Parker Center, the former LAPD headquarters, hard by Little Tokyo and shadowed every afternoon by City Hall, has been mostly empty since 2009 and increasingly forlorn. The building could be saved and reused. Or it could be demolished to make room for another government office tower in the Civic Center. Neither solution is perfect, and examining the options raises questions about the durability of our memories as Los Angeles’ downtown continues to be transformed.
When it opened in 1955, the new police headquarters was aspirational: a modernist box by Welton Becket & Associates for a new kind of law enforcement in a new era of science, technology and militant efficiency. Appearances on “Dragnet” and other black-and-white TV shows made the building a minor celebrity. Midcentury boxes, however notable their architecture, don’t always age well. Vermin, dampness, asbestos, outdated technology and earthquake fragility made Parker Center an unlikely candidate for reuse after the Los Angeles Police Department moved into its new building a block away. The city’s Bureau of Engineering would prefer to raze Parker Center and put up a 27-story tower to consolidate the scattered offices of several city departments.
Preservationists, including the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Little Tokyo Historical Society, want to save the building. The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission agrees: In January it sent the City Council a recommendation to declare Parker Center a historic-cultural monument. The City Council has until the end of April to decide.
But even a “yes” vote won’t automatically save Parker Center. It would add another year of procedural delay during which a compromise might be found that preserves the building. Ultimately, it’s the City Council that will decide whether Parker Center goes or stays and in what form.
The council already has a superb precedent for the reuse of an architectural icon. The empty county Hall of Justice reopened in 2014, after 20 years and $230 million in restoration and seismic retrofitting, to house the offices of the district attorney and the Sheriff Department’s command. Like City Hall, its near contemporary, the Hall of Justice reflects 1920s Los Angeles in all its big-city ambitions. Clad in white Sierra granite, fitted out in marble and bronze, and paneled with hardwoods, the Hall of Justice was made of durable stuff for a city that insisted it was here to stay, despite those who claimed Los Angeles was as temporary as a Hollywood set.
Parker Center might become an icon of the ambitions of mid-20th century Los Angeles, except its less durable plywood, ceramic tile and extruded aluminum were made for a city in constant motion. Being modern in 1950s Los Angeles was always about speeding toward the future, where life would gleam brighter and everything from yesterday would be obsolete or merely nostalgic.
It’s not nostalgia that motivates some in the African American and Latino communities to support saving Parker Center today, but a fierce determination not to forget its dark history. The building was renamed in 1966 after the sudden death of Police Chief William H. Parker, a posthumous honor for reforming a corrupt and politicized police force. But Parker also militarized the police under his command. The department’s weekend roundups of African American and Latino youth, its practice of stop-and-frisk without cause, and its almost casual violence embittered minority communities. Patrol officers were seen as occupiers, not protectors. Coming just a year after the Watts riots, the naming of Parker Center was interpreted as Chief Parker’s reward for keeping a lid on black aspirations for justice, jobs and dignity.
The videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991 seemed to show a department that had reached a final stage of callousness. During the civil unrest that followed acquittal of the officers charged in the beating, one focus of the crowd’s anger was Parker Center, a symbol of the man and the policies that many blamed for the department’s brutality and impunity.
Gail Kennard — a member of the Cultural Heritage Commission, an architect and an African American — has argued that Parker Center symbolizes both the tragedies and partial victories of the city’s black community. Racist cops were promoted in Parker’s LAPD, but Tom Bradley also emerged from its ranks to become the city’s first African American mayor. The force today, because of a change required under a 1996 federal consent decree, broadly represents the demographic diversity of the city. That history deserves remembrance.
Welton Becket, the building’s architect, is worth remembering too for the way he materialized mid-20th century Los Angeles in buildings as different as the Capitol Records tower, the Cinerama Dome and the Music Center. The City Council has to weigh these claims of memory against the need for more office space. The answer probably isn’t a display of Parker Center’s history in the lobby of a new office tower.
Parker Center is a conflicted symbol and therefore hard to fit into any plan. Those at City Hall who want less talk about the past and more new office space argue that the Civic Center’s future is necessarily denser, taller and even more robustly urban than Parker Center’s 1950s ideas about the future. For those in downtown’s real estate game, the low-rise aesthetic of Los Angeles modernism, though often graceful and even lyrical, wastes valuable, buildable space.
Parker Center is a derelict building, and something must be done with it. To reuse Parker Center while crowding it with new construction, as has been suggested, could compromise the aesthetic qualities that preservationists are trying to save. Putting up a bland, generic office tower as a replacement would diminish the Civic Center’s renaissance, symbolized by Grand Park. Erasing the symbol that Parker Center has become would betray the memories of those who suffered because of the decisions made there.
One of the least understood powers of government — yet one of its most potent — is its choice to preserve shared memories or let them fade. Parker Center’s empty corridors and shabby offices are filled with memories, many of them painful and some of them belonging to a city that Los Angeles no longer is. Because remembering is learning, preservation of those memories is important to the city’s future. The question is how will the city save them?
D.J. Waldie is a contributing writer to Opinion and the author of “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir” and “Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles,” among other books about Los Angeles and Southern California.