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Different decorative ceilings
The ceilings of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Congregational Church of Northridge, Walt Disney Concert Hall, City Hall, Palm Court, CalEdison and Hollywood Vine Metro.
(Teena Apeles; Sandra Stojanović / Los Angeles City Hall; Brian van der Brug and Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Look up: The 32 most spectacular ceilings in Los Angeles

As a child, I’d often visit the Griffith Observatory, where my parents took me and my sisters to marvel at the views of the city and see the stars at night through the famous public telescopes. But what I’ll never forget is what greeted me indoors, just through the main entrance, when I looked up.

In the central rotunda, a colorful ceiling mural made my jaw drop: There were frolicking animals, joyful children and wondrous figures (some winged, some nude) having a party in the sky with the moon — and I wanted to join them.

The experience of seeing that 1934 mural — by artist and filmmaker Hugo Ballin, whose paintings can also be found in City Hall, the Southern California Edison building, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the former Los Angeles Times building downtown — has stayed with me. Throughout my life, it’s served as a reminder to gaze upward — or miss the many visual feasts that exist directly overhead.

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Over the last several months, I’ve visited and revisited L.A. destinations with breathtaking ceilings, now with my own young daughter by my side. I’ve learned about their history and architecture and the massive efforts taken to preserve them. (Although many of these ceilings are now protected by local and national decree, rapid development, natural disasters and our own vices — decades of cigar and cigarette smoke, for instance — have taken a toll. If not for the passionate work of artisans, engineers, architects, preservationists and funders, many of these ceilings would not exist today.) Here, I share the 32 most spectacular ceilings I’ve found, though the selections could easily triple in number.

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Let this guide be a starting point for your adventures in looking up. The list, presented in chronological order by each destination’s completion date (the oldest was unveiled in 1911), predictably includes historic movie palaces, performing arts venues and places of worship — spaces intended to transport us out of our everyday lives. But other destinations may surprise you: a tiny drinking hole, a neighborhood library or office buildings in the middle of downtown L.A.

There are masterpieces in every corner of the city worth getting a neck ache over.

Here’s to the old ceilings and to Angelenos who continue to push creative boundaries with all that’s way above our heads.

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A skylight made of stained glass that looks like a glowing tapestry against a blue-sky background.
(Teena Apeles)

Alexandria Hotel’s Palm Court

Downtown L.A. Venue
The nearly 200-foot-long Palm Court on the ground floor of the 1906 Beaux-Arts Alexandria Hotel designed by John Parkinson was part of an adjacent 1911 multistory addition and originally served as a dining area. First named the Franco-Italian Dining Salon, it is now a sought-after downtown event venue thanks to the timeless beauty of its four rectangular Tiffany stained-glass skylights, especially the larger center ones, with twin designs of stretched tapestries that float in a sky of blue glass. An American president and Hollywood and English royalty alike have spent time below them. Circa 1919, Charlie Chaplin dined here with friends D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to discuss the formation and eventual launch of their United Artists studio.

The subdued, earthy palette of the skylights’ intricate carpet designs glow especially radiantly when the chandeliers are dimmed. Local fine artist Simon Simonian of Progressive Art Stained Glass Studio, who has an architectural and construction background, is the reason we are able to still enjoy the skylights today. When Simon was brought in at the end of 2017, his son and studio co-founder, Emanuel Simonian, says, “The skylights were so damaged that they presented a health hazard (pieces were at risk of falling down) … and the original illustrations on some were completely gone.” Simon spent about seven months removing “a century of grime and filth” from what was salvageable and re-creating the rest from scratch while maintaining the original design’s integrity.
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A coffered rotunda capped by a skylight.
(Teena Apeles)

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Exposition Park Museum
In a museum that holds so much wonder, you may have missed quality time with its remarkable ceilings. Yet it’s likely you’ve snapped a pic with the Grand Foyer’s dueling dinosaurs — perhaps the most photographed residents since their 1996 installation — below a marvelous 40-foot-tall, gold-and-mustard-toned coffered ceiling, with a series of recessed panels in its surface, that hails from the late 1920s. The Allied Architects Assn. of Los Angeles designed the foyer, while Frank Hudson and William A.D. Munsell designed the original 1913 building, featuring the must-visit glorious rotunda (its original entrance) with Julia Bracken Wendt’s “Three Muses” statue greeting visitors upon entry.

During a recent visit, I watched as school chaperones reminded kids to look up as they made their way through the Haaga Family Rotunda. Their little heads tilted upward, and an adorable chorus of “whoooooa” followed as they took in the cream-barreled dome bedecked with gilded plaster rosettes (echoed in the foyer ceiling) and a decorative 58-foot-high stained-glass skylight at the dome’s center, made by Walter Horace Judson. Judson’s great-grandsons, Bill and David, were tasked with the multicolored skylight’s restoration in 1994. “What was amazing was the simple elegance of the design and the beautiful combination of colors that we got to see up close and personal,” notes David, president of Highland Park-based Judson Studios. Measuring 20 feet across, the skylight consists of 16 curved sections, each made up of approximately 100 pieces.
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An towering entry hall with a white coffered ceiling.
(Teena Apeles)

PacMutual Sentry Building

Downtown L.A. Office Building
It was during a Los Angeles Conservancy Historic Downtown tour that I first saw the remarkable lobby ceilings of the 1921 Sentry Building, which also has been home to the Conservancy’s offices since the mid-1990s. Through the archway of the Beaux-Arts building, designed by the firm Dodd & Richards, is an elegant arcade with an ivory and white coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling two stories high, embedded with sculpted flowers and egg-and-dart molding, with a repeating egg-shape pattern. “There is a definite wow factor. The first time I saw the interior of the building was when I came here for my interview,” says Alex Inshishian, the Conservancy’s program manager. “I thought to myself that this would be a nice place to work.”

