In the last 40 years, Los Angeles has faced major decisions about our civic center. We almost demolished the 1928 City Hall, but decided to save it, and today it is a cherished landmark. We considered tearing down the 1926 Central Library, but decided to save it, and today it anchors a vibrant downtown hub.
Now a similar choice confronts us with the former LAPD headquarters, Parker Center. Unlike City Hall and the Central Library, Parker Center is, in the words of Richard Barron, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission president, “not an easy building to love.”
More than 60 years old, Parker Center’s simple Midcentury Modern lines aren’t to everyone’s taste. Its systems and engineering are undoubtedly outdated, and it has been empty since 2009, when the Los Angeles Police Department moved to a new building around the corner. Now some city officials want a complete do-over: Demolish Parker Center and replace it with an up-to-the-minute high-rise that will allow City Hall to consolidate offices and staff.
But Parker Center deserves to be preserved. In November, the Cultural Heritage Commission, of which I’m vice president, unanimously voted to declare it a City Historic-Cultural Monument. That alone won’t protect it; even if the City Council confirms its monument status, the council members may also ultimately decide to tear the building down.
By preserving Parker Center, we hold on to a part of L.A.’s story that needs to be remembered.
The Cultural Heritage Commission strongly believes this isn’t an either/or situation. We recommend “adaptive reuse.” In other words, the city could design a substantially new building that nonetheless incorporates what is an architecturally and socially significant piece of the city’s past. City engineers claim that reusing Parker Center will be too expensive, but other planners dispute their cost estimates. Adaptive reuse makes good sense economically, aesthetically and historically.
In the 1950s, architects Welton Becket, whose firm also designed the Music Center, the Capitol Records building and other L.A. landmarks, and J. E. Stanton were commissioned to design a headquarters for a forward-looking city’s modern police force.
The building’s style was innovative for its time. It rejected historical forms and decoration (the very things that make City Hall and the Central Library so lovable) in favor of new materials and a straightforward aesthetic — a box made of aluminum, lightweight steel and plastics, set in a garden by landscape architect Ralph E. Cornell.
For much of the early 20th century, police departments in major cities were mired in corruption and nepotism. When William H. Parker became LAPD chief in 1950, he instituted changes that created a more disciplined, equitable and efficient force. The LAPD was the first department in the nation to have a crime lab, and its reputation grew when it was the setting for the popular television show “Dragnet.”
Mayor Tom Bradley benefited from Parker’s leadership. Los Angeles was one of the first cities in the country to have black uniformed police officers. Bradley, who served in the LAPD for 20 years, was promoted up the chain of command with increasing responsibility. By 1960, he was put in charge of the Wilshire District.
But here is where Parker’s legacy gets complicated. Under Parker, the LAPD earned a reputation for its brutality toward communities of color, and when the 1965 Watts riots erupted, the chief further inflamed the situation, describing blacks as “monkeys in a zoo.” Parker later acknowledged that he was ill-prepared to handle a riot.
When Parker died in 1966, the LAPD headquarters were named Parker Center in his honor, and for decades, the building was a focal point for demonstrations against police misconduct.
It is this history, as well as elements of the architecture and design of Parker Center, that deserves preservation.
The building’s garden entry, elegant wood-paneled auditorium, and other classic midcentury features could be integrated into a new office building. Though we may not universally appreciate Parker Center’ understated lines and spaces today, future generations should have the opportunity to see how the city developed, how it expressed its aspirations through architecture: the monumental 1928 City Hall, with its art deco references, next to the sleek 1955 Parker Center and the contemporary 2009 police headquarters that faces City Hall across First Street.
By preserving Parker Center, we hold on to a part of L.A.’s story that needs to be remembered. There is a reason “white’s only” drinking fountains are preserved in the South, and the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar is a national historic site on the east side of the Sierra. These places are lessons from the past.
And now, with Black Lives Matter demonstrators regularly voicing grievances at the new police headquarters, the evolution of the relationship between L.A.’s police and its citizens is especially relevant. Preserving Parker Center won’t resolve L.A.’s troubled policing history. But restored and reopened, it can remind us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.
Is saving Parker Center as important to Los Angeles as saving City Hall or the Central Library? Lovable or not, the answer is yes.
Gail Kennard manages an architecture firm in Los Angeles and is vice president of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.