No Further West: The Story of Los Angeles Union Station
May 2–August 10, 2014
At the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library, 630 W. 5th Street
“This exhibition offers compelling insights into how LA’s architects, designers and city leaders looked to the past while shaping the city’s future.” said Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “The library is a fitting and beautiful venue for the exhibition as both buildings are monuments to the early 20th-century dreams of LA’s urban future as well as popular destinations in the city’s 21st century landscape.”
The exhibition features architectural drawings, sketches, and photographs drawn from the GRI’s Union Station archive, on view to the public for the first time. This archive is part of the GRI’s extensive holding in architectural history, especially that of Southern California. They include finely rendered conceptual drawings; sketches of exterior and interior views; detailed drawings of the station’s distinctive architectural elements, and furniture; and landscape drawings. The exhibition also includes historic photographs from the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library and The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens as well as works from the Automobile Club of Southern California's historical archives.
Financed and constructed by the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific railroads, Union Station centralized passenger rail travel in Los Angeles and provided the primary gateway into the city. Designed by a team of architects with representatives from each of the railroads and consulting architects John and Donald Parkinson, Union Station opened in May 1939. An eclectic blend of Mission Revival, Southwest, Spanish, and Art Deco styles define the station. The architects sought to create an informal architecture expressive of Southern California, specifically with Spanish elements, which was radically different from other union stations throughout the United States.
“Angelenos saw the establishment of a union station as a crucial part of the development of the region from a pueblo on the western frontier to the west coast’s major metropolis,” said Marlyn Musicant, lead curator of the exhibition. “Union Station’s Mission Revival design symbolized Southern California’s infatuation with its Spanish heritage but the designers and architects were able to successfully modernize this historic style with Art Deco and Streamline Modern details that express their vision of a monument connecting the past and the future.”
From initial discussions in 1910 until the groundbreaking in 1933, Union Station was the contentious subject of drawn out civic and legal battles that went as far as the United States Supreme Court. Its site, adjacent to the historic Plaza, or central square of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, caused the destruction of the city’s original Chinatown, while also giving rise to early preservation efforts. In 1933, after decades of red tape and political back-and-forth, two of Los Angeles’ most prominent architects, John Parkinson and his son, Donald B. Parkinson, were awarded the commission to design Los Angeles Union Station.
Competing visions and indecisiveness among railroad officials resulted in multiple requests for proposals and within months of starting the project, the Parkinsons, who had previously distinguished themselves with prominent Beaux-Arts city buildings and stations, had prepared four different plans for the site. Railroad officials directed the architects to develop a distinctly California design. Throughout 1934 letters expressing concern about floor plans, conflicting ideas about the design, and worries about public perception flew back and forth from officials, architects and project managers. Arguments were waged about the merits of one design over another, the value of patio space, the arrangement of the floorplan and various key elements.
John Parkinson died in December 1935 at the age of seventy-four. His last words about Union Station expressed his desire that it be “a credit to the community and all concerned in its conception and construction.” Donald Parkinson continued to oversee the firm and guide the design of the station. It would take another six months to arrive at a design for Union Station’s main elevation that met with everyone’s approval and construction could begin.
From the exterior, Los Angeles Union Station’s extensive 850-foot facade with pitched red-tile roofs, smooth white walls and broad arcades harmoniously announces its Mission Revival style. Inside, expansive spaces, dramatic changes from low to impressively high ceilings, detailed decoration, elaborate wainscoting, massive chandeliers, painted ceilings and rich walnut furnishings create grand impressions that would have pleased city boosters, civic leaders, and railroad officials. This is especially noticeable in the ticket concourse, which has a 62-foot-high ceiling and steel trusses made to look like heavy wood beams. The foyer, ticket concourse and waiting room are connected by tall and wide, smoothly finished arches that frame the views from one room to another. Union Station’s spacious waiting room features vaulted ceilings and a lavish 11-foot wide marble path down the middle. Throughout the station one can find rich decoration in marble, travertine, walnut, bronze and glazed tile, all still painstakingly preserved.
Although many architects contributed to the design of Los Angeles Union Station, Edward Warren Hoak, the chief designer, and Herman Sachs, the decorating consultant, are especially significant. They are key figures in the exhibition. Hoak designed the station’s hallmark features and orchestrated a balanced composition of design elements. His drawings are standouts in the exhibition and range from meticulous line drawings of elevations and cross-sections to vigorous and expressive freehand renderings of various perspectives. He created the compelling presentation drawings upon which many decisions were based, including details of the station’s prominent tower, interior elevations for the waiting room, ticket concourse and information desk as well as numerous working drawings of finer details such as the light fixtures, clocks, and speaker grills.
Sachs, who was a mural painter, decorator and art instructor, defined Union Station’s harmonious color palette and the distinctive glazed tile and ceiling patterns. Colors include shades of yellow, blue, tan, and red that were first selected for the glazed tile. These would later determine the colors used for ceiling motifs and in abstract geometric patterns throughout the station’s interior wainscoting and outside in the tiles of the benches and fountains.
Unlike most of America’s union stations, which were rendered obsolete by air and automobile travel, Los Angles Union Station still functions as it was intended. Remarkably, though thousands of people still pass through the station daily, very little has been changed of the original design and construction. As long-distance travelers have given way to commuters, certain spaces such as the historic Harvey House Restaurant and the expansive ticket concourse are no longer needed for public use. However, these locales are now frequently used for special events and very frequently as locations in countless film productions.
No Further West is organized by Musicant with consulting independent curator Greg Goldin. The exhibition is organized into five sections: The Architecture of the Station; The Battle for a Union Station; The Plaza, Olvera Street, and Chinatown; Transcontinental Railroads to Los Angeles; and The Master Plan: Union Station 2050. Getty Publications will publish the accompanying book, Los Angeles Union Station, which is the first scholarly publication to set this important architectural and civic landmark in historical context.
On select weekends throughout the exhibition, model railroading groups based in Southern California will be running model trains in the Library’s Getty Gallery. A slate of public programs will be offered, including lectures and film screenings. For more information and a schedule of related events the public may visit www.getty.edu/research.
Image Left: Edward Warren Hoak (American, 1901 - 1978) Main Concourse Section XII, March 6, 1938, charcoal pencil on architectural vellum. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (c.) J. Paul Getty Trust
Image Right: Union Station Ticket Concourse, 2013, Photo by John Kiffe. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. (c.) J. Paul Getty Trust
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