The arcade leads to elevators where the ceiling changes to a mustard-colored, primarily rectangular coffered style with decorative molding in an antique white and gold, and more egg-and-dart molding. The suspended, rectangular strip lighting added during a restoration around 2012 to 2014 brings it into the 21st century. Take the marble staircase up to the mezzanine level to see the ceiling so close that if you’re of a certain height, you can touch it.
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A towering galleria with mosaics radiating above circular chandeliers.
(Teena Apeles)

The Biltmore Los Angeles

Downtown L.A. Hotel
Practically every ceiling at the Biltmore hotel, designed by the Schultze & Weaver firm (the Waldorf-Astoria is among its most famous projects) and Palermo, Italy-born muralist and interior designer Giovanni Smeraldi, is a magnificent work of art, evoking old Europe more than downtown L.A. Entering from Grand Avenue, take in the palatial luxury of the lobby, including a coffered ceiling that is rich in dark colors, opulent carvings and embellishments, with a large, decoratively framed, lighted centerpiece.

Proceed to the long galleria, where a stunning octagonal coffered and painted ceiling of brighter colors and lighter moldings greets you. It’s a must to promenade from end to end, as above each circular chandelier is a mural mosaic radiating from it featuring goddesses and nymphs at play, as well as bronze filigrees.

Midway, take the red-carpeted steps past the elevators to view the ceiling of the hotel’s original lobby, now called Rendezvous Court, up close. It’s a Moorish Revival–style vaulted wood ceiling with painted and carved vertical beams dancing from end to end. Note the 24-karat gold accents! Then descend like royalty down one of the staircases. I’ve enjoyed afternoon tea here as an early 20th century time machine outing. My favorite memory of the court was during the first Women’s March, when hundreds of demonstrators casually walked in to eat or use the hotel’s facilities — the staff were gracious hosts — and I saw unsuspecting first-time visitors’ expressions of absolute shock, then awe, upon seeing such grandeur.

There are many more Biltmore ceilings to admire beyond these three, such as the ballrooms and Galleria Bar. If you can’t wait to visit, I recommend the hotel’s 3-D Model Gallery online for a gratifying peek.
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A glass-roofed atrium with chandeliers.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Central Library

Downtown L.A. Library
A short walk from the Biltmore is one of our city’s absolute treasures. With eight floors totaling more than 500,000 square feet, which of the ceilings here are must-sees? Most people will immediately say the rotunda, located on the second floor of the original 1923 library building designed by architect Bertram Goodhue that now bears his name. There’s nothing quite like being dwarfed by the rotunda’s 64-foot-high dome, with its exquisitely painted ceilings (and supporting arches) by Julian Garnsey and surrounding murals by Dean Cornwell. You can daydream while gazing up at the brightly illuminated globe chandelier by Lee Lawrie, encircled by a bronze zodiac ring.

Others are drawn to the openness of the modern atrium, with its barreled glass ceiling and melon-painted framework, of the Tom Bradley Wing that opened in 1993. It was designed by the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates led by architect Norman Pfeiffer. I appreciate both the rotunda and the atrium (and mourn what was lost during the 1986 fire). But can you relax and read in these spaces?

Try other incredible historic rooms with Garnsey-painted ceilings off the rotunda. Architects Brenda Levin and Robert Coffee were brought in to renovate and repurpose spaces in the Goodhue building, since the new wing would hold the majority of the library’s collection. This led to a former reading room becoming the children’s department, with a high, cement-beamed ceiling painted to appear like wood with patterns and illustrations. I love how the beams run parallel to the department’s rows of bookcases below. (For older kids, head to Teen’scape, the former Fiction Reading Room that also features Garnsey’s work.) Much lower, similarly styled ceilings are found in the Language Learning Center, which is often packed with patrons intently reading and has half-dome chandeliers hanging throughout. For a deeper dive, take one of the library’s daily tours.
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An auditorium ceiling decorated with amber-hued geometric panels.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Time)

The Orpheum Theatre

Downtown L.A. Theater
I like to imagine flashily dressed guests arriving through the carved archways of the luxurious Orpheum Theatre, designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, to take in the vaudeville show on the day it opened in 1926. In its French Baroque–inspired auditorium, the ceiling’s gilded geometric panels, each with inlays, frame a larger centerpiece design resembling a decorative cross, with four medallions on each side of the center circle. Large bronze chandeliers, each with strips of blue glass at the base, descend from two of the medallions. Don’t miss the illuminated round stained-glass pieces lighting the balcony’s underbelly in different colors as you enter the auditorium.

The lobby’s vaulted, diamond- and triangle-shaped coffered ceiling keeps colors at a minimum and is compelling in its simplicity: amber-toned with bronze molding and small rosettes. The stars here are the floral bronze chandeliers with layered leaves. The center chandelier is a blooming flower facing downward and inside are a bunch of filaments — if you look closely, you’ll see a little blue one in the middle.
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Hollywood, CA - March 19: The majestic El Capitan Theatre, in the heart of Hollywood, CA, prior to a screening of "Raya and the Last Dragon," as movie theaters reopen Friday, March 19, 2021. With Los Angeles County falling into the less-restrictive "red tier," COVID-19 restrictions have allowed for movie theaters to open and operate at 25% capacity. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

El Capitan Theatre

Hollywood Movie Theater
The El Capitan is an L.A. rite of passage. Maybe you saw your first Disney movie here. Or you took your kids to see “Toy Story” or “Moana” at this grand old movie palace, which opened as a playhouse on Hollywood Boulevard in 1926, four years after the Egyptian and a year before the Chinese. Disney and Pacific Theaters painstakingly restored the El Cap in the late ’80s, reopening it in 1991 with the world premiere of “The Rocketeer.” It’s still the site for many Disney premieres, as well as first-run showings of the studio’s various Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm movies. Seeing those films at the El Capitan feels like an event, with a jaunty preshow Wurlitzer pipe organ program that ends with the grand instrument descending into the theater’s floor. Look over at your kid’s face as the organ disappears. Wasn’t the drive worth it?
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The Mayan Theater has an elaborate ceiling, here lighted red.
(Timothy Norris)

The Mayan

Downtown L.A. Venue
There is no shortage of ceiling eye candy at the 1927 Mayan theater by Morgan, Walls & Clements, a departure from the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles for which the firm (also responsible for the Wiltern Theatre and Thomas Jefferson High School) is known. Inspired by news stories of treasures being unearthed in Central America, then-manager Gerhold O. Davis conceived the theme, with Stiles O. Clements leading the project.

