Archive for the ‘downtown’ Tag

Commonwealth Building, Portland, Oregon

Downtown Portland is full of generic structures sprouting all over, but has a few standouts. Arguably the most innovative building downtown is the Commonwealth Building (formerly the Equitable Building) located on 6th Avenue between Washington and Stark. It’s a shiny smooth skyscraper with limited prominence in the skyline, that yields little information about its age. It could be brand new, but was in fact completed in 1948, a young looking 70 years. Designed by Pietro Belluschi, much of the innovation of the building is unseen, and it remains a rather unknown structure long overshadowed by better known buildings in New York like Lever House. The building was given National Register status in 1976, a rare distinction as it was only 28 years old at the time.

It’s a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for its technical innovations. Among them are central AC, double pane windows and an aluminum facade. The aluminum facade would later be used in other Midcentury skyscrapers like the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh while the greenish glass would be a signature element in landmarks such as Lever House in New York and the Inland Steel Building in Chicago.

For the most part, the building has been sensitively modified, mostly to the entrances. Despite the apparent uniformity of the facade, the 6th Avenue and Stark St. elevations are slightly different. The window panes are subdivided into three sections along Stark, two along 6th. Subtle colors keep the facade lively, while the skin of the building is nearly smooth, as no section protrudes out more than 7/8″.

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Commonwealth (Equitable) Building, 1948.

 

 

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Last days of the Sixth Street Bridge, Los Angeles

I visited LA quite a bit in 2015, spending many happy days wandering around the diverse neighborhoods and landscapes of the city. The Sixth Street Viaduct, generally called the Sixth Street Bridge, was the doomed landmark that I spent plenty of time up close and personal. My last visit was New Years weekend, 2016, which was supposed to be the final weekend it would be open to traffic. It turned out that the closure was delayed by a couple weeks longer, but it was essentially the bridge’s last stand, showing all the battering, use, abuse, and love of its 83 years.

There really was no way to save the bridge. The disrepair and decay of the concrete really showed, and it was continuing to deteriorate. Had the concrete not been faulty, perhaps it would have lasted longer. But despite the loss of this landmark, the replacement bridge is a thoughtful nod to the old one, and will be LA’s newest showpiece when it’s completed.

Sixth Street Bridge and the downtown skyline, January 2, 2016. A now-lost view.

Sixth Street Bridge and the downtown skyline, January 2, 2016. A now-lost view.

A bit of calm along the river. The scene was actually pretty busy, with a steady stream of cars, visitors, and photographers.

A bit of calm along the river. The scene was actually pretty busy, with a steady stream of cars, visitors, and photographers.

That bit of elegance among the drabness of the industrial flats.

That bit of elegance among the drabness of the industrial flats.

And a bit of abstraction. . .

Walking back to Santa Fe Avenue, goodbye!

LA River bridges tour, part 2

My tour continued east past the vast complex of jails, bail bond businesses, and led to the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge, once known as the Macy Street Bridge (1926). It’s a very elegant structure, with a neo-Spanish theme, probably one of my favorites. The theme here is the curve, right-handed, left-handed, scrolls, you name it.

Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge

Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge

More curves, decorative guardrails

More curves, decorative guardrails

I turned right (south) at the traffic light, and crossed under the freeway, past some more public housing, and this brought me to the 1st Street Bridge (1929). It’s also a reconstruction, widened recently to accommodate the new streetcar line between Union Station and East Los Angeles. It marks the northern end of the Arts District, with the very long, ambitious One Santa Fe mixed-use complex (Michael Maltzan) abutting the bridge. It’s the anchor of the district, echoing the horizontal nature of the area, think railroad tracks, railyards, the LA River, and Sci-Arc across the street.

View south from the 1st Street Bridge

View south from the 1st Street Bridge

The 4th Street Bridge (1930) is getting a bit crumbly. I crossed under the bridge on Santa Fe Avenue, and went up the west side staircase. It’s normally a pretty messy stairway, either with broken glass or human waste, or people sleeping there. It was somewhat clean for a change this time around. Unlike its neighbors to the north, the bridge has a distinct Art Deco theme to it, with clean, sober lines throughout, mixed in with a funky decorative guardrails. Like many of the bridges, there are these large decorative towers / alcoves, which were probably intended as viewpoints and places to sit. But they’ve turned into informal dumps, not surprising given that pedestrian traffic is pretty minimal and the area is a magnet for the homeless, pushed further east by a gentrifying downtown.

