monument, look around you.’ If you seek John Parkinson’s monument, look around.”