Nearly every ceiling and surface throughout the venue was given a unique and jaw-dropping treatment. One standout is the theater’s massive centerpiece reminiscent of the Aztec sun stone; it has a bit of a steampunk vibe, with radiating pieces that resemble gears. Behind it are painted coffered panels, some with figures, others with decorative designs. The interior and exterior’s heavy embellishments were primarily created and informed by the research of Mexican artist Francisco Cornejo.

In a 1927 article on theater decoration, Times art critic Arthur Millier wrote, “The authentic and beautifully combined decorative elements such as the proscenium … the sculptural treatment of the ceiling and great central lighting fixture, the carven panels that abound in the walls — these things could easily have been ruined by injudicious coloring.” Imagine if he could experience the Mayan with 21st century lighting during a packed Lucha VaVoom event. Those performers flying overhead beneath the large disco ball give the ceilings some serious competition.
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A lighted ceiling dome above a stage proscenium on which Gothic ornamentation hangs like icicles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Theatre at Ace Hotel

Downtown L.A. Theater
United Artists studio was dreamed up at the Alexandria Hotel. Blocks away in the famed Broadway District, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith erected the studio’s headquarters and a theater worthy of headlines and movie premieres, completed in 1927. Now the Ace Hotel and Theatre, the venue’s interiors are as bold as the group’s move to leave the studio system, thanks to veteran theater designer and architect C. Howard Crane.

A dazzling ceiling in the lobby mimics ancient tapestries and stained-glass portraiture, and Gothic ornamentation amazes throughout the theater — you’ll want to touch whatever is within arm’s reach. The ornate decor supposedly was at the urging of Pickford, who became enamored of the architecture at Spain’s Segovia Cathedral during her and Fairbanks’ honeymoon. The auditorium’s framed oval dome of mirrored tiles in the vaulted ceiling captures the imagination. When lighted, it appears like a portal to other worlds. It’s no wonder televangelist Gene Scott was drawn to it, renaming the theater the Los Angeles University Cathedral when his church leased the building in 1999. Scott and his followers remained there until the Ace Hotel acquired the building and venue in 2011.
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The colorful painted ceiling at San Gabriel Mission Playhouse.
(Johnny Vy / Johnny Vy Photography)

San Gabriel Mission Playhouse

San Gabriel Valley Theater
If you’re a fan of the Mission Inn in Riverside, there’s another destination where you can admire Arthur Burnett Benton’s work. He was chosen by playwright John S. McGroarty to design the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, which was completed in 1927 to host the run of McGroarty’s masterwork, “The Mission Play,” which he’d written in the Mission Inn. (Architect William J. Dodd also contributed to the playhouse’s design.) It’s unclear who was responsible for the beautifully embellished ceilings and beams in the lobby and auditorium — the bright blue panels with sunbursts in the theater especially catch the eye — though the son of renowned muralist Anthony Heinsbergen, Tony, believed his father was. After all, Heinsbergen’s work graces more than 750 theaters in the country.

The playhouse experienced significant damage in the Whittier and Northridge earthquakes and has undergone reconstruction and (ongoing) restoration to preserve its architecture and plaster and metal lath ceilings. Around 1996 to 1997, to address uneven fading and damage, fine artist and restoration painter Evan Wilson was brought in to repaint them. “He took the painstaking process to get everything exactly the same, with the same color” as the original, says Josh Fairman, who has worked at the playhouse since 1996. Wilson also received permission to transform the faces of the four Spanish conquistadors illustrated on the beams to McGroarty; the theater’s then- manager, Bill Shaw; then-City Manager P. Michael Paules; and, “of course, he had to put his own face up there.”
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A ballroom with an illuminated red ceiling trimmed in gold.
(Gaszton Gal)

Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

Hollywood Hotel
There’s so much charm in this Spanish Colonial Revivalist hotel, whose lead designer was H.B. Travers and whose backers included Sid Grauman, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. There’s a diamond-coffered ceiling in the walkway before you proceed through the archways into the lobby, renovated by Nickey Kehoe, where the original chandelier from 1927 illuminates the multicolored ceiling and beams. Lounge on one of the comfy couches amid potted palm trees to enjoy the view at any hour.

More dazzling lighting can be found on the same floor in the hotel’s Blossom Ballroom, home to the first Academy Awards banquet on May 16, 1929. Its 25-foot ceiling’s decorative framework runs the length of the room and is equipped with modern LED lighting that changes colors: red, blue, daylight, amber and purple. KC Restoration was among the experts consulted to ensure the ceiling grid matched the original gold paint to honor the hotel’s important role in Hollywood history.
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A ceiling starburst in a Chinese-themed theater.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

TCL Chinese Theatre

Hollywood Movie Theater
Across the street from the Roosevelt is the theater known around the world and on every tourist’s itinerary: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now a TCL Imax theater), designed by Meyer & Holler with Raymond Kennedy. It’s not enough to simply visit its forecourt of celebrity hand- and footprints; you must also experience its interiors, decorated by John Beckman. The ceiling alone is worth the ticket price. Sid Grauman’s other themed movie palace down the boulevard, the 1922 Egyptian Theatre, also has spectacular ceilings, but here he spared no expense: Grauman spent $2.1 million to build the Chinese Theatre, more than double the Egyptian’s cost. (Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were co-owners of the Chinese.)

