An Article by Bob Peirce,
the British Consul General in Los Angeles

The Brit Who Built Los Angeles

British architect John Parkinson arrived in Los Angeles in 1894 and over the course of the next four decades created many of the city's iconic buildings. These include the Coliseum, City Hall, Bullocks Wilshire and Union Station. Parkinson and his son Donald, who joined his father's practice in 1920, created many other buildings around town, notably in the Pershing Square area and on the University of Southern California campus.

Parkinson was born in 1861 in the county of Lancashire in North West England. He served an apprentice in the town of Bolton, Lancashire and simultaneously attended night school to learn architecture and engineering. He emigrated to North America at age 21, working in Winnipeg and Minneapolis, returned to England for a while and then moved to Napa in California. In 1889 he opened an architectural practice in Seattle, where he did well for a while but lost money in the financial crash of 1893. Failing to gain commissions in Seattle, he moved south to Los Angeles.

After setting up his office on Spring Street between 2nd and 3rd, Parkinson began to prosper in the fast growing city of Los Angeles. He built the Homer Laughlin building at Broadway and 3rd (1896), and the Susana Machado Bernard House (1901), a 10,000 square foot Gothic Revival mansion on Lake Street, now a registered Historic Cultural Monument. Then came the Braly Block at Spring Street and 4th (1904), which was the first skyscraper built in Los Angeles. It was named for a Gold Rush pioneer called John Hyde Braly, and for 24 years it was the tallest building in town at 175 feet.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum opened in 1923. It had cost $955,000 to construct. Built as a memorial to veterans of World War 1, it was the largest stadium in the United States with a capacity of 76,000, which was expanded to over 100,000 for the 1932 Olympics. The Coliseum has been host to two Olympic Games (1932 and 1984) as well as to Super Bowls and the World Series. It was declared a National Historic Landmark the day before the 1984 Olympics began.

The fine City Hall was completed in 1928. At 32 floors and 454 feet, it became the tallest building in Los Angeles and remained so until 1964. Bullocks Wilshire, completed the following year, marked a revolution both in store design and in the very business of shopping. The concept of driving rather than walking to the store began with Bullocks, which was well to the west of downtown and had parking in the rear. The development of Wilshire Boulevard and the neighborhoods to the west of the city followed. Bullocks is no longer a department store, but its magnificent 240 foot tower sheathed in copper is still an LA landmark and, like so many of Parkinson's creations, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Union Station opened in 1939. Although John Parkinson died in 1935, he and his son had led the team of architects (including Jan van der Linden) who designed the magnificent building, the last of the great railway stations constructed across the United States. The station combines a number of architectural styles: Dutch Colonial (suggested by Van der Linden), Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne. The waiting room is imposing and ornate; the garden patios are charming and informal; the whole is a masterpiece of many different influences and effects. It is yet another Parkinson building listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

We are fortunate that so many of John Parkinson's achievements are still here to be seen. Lancashire can be very proud of his work, defining as it does the formative years of modern Los Angeles. John Parkinson was the Brit who built LA.

Bob Peirce. August 2008

British Writers Love Los Angeles by Bob Peirce

Letter from British Consul General Bob Peirce