4th Street Bridge from below, retrofitted, but sporting plenty of vegetation

4th Street Bridge from below, retrofitted, but sporting plenty of vegetation

Crumbling light fixture, 4th Street Bridge

Crumbling light fixture, 4th Street Bridge

 

Los Angeles River bridge walk

The LA River cuts through the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles, deep in a concrete jungle of warehouses, trendy lofts, America’s largest Skid Row, and some of the busiest commercial areas of the city. A series of historic bridges were built in the early 20th century, to provide essential infrastructure, but also to re-build after disastrous flooding along the river. The channel itself was covered in concrete mid-century, so very few traces of the wooded, meandering river still exist.

Downtown, from north to south, it starts with the complex of bridges of the Arroyo Seco Parkway and the unusual sidewalk that straddles the northbound and southbound lanes of the 110. I’ve written about that in a previous post. South of this are the Broadway, Spring, North Main, Cesar Chavez, 1st, 4th, 6th, 7th, Olympic Blvd., and Washington Blvd. bridges, ranging from the modest to the grand, built between 1905 and 1933. They’re perhaps the most hidden and underappreciated structures of the city, beautifully detailed, but mercilessly spray painted, graffitied, and covered in trash. They are also the most viewed structures in the city, appearing in countless commercials and movies. Seismically, they were built before current earthquake code, and many aspects of the bridges have been modified, or copied, or widened. So in classic LA fashion, they look unchanged from a distance, but up close, the changes, makeup, and restoration really show. The development of the Arts District on the west side of the river and the slow gentrification of Boyle Heights on the east, has brought the bridges back in focus, and they are busy creative spaces. It’s easy to find a fashion or film shoot going on at any hour, but also easy to find solitary, creepy zones.

I put together a route that links the bridges in downtown LA, which can be found in the link below, and walked them in June 2015. I’ll try to post on my walk in a future entry on this blog. Happy exploring!

Arroyo Seco Walkway, Los Angeles

This is one of the strangest, thrilling walks in Los Angeles, a sidewalk that is sandwiched between the northbound (lower) and southbound (upper) lanes of the Pasadena Freeway (CA-110) as it tunnels through Elysian Park and crosses the Los Angeles River. Rarely used and hard to access, it has a certain element of creepiness to it, and a real feeling of discovery.

The freeway and tunnels are Art Deco in style. Originally the four tunnels, completed between 1931-1935, were part of Figueroa Street as it exited north from downtown, and the sidewalks were on the sides of the tunnels. The tunnels were converted into the Pasadena Freeway, and then the southbound lanes were completed in late 1943. A connector with I-5 was finished in the late 1950s. The Pasadena Freeway, or Arroyo Seco Parkway as it’s sometimes called, is architecturally distinguished, but was engineered for 40 mph, and not the 60+ mph that motorists typically drive. The on and off-ramps are very tight and hazardous, and the freeway also split the Solano Canyon neighborhood, north of downtown, in half.

Southern access at Stadium Way (just past the left edge of the photo).

Southern access at Stadium Way (just past the left edge of the photo).

Solano Avenue access, take this stairway from the elementary school up to the sidewalk.

Solano Avenue access, take this stairway from the elementary school up to the sidewalk.

As for the walkway, it’s accessed from the south at Stadium Way, just past the freeway overpass. There are two access points off of Amador Street and Solano Avenue near the elementary school (one requires squeezing in through a hold in the fence), and finally a stairway at the northern end that connects to San Fernando Road. Traffic is literally on the other side of a chain link fence, and there are various social trails and homeless camps above the tunnels. I don’t exactly recommend walking this alone, or at night. I walked this twice, and had it all to myself the first time, and saw 4 people the second time.

The northern end is highlighted by a spiral staircase on the south side of the LA River, which must surprise northbound drivers seeing pedestrians walking along the freeway. The north stairway is really grungy, liberally sprinkled with broken glass, construction debris, and a lot of garbage. The whole walkway is noisy, dirty, and not exactly peaceful, but must rank as one of the weirdest walks in the city.

View from the top of the spiral staircase, looking north.

View from the top of the spiral staircase, looking north.

Spiral stairway linking the upper and lower level (south of the LA River).

Spiral stairway linking the upper and lower level at the I-5 interchange (south of the LA River).

Northern stairway, pretty dirty.

Northern stairway, pretty dirty.