On the 90th anniversary of the theater’s opening in 2017, Times contributor Susan King reported that the show-stopping ceiling medallion is constructed of wood sourced from China and that Beckman created the stencils used for the surrounding murals, which include detailed illustrations of fierce dragons, painted in shimmering gold. The ceiling was hand-painted by artisans who did so on scaffolding 90 feet high. Don’t miss the murals by Chinese-born actor and artist Keye Luke in the lobby.
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A coffered, painted ceiling from which a two-tiered chandelier hangs.
(Teena Apeles)

The Ebell of Los Angeles

Organization
You may have visited or heard of the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre but may not be familiar with the group behind it, the Ebell of Los Angeles, the oldest organization for women in the city, founded in 1894. “We’re a membership organization. We’re part of the community. We’re not just a theater, we’re a cultural force,” says board president Laurie Schechter. Architect Sumner P. Hunt designed the magnificent three-story building, which opened in 1927 and now houses a library, art salon, auditorium, classrooms and ballrooms — many of which you’ve seen on the big and small screens.

In what was first known as the Reception Room, now called the Lounge, you’ll find a gorgeous, Renaissance-inspired coffered ceiling of small and large gilded rosettes amid other plaster floral flourishes with semi-faded but original colored backgrounds (maroon, green and blue). The beams are painted as well, each with medallions illustrated with different symbols associated with arts and culture, including a scroll, artist palette, harp and globe. “It was really formed as a place for education,” Schecter says of the building. “They had classes and lectures on world affairs, language, art and music classes … and even performances by the members themselves.” Not to be overlooked are the three two-tier chandeliers, also with floral elements, that top off the room’s elegant atmosphere.
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The Art Deco entry to a building has a ceiling of geometric opalescent panels.
(Teena Apeles)

The Oviatt Building

Downtown L.A. Historical Landmark
You can’t talk about Art Deco in L.A. without mentioning the James Oviatt Building, a high-rise named after its original owner and constructed by Walker & Eisen. It originally housed the men’s high-end clothing store Alexander & Oviatt and is now home to the Cicada restaurant/nightclub. The building’s unique lobby ceiling is populated by flush-mounted, geometric-shaped light fixtures; I learned from Oviatt historian Marc Chevalier that these are a simplified version of the original, more opulent 1928 design that featured etched glass panels designed by Gaëtan Jeannin and framework by Ferdinand Chanut. “In an attempt to ‘modernize’ the building … its ceiling panels were removed and sold off in 1967, and the framework was dismantled and destroyed,” explains Chevalier, who researched, wrote and produced Seth Shulman’s 2008 documentary, “The Oviatt Building.” “Half of the original ceiling panels still exist: they are currently owned by LACMA.”

To passersby who happen to wander in for a closer look or have taken a guided tour, the plastic light fixtures added in 1979 still inspire wonder and, in the case of my daughter and her friend, impromptu joyful dances below them. Chevalier encourages everyone to take time to admire the original cornice of etched and painted glass panels, which is beautifully illuminated when the sun goes down.
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A mythical scene decorates an ornate barrel ceiling.
(Sandra Stojanović from Los Angeles City Hall, courtesy of Angel City Press)

Los Angeles City Hall

Downtown L.A. Civic Building
Do the ceilings of our City Hall, completed in 1928, have as much personality as our civic leaders, past and present? Indeed, and some even have images of past leaders embedded in them. Local architects John Parkinson, Albert C. Martin and John C. Austin worked together on the primarily Art Deco building’s design, while fellow architect Austin Whittlesey oversaw its interiors. But the greatest painters of the day — Herman Sachs and Anthony Heinsbergen and their respective teams of artists — brought City Hall’s ceilings to life.

Stephen Gee explored their work in great detail in his book “Los Angeles City Hall: An American Icon.” Sachs decorated the Board of Public Works Session Room ceiling beams with intricate patterns in gold and the city seal at its center. In the corridor, such historical figures as Alta California governors Juan Bautista Alvarado and José Figueroa are painted on the ceiling beams. While you’re looking at the council chamber’s ceiling, find Venus, Apollo and Mercury (who is also featured in Sachs’ Bullocks Wilshire mural), among other gods, along with zodiac signs.

Heinsbergen did many of the lobby ceilings (north, south, east and elevator) that feature decorative patterns, starbursts, medallions and mythical figures. Often they had deeper meanings, particularly the east lobby’s dome, with “a star-shaped medallion ringed by the signs of the zodiac and an inscription reading, ‘The Masters of Education Hold in Their Hands the Future of the World,’” which Gee points out in his book. “The pendentives in the dome featured a series of murals portraying earth, wind, water, and fire,” he writes. “Other nearby panels highlighted commerce, civil engineering, science, and other themes.”
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A Moorish dome in a library reading room.
(Elena Zhukova)

UCLA’s Powell Library

Westwood Library
Note: UCLA’s Powell Library is currently closed for seismic renovations and tentatively scheduled to reopen in spring 2024.

Architect George W. Kelham modeled the library and Royce Hall, the first two buildings completed on the new Westwood campus of UCLA in 1929, after northern Italian Romanesque architecture. You’ll also see Spanish influences, especially in Powell’s astounding ceiling stretching the length of the beloved second-floor main reading room, with a 63-foot-high Moorish octagonal dome that features the beautiful illustrated work of muralist Julian Garnsey, who did the Central Library’s rotunda. (Powell’s rotunda is magical too.) The plaster ceiling sustained major damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, requiring more than 2,000 pieces to be carefully removed for repair or replication.

