John Parkinson and his “iconic vision”

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Do you know the name of the man who built much of downtown Los Angeles? John Parkinson came from humble origins in northern England and went on to design such iconic LA structures as City Hall, Union Station and the Memorial Coliseum.

Los Angeles City Hall (1928) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Buildings in downtown are climbing up, and up. So it’s hard to remember that 90 years ago City Hall towered over the Southland.

Stephen Gee, a filmmaker and writer based in LA, says the observation deck at City Hall is “the best place in the city if you want to show off Los Angeles.”

The soaring structure of marble and tile was designed by the team of John Parkinson, John C Austin and Albert C Martin.

John Parkinson, center, partnered with his son Donald, left, from 1920 to 1935 (Parkinson and Parkinson). (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“There’s a lot of political fighting about who was going to design [Los Angeles City Hall] and how much it was going to cost. But there was always an inevitable sense that it would get done, because the city was growing so rapidly that it had to get done. When it opened in April 1928 [Los Angeles had a] population of 1.4 million. The number of people that lined the streets for the parade was half a million,” Gee said.

John Parkinson designed many civic buildings in Los Angeles. They include Memorial Coliseum, Union Station, Bullock’s Wilshire, and most of the structures on Spring Street and many at USC. He helped define the look of pre-World War II Los Angeles.

Parkinson was born in 1861 and was “a son of a mill worker who really had this very improbable rise — part by good fortune, part by sheer determination — to have a hand in many of the structures that were the building blocks of the modern metropolis that we consider Los Angeles now,” Gee said.

John Parkinson’s childhood home in Scorton in the district of Lancashire in Northern England. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gee also felt a very personal connection to Parkinson, who came from Scorton in Lancashire, in Northern England.

“My father was from Lancashire. And I found it remarkable that an architect who came from the same place as my dad would basically design the majority of iconic structures built in his lifetime,” Gee said. “Even though Parkinson came to have enormous success in Los Angeles, I think he stayed pretty humble guy.”

But Parkinson, in Gee’s view, has been woefully under-appreciated. For the last eight years, he has been working on a film about the architect. To get support, he determined he first needed to write a book on the topic.

Union Station (1939)

He pitched it to Angel City Press, and published “Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles.” A film of the same name will premiere on PBS SoCal on Thursday, July 5 at 8 pm.

The documentary tells the story of a young man who sailed for the U.S. in 1883 with $5 and a tool box. He worked his way into becoming an architect.

His first journey to California brought him to the San Francisco Bay, where he designed the Bank of Napa Building in 1891. After a brief stint in Seattle, Washington, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1894.

By 1915, Parkinson estimated his firm had designed eighty percent of the modern office buildings in the city. The firm’s early work includes the city’s first Class A steel-frame building, the Homer Laughlin Building (1897); the Braly Block (1902), considered to be LA’s first skyscraper; and the city’s then-largest hotel, the Rosslyn Hotel (1914, annex 1923).

“I think the irony of Parkinson’s career is that he created these monumental, iconic buildings and structures in Los Angeles that have come to define the city but he was working concurrently with the sort of darlings of architectural history and criticism. Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright. They are the architects because they were modernists who’ve gotten all of the attention,” said historian Kenneth Breisch in the film.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1921) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gee scoured archives and Parkinson’s family scrapbook to tell the architect’s story.

“It’s really told through a blend of contemporary imagery but also some remarkable archival footage. We have John Parkinson’s home movies, which to me was such an enormous significant find. You see these very stoic posed photographs from the ‘20s when everybody looks very serious, and then suddenly you had this black and white footage of him moving around. It’s really hard to describe how that affected me. It goes from being a great story to being a great story about somebody who really lived,” Gee said.

Bullocks Wilshire (1929) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gee said the film tells the story of Parkinson, but also LA and the great sense of possibility that existed almost a century ago.

“You watch the old Harold Lloyd movies from this period and you see in the background that Los Angeles is one giant construction zone. And to think that here’s John Parkinson, who’s the preeminent architect at a time when Los Angeles really is deciding what kind of city it wants to be. It’s really inventing itself and is riding the crest of a wave in history that will never be repeated,” Gee said.