Downtown Dallas, Texas

I had a long layover in DFW Airport, and instead of wandering around the rather grim, disorienting halls of the airport, I took the DART light rail into downtown. It’s a 45- minute ride into town, made confusing by construction downtown that terminated the trains just north of downtown, in the up-and-coming Victory Park neighborhood.

It’s a big contrast to the sprawl of Houston, and downtown Dallas seems to have achieved a critical mass of residents, a lot of things to do, places to eat, public transit, and has turned itself into a very pleasant area. I was at a loss as to what to do in downtown Houston, as it seemed like it was only a business district, with very few things for people to do outside of business hours. Dallas has avoided this with a concentration of pedestrian-friendly sights and activities downtown, starting with the renovated buildings of the West End and the sights surrounding Dealey Plaza. Since I visited around the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, the area was very busy with visitors, mixed in with several people espousing on the latest conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s killing back in 1963. Yes, the furor never will die down, and the area was a mix of memorial and circus.

In fact, it looks little changed since 1963 as viewed from that infamous grassy knoll (marked as such), with the exception of the Reunion Tower. Much of the development in downtown is to the east and northeast of Dealey Plaza, and the plaza itself is a busy automobile thoroughfare with structures dating from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.

Grassy knoll, looking west. This is roughly where Abraham Zapruder stood filming.

Grassy knoll, looking west. This is roughly where Abraham Zapruder stood filming.

Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza

Further afield is downtown proper, a fairly distinguished grouping of skyscrapers straddling two offset city grids. Retail is slow to return downtown, but there was a fair number of people walking around, thanks to a strong effort at making it pedestrian-friendly. The showcase of downtown is the Arts District. If anything, this part of town is an American downtown done right. It’s anchored by Klyde Warren Park (2012), which is a three block large park on top of the freeway. It’s amazing what replacing a traffic-choked, litter-strewn overpass can do for making a cohesive city. By creating the park and covering the freeway, two disparate neighborhoods have been joined. There are of course other examples out there, but it’s a great piece of urban planning, and it was crowded with people on this sunny Sunday. Around the park are the major performing arts venues of Dallas, a top-class collection of buildings such as Meyerson Symphony Center (I.M Pei), the Dallas Museum of Art, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the Nasher Sculpture Center (Renzo Piano), and others.

Dallas skyline from Klyde Warren Park

Dallas skyline from Klyde Warren Park

I.M. Pei in Dallas: Meyerson Symphony Center with the Fountain Plaza prism in the background

I.M. Pei in Dallas: Meyerson Symphony Center with the Fountain Place prism in the background

Well done, Dallas, I’ll visit again.

 

Downtown Detroit, 2013

This is one of America’s great architectural treasures, but in a precarious state. Buildings are coming down quickly, many are vacant, and you just never know what will exist tomorrow. Laid out on a unique grid of radiating spokes from Campus Martius Park, the blocks are irregular, with numerous hidden spaces, pocket-sized parks and squares, and unusual buildings. The bulk of the skyline has changed little over the past 60 years, and certain sections are a real window back to the heyday of Detroit in the first half of the 20th century.

A skyscraper straight out of Batman, Louis Kamper's Book Tower

A skyscraper straight out of Batman, Louis Kamper’s Book Tower

Despite Detroit’s 60-year streak of bad luck, declining population, and financial troubles, downtown is one of the success stories. Once derelict buildings are being converted into apartments, there is new construction (although at the expense of some distinguished buildings being torn down), and there is a feeling of cohesion between downtown and the New Center. The bad news continues to be in neighborhoods that have effectively emptied out.

Interior, Guardian Building

Interior, Guardian Building

Downtown skyline from Comerica Park

Downtown skyline from Comerica Park

H.H. Richardson's Bagley Memorial Fountain and John Portman's Renaissance Center

H.H. Richardson’s Bagley Memorial Fountain and John Portman’s Renaissance Center

Capitol Park

Capitol Park

Bagley Memorial Fountain, Detroit

This is one of Detroit’s little gems, and H.H. Richardson’s only work in Michigan. Since its completion in 1887, it’s wandered from place to place downtown. Now it’s nicely restored, cleaned up, and sits in the middle of Cadillac Square, a few hundred feet east of Campus Martius. The carvings are exquisite, with a delicacy in contrast to Richardson’s rather muscular structures elsewhere. Too bad it’s a dry fountain, hopefully the water will be turned on at some point.

Bagley Memorial Fountain

Fountainheads (replaced the stolen originals). Note the different color of the stone.