On an average day, some 200 students can be found in the reading room, says graduating senior Charis Shargel, who works at the circulation desk. She refers to the room as “our pretty celebrity”; it’s a popular location for graduation photos as well as studying. When Shargel learned Powell would be closed starting last November, she made a point to spend more time there. “I kept getting distracted by the ceiling because it’s so beautiful, very detailed, and the closer you look, the more that you see,” she says. Keep an eye out for printer colophons and symbols associated with wisdom and knowledge.
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A pastel Art Deco ceiling with geometric shapes.
(Teena Apeles)

Bullocks Wilshire

Westside Historical Landmark
Now home to the Southwestern Law School’s Los Angeles campus, the 1929 Art Deco masterpiece by father-son architects John and Donald Parkinson is one of L.A.’s greatest architectural treasures. The ceilings are worth adoring as well, from the marble lobby’s tray ceiling, with narrow green-hued beams running across it, to the fifth-floor Cactus Lounge’s painted glass tiles, which form a desert ceiling mosaic reconstructed from archival images. The latter leads into what originally was the Cactus Room, better known as the Tea Room, where a pastel palette introduced in the 1950s still pleases, along with the large, playfully placed geometric shapes of its ceiling. Even the women’s bathroom lounge off the Cactus Lounge has a lovely oval coffered ceiling painted a rose gold.

The most jaw-dropping ceiling moment comes at the building’s original entrance, not on Wilshire Boulevard but at the rear of the building in its grand porte-cochère, where Bullocks’ upscale clientele pulled up and handed off their keys to valets below Herman Sachs’ massive, vibrantly colored frescoSpirit of Transportation.” The god Mercury is depicted at its center; around him, various modes of transportation loom, including a Graf Zeppelin, a Union Pacific locomotive and airplanes. It is admittedly a challenge to view such a massive work with your head tilted back the whole time, but that’s part of the thrill. On a sunny day, walk from end to end slowly, maneuvering around the area’s benches and potted plants, to take it in — and attempt to capture the sheer awe of it all in a photograph.
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A dome in which coffered octagonal shapes surround a deep blue oculus.
(Teena Apeles)

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Koreatown Temple
The Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which opened in 1929 and was named Temple B’nai B’rith until 1937, is one of those buildings you can’t miss thanks to the size of its Byzantine-style dome, 135 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet high. Home to the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, founded in 1862, the sanctuary was designed by A.M. Edelman. The inner dome consists of large coffered plaster octagons with gilded molding; at its apex is a blue-painted, illuminated oculus encircled with a Hebrew prayer in gold that translates to “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.”

Part of the beauty of seeing it for the first time is the transition from the dark corridor around the sanctuary, which serves as a buffer against the sounds of Wilshire Boulevard and outside light, to the grand reveal. Perhaps it was one of the many theater design elements requested by Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, who led the congregation for 69 years and counted many legendary Hollywood producers among his congregants and friends.

From 2011 to 2013, the building underwent a major restoration. One of the more entertaining stories I learned about what prompted it involved members gathered in the sanctuary who were startled to find it snowing inside. (It was actually flaking paint from the dome.) “The restoration decision was largely driven by the fundamental decision to honor the congregation’s place in the city of L.A. historically and geographically,” says Don Levy, the temple’s director of communications. The false snowfall “demonstrated the absolute need of repairs. … From there, we embarked on a decade of restoration and redevelopment of the entire block.” Temple leadership sought out the most skilled artisans and architects — namely, Brenda Levin, the lead project architect, who oversaw the restoration of other historic buildings on this list — and dug into the temple’s photo archives to maintain the integrity of the original design.
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An entry canopy's ceiling is decorated with a huge medallion that looks like a blooming flower.
(Teena Apeles)

The Wiltern

Koreatown Music venue
“It’s a very special experience to walk into a place where your jaw just drops at how ornate it is,” notes Margot Gerber, president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. “With movie theaters or live stage theaters, that’s part of the experience — coming out of the everyday world and into someplace that is pure fantasy.” That’s true from the get-go at the Wiltern, which opened in 1931 as the Warner Bros. Western Theatre in the Pellissier Building, another stunner by architect Stiles O. Clements, with interiors by G. Albert Lansburgh and murals by Anthony Heinsbergen.

At the entrance, the monochromatic sculpted wonder of the ceiling above the ticket booth is truly a gift to the city. And in an area of town where so many communities intersect, there are no barriers or walls or entry fee to experience it. Inside, colorfully designed murals decorate the entrance lobby, mezzanine level and orchestra bar ceilings. (Heinsbergen’s son, Tony, worked on the restoration of the ceilings and murals in the 1980s, according to Mike Hume’s Historic Theatre Photos site.) On the 80-foot-high auditorium ceiling, a dreamy Art Deco cityscape fans out from the stage against a rainbow mural, with each arc of color bordered by dancing stars. It’s the stuff that dreams — and Los Angeles — are made of.
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The ceiling of a theater's entry canopy is decorated with a recessed starburst illuminated with many small lightbulbs.
(Teena Apeles)

Pantages Theatre

Hollywood Theater
The B. Marcus Priteca-designed Pantages opened to much fanfare in 1930 and continues to thrill, especially at its entrance. The Art Deco starburst ceiling design is especially magical on a quiet night on the boulevard, with the theater’s doors closed and the always-animated crowd seated inside. Standing under its multitude of lights late in the evening for maximum wonder, I asked an attendant if the sight of it ever gets old. He replied with a firm “no.”

