Photo: Mike Hawks and Mary Mallory. Credit: John Hillman
Everyone needs a little adventure, so friends Mike Hawks, John Hillman, and I decided to walk all 15.7 miles of Wilshire Boulevard on Sunday, July 24. Our response to those who asked why we wanted to do such a thing mirrored George Leigh-Mallory’s reply when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it is there.”
The walk was exercise, bonding, and illuminating, and allowed a detailed look at buildings and neighborhoods only glimpsed in a quick drive-by. It demonstrated that older and more beautiful buildings survived in poorer neighborhoods because people couldn’t afford to tear them down, while the more upscale and richer neighborhoods oftentimes demolished older structures to build new, shiny ones that reflected their climb to fame and fortune. In the more working-class neighborhoods near downtown, people more often walked to shop, eat, or just socialize, while in wealthier areas, people seldom left their cars.
Following is an overview of some of the sights along the way, buttressed with a little history:
Just west of the 110 Freeway, we came across Good Samaritan Hospital. A little rundown now, the Episcopal Church founded hospital was a top notch facility from the 1920s through the 1950s, with low cost and free beds for poor and struggling people. Such persons as Jean Harlow, Russ Columbo, and Sid Grauman’s mother died here.
MacArthur Park was originally called Westlake Park. A berm was built across part of it to connect Wilshire with Orange Street, forming Wilshire Blvd. The lake, and surrounding hotels and apartment buildings, have been featured in many films and television shows. The statue of Harrison Gray Otis and the newspaper boy was employed in a Buster Keaton film.
Such elegant Spanish Revival and Art Deco buildings as the Bullock’s Wilshire, Bryson Apartments, Park Place, and Granada Building surround it. The Granada housed the original studio for the great MGM still photographer George Hurrell.
Further west are lovely churches and offices, dwarfed by tall, rectangular structures. The historic Ambassador Hotel was foolishly torn down and a public school constructed on its exact footprint. Hotel Gaylord (named for Gaylord Wilshire) and the HMS Bounty restaurant face it across Wilshire, as does the orange dome of the original Brown Derby restaurant, high on the second level of a strip mall. The restaurant was established by Herbert Somborn, one of Gloria Swanson’s husbands, and Robert Cobb, the creator of the Cobb Salad. Just a few blocks down the street, Wilshire Temple contains beautiful murals and artwork by Hugo Ballin. Further down is the stunning Wiltern Theatre.
Between Koreatown and the Miracle Mile is an almost park-like setting at the bottom of Hancock Park. The Hollywood Sign is visible to the north, just as Harry Chandler desired. The Wilshire Ebell Theatre sits near Rossmore and Wilshire. It was founded by a women’s club in the 1920s to host plays, operas, concerts, and social gatherings. Fremont Place, an elegant gated community of early mansions, sits nearby.
As we proceeded west, the next district we encountered was Mid-Wilshire and the Miracle Mile, so named because of the large number of surviving Art Deco buildings. Jazzy and glamorous deco and streamline moderne offices line the street, including the gorgeous camera building at 5370 Wilshire, formerly home to Take My Picture’s Gary Leonard.
Museum Row follows, full of 1960s buildings housing the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, A + D Museum, Petersen Automotive Museum, and the striking former May Company building, now LACMA West. Located in front of LACMA is the striking art piece composed of historic Los Angeles street lamps. During the work week lunch times, gourmet trucks line the street.
As property values and incomes rise, most buildings become newer, colder, and less interesting, sleek but cookie cutter blocks of offices. There are elegant, small movie theatres along here, especially the beautifully restored Saban Theatre (formerly the Fox Wilshire). Beverly Hills does contain the dreamy dowager, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, built in the late 1920s. Actress Ruth Roland was married here, and such entertainment leaders as talent agent Myron Selznick, actress Constance Talmadge, and actor Warren Beatty lived here. About three blocks down the street, the current Neiman-Marcus building occupies the site of the former streamline moderne Myron Selznick talent agency, designed by Gordon Kauffmann, architect of the Los Angeles Times Building, Santa Anita racetrack, and Greystone Mansion, among others. A few blocks further one finds the intersection of the old and new, with the I. M. Pei-designed former Creative Arts Agency building, the mid-century Beverly Hilton Hotel, and the graceful, empty Robinson-May department store. This is one area of Beverly Hills which successfully blends simple, luxurious lines of different eras.
Leaving Beverly Hills, one enters Wilshire Corridor, with glimpses of the lush, quiet fairways of Wilshire Country Club. Following that are blocks of towering condominiums, which offered convenience and glamour in the 1960s. As apartments were successfully converted into condos, more and more developers have demolished older buildings to make way for ever more prestigious though cold cubes.
Westwood’s Wilshire is mostly populated by drab office buildings, but also features the small Westwood cemetery just south of the street. This cemetery contains the graves of Billy Wilder, Natalie Wood, and Marilyn Monroe. A few blocks west, on the north side of the street, lies the gigantic, beautiful, but haunting grounds of the Veterans Cemetery. Here thousands of veterans find final rest after defending our country at home and abroad.
Passing under the 405 freeway, the grounds of the Veterans Home come into view. Built just after World War I for the masses of wounded and disabled troops coming home, the hospital and home helped them recuperate and find their new place in the world. It features a lovely Victorian chapel over 100 years old, but now suffering earthquake damage. The large grounds offer peaceful, gentle views, but also appear lonely and isolating.
Wilshire Blvd. through Santa Monica mostly features small businesses, parks, and homes, fanned by an easy ocean breeze. More homeless people of all races, ages, and sex come and go here, lost and lonely. One of the more historic buildings along the way is the Tinder Box, an over 80-year-old cigar and smoke shop that features such clients as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking down the hill and west, the Pacific Ocean offers a peaceful end to the street.