Once inside, there’s the barrel-vaulted ceiling of its lobby, where geometric shapes abound, and Anthony Heinsbergen’s highly ornamented theater ceiling with tiered, multifaceted glass and a bronze starburst chandelier that can steal the show. The prolific artist and designer decorated more than 750 U.S. theaters, including 21 others for theater mogul Alexander Pantages. Make sure to take in the ceiling mural at the orchestra level: You’ll find lobsters in it.

“The great thing about the Pantages is that everywhere you look, there’s something new to discover. There are statues built into the walls depicting moviemaking and classical figures that have cameras,” says Margot Gerber, president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. “It was really an ode to Los Angeles and to the fledgling movie industry and just really glamorized it. And fortunately, it was right in that Art Deco period. So everything is incredibly geometric and angular.”
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An ornate geometric ceiling design painted in floral colors.
(Teena Apeles)

Warner Grand Theatre

San Pedro Theater
Situated along a quiet two-lane street of one- to three-story buildings in San Pedro (across the street, the 1924 Arcade Building is among the most beautiful), the Warner Grand Theatre’s location makes it feel very much a small-town treasure versus a city landmark. But the people behind what was originally a movie theater that opened in 1931 are as accomplished as they come: B. Marcus Priteca, Anthony Heinsbergen and, of course, the studio behind the theater: Warner Bros. There is color, there is grandeur and there are ornate features, all of which attracted our nation’s 39th president, Jimmy Carter, and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter to come see — and help clean — it in 2007.

On the balcony’s underbelly are striking hand-carved medallions covering the air vents. “All of this ‘cutwork’ in here was just caked with dirt and grime and 80 years of whatever,” says Warner Grand’s director, Lee Sweet, pointing to them. “Habitat for Humanity decided to come, and they had a bunch of their folks, including [longtime volunteers] the Carters, and they brushed out all the junk with little soft brushes.” The theater’s ceiling is a marvel, with carved-wood flourishes, multicolored floral stenciling and a multilayered centerpiece of varying shapes — with four stylized palm-frond-like pieces branching out diagonally to each corner and a chandelier at each tip. Visit the theater before its projected closure for restoration and renovation, starting in July.
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Vision Theatre's ceiling features male and female figures on a blue oval.
(EverGreene Architectural Arts)

Vision Theatre

Leimert Park Theater
Note: The city is restoring and renovating the theater, which is projected to reopen for the 2024-25 season.

The treasured Vision Theatre by Stiles O. Clements was constructed in 1931. Bringing together Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Plateresque styles (immediately evident in the theater’s iconic spire, upon which “Vision” is spelled out vertically in capital letters), it’s the neighborhood’s most recognizable landmark. Originally called the Leimert Theatre, the venue was renamed when actress Marla Gibbs took ownership in 1990. (The city has owned it since 1999.)

What isn’t widely known, in comparison, is the beautifully executed oval ceiling mural made to fit the then-trailblazing auditorium shape for L.A. It’s markedly different from the heavily ornamented auditorium ceilings popular during this time, though it too has dimension (concentric tiers), a decorative chandelier and dramatic lighting (then cove lighting, now recessed). It’s also massive (92 feet by 121 feet) and was imaginatively painted by Anthony Heinsbergen, who chose a different color scheme for each tier. The center oval depicts a man and woman as one, in the form of two separate figures on opposite sides. They’re painted in gold with dark outlines, giving them a three-dimensional appearance against a midnight blue background.
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A closeup of octagonal and square ceiling coffers at the CalEdison building.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California Edison Building

Downtown L.A. Office Building
Coffered ceilings — which feature a series of recessed panels on their surface — get a lot of love on this list because it’s simply not a matter of if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. What sets the Southern California Edison Building’s apart is the sheer grandeur: It’s a soaring, decoratively painted, molded ceiling (so many beautiful flourishes!) bounded by repeating rectangular pillars.

Designed by the architectural firm Allison & Allison and completed in 1931, the CalEdison lobby’s ceiling changes into a flurry of deep octagons and squares as you step onto the black-and-white checkered floor toward the elevator. Each octagonal coffer has a gilded rosette set against a greenish-blue background, surrounded by white and (to my eye) dusty pink gold-bordered frames and attractive molding. Two grayish-green marble octagon pillars that shoot up from the floor into the ceiling make the scene all the more remarkable. Sunlight from the tall surrounding windows highlights the beauty of the ceiling in different ways throughout the day.

It’s Art Deco magic, not to mention a marvelous display of marble varieties, 17 in all. Just take it from Lee McClendon, a barista at the lobby’s Aquarela coffee bar and a fairly recent L.A. transplant who enjoys being amid such history and encourages visitors to look up. McClendon directed my attention to the different colors of the window panels and noted: “This time of year, around the 11 or 12 o’clock hour is the best time to see the sun’s rays come through.”
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A half-circular skylight of clear glass panels above a mural depicting the diverse faces of Los Angeles.
(Panic Studio L.A.)

Union Station

Downtown L.A. Dark ride
Completed in 1939 and designed by architects John Parkinson and his son Donald, the Mission Moderne-style Union Station wows at every turn, especially overhead. A floral-patterned coffered ceiling greets you in the vestibule through the doors of the main Alameda Street entrance. To the left of the information booth is the original ticket concourse, with an open truss (or exposed-beam) ceiling and colorful panels featuring a flower in each. The TimesDeborah Vankin reported in 2021 on the work involved to restore the station’s ceilings, which include California wildflowers painted by Herman Sachs.

Continue to the waiting room (and the best people-watching downtown), where the vestibule ceiling‘s stenciled pattern continues. EverGreene Architectural Arts, which also conserved the Vision Theatre’s ceiling mural, restored the acoustic ceiling tiles to their original splendor and has a great time-lapse video of their stenciling.

Proceed through the passageway, dodging hectic travelers, until you reach the station’s east entrance. Admire the Art Deco dome skylight of etched, multihued stained glass above Richard Wyatt’s “City of Dreams” portrait mural. You’ve probably caught the artwork on display throughout the station, but there’s a hand-painted, ceramic-tiled wonder installed in 1995 you may have missed: Underneath the bus plaza’s pedestrian bridge is “La Sombra del Arroyo,” or “Shadow of the Stream,” depicting a tree canopy and native wildlife by prominent local muralists East Los Angeles Streetscapers’ Wayne Alaniz Healy and David Rivas Botello with Alejandro de la Loza.
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Glowing, colored lamps illuminate a bar's riotously decorated ceiling.
(Teena Apeles)

Tiki-Ti

Los Feliz Bar
One of the smallest but most iconic bars in the city, Tiki-Ti is a maximalist explosion of color and themed decor, if you can get in. (Patrons often have to queue outside.) Opened by bartender Ray Buhen in 1961 and now run by his son Mike Buhen Sr., the Los Feliz bar has a ceiling you really can’t miss: It’s low, multilayered and in flux. New fixtures are added at will; in recent years, they’ve included some 17 colorful bamboo lamps of various sizes by artisan Anders Anderson of Oceanic Designs, a regular.

Those looking for remnants from the past — while sipping one of Tiki-Ti’s very strong tropical cocktails — will be charmed by the dizzying (in a good way) array of adornments among the tikis. There are colorful leis, vintage license plates and hundreds of signed and dated cards by regulars, dating back to the bar’s opening. At the far end behind the bar, above an original mini-waterfall composed of lava rocks (with actual water cascading down), there’s a decorated circular tapa cloth Ray made that’s meant to represent the sun.

Mike recalls helping his father create the ceiling. “We cut the bamboo, the cork, the tapa cloth and nipa [to apply to] the ceiling — that was a pain in the ass and a lot of work,” he says, laughing. “If you look at the bar now, the bamboo has got a really nice color. It’s brown, but that’s not the original color, because brand-new [bamboo] is white. That’s 60 years of smoke.” Take in the festive ambience with the Bayanihan (“community” or “friendship”), Tiki-Ti’s take on the piña colada that honors the Buhen family’s Filipino ancestry.
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A richly textured pyramidal ceiling with a skylight at its peak and hanging cylindrical light fixtures.
(Teena Apeles)

Congregational Church of Northridge

Northridge Church
I wouldn’t know about this 1962 beauty if I hadn’t seen the USC Pacific Asia Museum exhibition “After Modernism: Through the Lens of Wayne Thom.” Thom, now retired, was a celebrated architectural photographer tapped often by L.A. architect A. Quincy Jones (responsible for Cal State Dominguez Hills and several USC buildings) to capture projects by his firm, Jones & Emmons. When I saw Thom’s entrancing black-and-white shot taken directly below the Congregational Church’s square skylight, which softly illuminated the pyramid roof’s complex structure, I wanted to see the spot in person. Jones’ Modernist take on a place of worship is less opulent in material than most churches, but it’s no less inspiring. Below the 54-foot-high skylight, the church’s exposed wood frame draws your eyes up and down, with beams meeting at different points inside and jutting outside the building at different angles.

A tearsheet from the church archives has the architect’s master site plan summary along with three hand-drawn renderings. “The dominant visible center of this plan will be the House of Worship with its sculptured steeple reaching high — symbolic of our personal striving for the highest,” it reads. A congregant of 30-plus years adds of the skylight: “I like to think our prayers reach Jesus through the opening.” To me, the thoughtfully placed, cylindrical pendant lights descending from the structure resemble large, floating votive candles. It’s really a glorious sight.
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A movie theater's honeycomb ceiling.
(Edward M. Pio Roda)

Cinerama Dome

Echo Park Movie Theater
Note: The Cinerama Dome is currently closed, but plans are in the works by its current owners to reopen the dome and theater complex.

What are your favorite memories beneath the legendary 70-plus-foot-high Dome’s honeycomb-patterned ceiling? Mine includes a packed midnight screening of the Spice Girls movie “Spice World” in 1997 (campy midnight movies in L.A. are iconic) with male and female audience members dressed as members of the girl group. Most of us weren’t necessarily fans (or haters) of the Spice Girls; instead, we were die-hard fans of the Dome and being with a thousand film lovers under that ceiling’s warm glow.

Designed by Welton Becket & Associates, Pacific’s Cinerama Theatre opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1963 and instantly set itself apart from nearby ornately designed Hollywood theaters of earlier eras with its architecture and immersive cinematic experience. While the world’s only concrete geodesic dome (consisting of 316 pieces) and its massive curved screen (32 by 86 feet) tend to get the most attention, the ceiling design enhances the drama factor and acoustics, expertly lighted and with soundproofing material.

“I think my favorite screening experience was our presentation of ‘How the West Was Won’ in the original Cinerama film format, using three projectors,” says Genevieve McGillicuddy, TCM Classic Film Festival director for many years and president of enterprises and strategic partnerships at TCM. “Watching the spectacular train heist, a key scene in the film, with the dramatic action flickering off the ceiling and the audience, was a real treat.”
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Through a vast curved skylight a hotel's round towers are visible.
(Teena Apeles)

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites

Downtown L.A. Hotel
When the Bonaventure Hotel opened in 1976, my immigrant parents were among the Angelenos who just had to see the mirrored, multicylindered, futuristic masterpiece — then take every visiting Filipino relative to it for many, many years. There was nothing like it on their archipelago. My friend Anne and I, kids of the 1970s, brought our kids of the 2010s for the first time recently. When they saw the Bonaventure from the corner (versus from the car as part of the downtown skyline), they started running for the entrance. Once in, they went bonkers: heads moving in all directions to take it all in — the pods, the pools, the glass elevators, etc. — then eyes up to view the 367-foot, 35-story building’s exterior from the hotel’s interior. Minds blown.

I overheard them dreaming up a plot to make enough money to buy the building and live there. What an amazing feat for architect John Portman to design something that would have generations of family members continuing to visit and elicit such reactions. While our girls went exploring, Anne and I sat by one of the reflective pools and watched through the atrium’s curved skylight as the elevators went up and down. Small birds chirped from the branches of the bamboo plants within arm’s reach of us, and I understood why my parents brought us here again and again.
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A wall and ceiling decorated with metal film reels.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood / Vine L.A. Metro Station

Hollywood Subway Station
When the station opened in 1999, Metro riders were thrilled to access the famous intersection and Hollywood Walk of Fame in a new way. But it was the station’s joyous “Hooray for Hollywood” theme celebrating the film capital’s history — by beloved local artist Gilbert “Magu” Luján of the Chicano art collective Los Four and architect Adolfo Miralles of Altadena-based Miralles Associates Inc. — that made us linger. “What evolved, in searching for design elements and solutions for this station, was the implication of Hollywood as a dream factory for world culture,” Luján and Miralles said in their artist statement. “The ingredients were light and power, fantasy and enchantment, glitz and glitter.”

The station is packed with elements that make the subway stop akin to an amusement park attraction: a yellow-brick-road floor, colorful lowrider-backed benches, illuminated palm tree pillars, 200-plus hand-painted wall art tiles (each one unique!), 1930s film projectors and the station’s arguable star, a film-reel-covered ceiling. Miralles had already been considering a metal ceiling with holes. Then, on a serendipitous hike, someone told him about the reels being thrown away when they’re no longer used, which led to their eventual integration. Purchased for 25 cents each, more than 20,000 recycled film reels were used.
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The curving geometries of a white ceiling reach a skylight apex. Pendant lights hang below.
(Teena Apeles)

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Downtown L.A. Concert Hall
The Frank Gehry–designed concert hall stuns inside and out — and aurally — with ceilings that were developed for superior acoustics. Acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota played a vital role in their creation, particularly in the concert hall. “The ceiling curves in two directions; it has a spherical shape, which bounces the sound in multiple directions,” explains Meaghan Lloyd of Gehry Partners LLP. “The acoustician modeled this in their 3-D program and built a 1:10 model, which they used to test the sound.”

The ceiling features panels of curved Douglas fir, a fairly inexpensive hardwood for such a monumental project, and four inches of concrete above them. Gehry actually didn’t make the final wood selection, says Lloyd: “He placed eight or so samples of different unmarked woods in the room, along with a cello, for the client group. The Douglas fir looked very close to the wood on the cello. Everyone saw it and picked the Douglas fir without knowing they were choosing this humble material.”

Another remarkable ceiling can be found in the ground-floor Founders Room. It’s a white sculpted wonder of animated strips and a pendant light installation — a collaboration of Gehry architect Craig Webb and the lighting design firm L’Observatoire International — that instantly draws your eyes to a skylight 50 feet up. “Founders rooms, up to that point, had been typically stuffy environments,” says Lloyd. “Frank had a vision of ribbons draping down from the ceiling; the lighting was trying to follow that play.”
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West Hollywood Library's dramatic ceiling features floral forms
(Teena Apeles)

West Hollywood Library

West Hollywood Library
Fans of contemporary architecture will appreciate the L-shaped, coffered ceiling of the West Hollywood library, which opened in 2011. It’s a stunning, modern take on reading room ceilings of the past. The library was designed by Steve Johnson and Jim Favaro of the Culver City firm Johnson Favaro; they consider our country’s public library reading rooms, large and small, as “the foundation of the architectural tradition of the American library system and partly responsible for its success.” The ceiling design also pays homage to the work of a gay icon, says Favaro by email: For inspiration, “We collected photographic images of flowers, stems and leaves by Robert Mapplethorpe as well as the floral forms developed in the decorative arts during the Art Nouveau period at the turn of the 20th century.”

What’s surprising (or maybe not) is how patrons could possibly overlook the third floor‘s 11,250-square-foot ceiling because their attention is focused on browsing the shelves and reading material. Most first-time visitors initially notice the panoramic view of West Hollywood and the colorful Pacific Design Center buildings through the glass walls, says library manager Matt Gill. As for the ceiling, “We’ve had visitors who have been coming for years who just one day look up and discover it ... and sometimes their jaws drop.”
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Light enters the honeycomb-shaped ceiling at the Broad
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

The Broad

Downtown L.A. Museum
If the exterior mesh-like structure of the Broad, which opened in 2015 and was designed by New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Gensler, excites you and you’ve yet to visit, know that the hypnotic white “veil” feature continues overhead on its third-floor, 35,000-square-foot main gallery. The overall design was intended to creatively incorporate the storage areas below it. “The vault is enveloped by the ‘veil,’ a porous, honeycomb-like exterior structure that spans across the block-long upper gallery to provide an acre of column-free gallery space bathed in filtered light,” says the firm.

Even without the notable and colorful contemporary works that grace the gallery, the 22-foot-tall ceiling energizes visitors the instant they ascend to it, thanks to skylights bringing the outside in, elevating anything (and anyone) below it. It has rendered my family members of different generations speechless, followed by expressions of amazement throughout their first visit. They were no doubt surprised, coming from the sculptural (womblike) gray lobby to an open, natural-light-flooded gallery — an extreme transition that serves to build anticipation and inspire visceral responses. If you’re concerned about the treasures beneath the skylights, the firm notes how the design keeps the light from affecting the works: “The roof includes 318 skylight monitors with glazed openings to harvest diffused sunlight coming from the north.”
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