Historic Structures

Bradbury Building, Los Angeles California

Date added: June 8, 2018 Categories: California Commercial

The Bradbury Building, built in 1893, is a fine example of multistory structure designed around an inner glazed court, with splendid art nouveau iron work in open stairways, open elevator cages and balcony rails.

It is a lineal descendant of Labrouste's 1858 Bibliotheque Nationale and Eiffel's 1876 Bon Marche' department store, with their exposed iron stairways which were a part of the architectural design, and their glazed roofs.

The building is a mecca for architectural students, and because of its dramatic force it is frequently used as a set for motion picture and television films.

In the early 1890's, Louis Bradbury, who had made a fortune in raining in Mexico and was a resident of Los Angeles, decided that he wanted an office building which would reflect his soaring vision of himself. He commissioned Sumner P. Hunt, Architect, to draw up plans. But, when they were completed, Bradbury was dissatisfied, and he offered the job to a young draftsman in Hunt's Office - George Herbert Wyman.

Wyman was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1860. He had no formal education in architecture but was influenced in making it his life work by his uncle, Luther Peters, a builder who had turned designer. In 1878, Luther Peters went into partnership with Philias R. Burns (born in Dayton, Ohio, 1855, died Los Angeles, 1940, at the time of his death a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects) who received his education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As Luther Peters was older than the 23-year old Burns, and was by 1878 a successful designer and builder, the firm was Peters and Burns- They did a great many public buildings in Dayton in the 1870's and 1880's.

Wyman worked in the office of Peters and Burns as builder and draftsman for approximately eight years; his health was poor and for periods during this time he was unable to work. However, it seems likely that he was a draftsman on the 1888 Dayton Public Library, a building now demolished, in the South of France Romanesque stvle. It is also assumed that when Peters and Burns designed from their Dayton office the early buildings of the National Military Home in Sawtelle, California, that Wyman worked on the plans. Wyman's daughter spoke often of "the buildings papa designed for the Old Soldiers' Home in Sawtelle."

Peters and Burns moved their office to Los Angeles soon after they received the contract to design the early buildings at what is now Veterans' Administration Center, "Sawtelle", Los Angeles. Wyman, soon after Peters and Burns came to Los Angeles, fell ill with pneumonia, and after his recovery he moved his family to his mother-in- law's home in Los Angeles. Wyman was excited by the abundance of flowers in Los Angeles, the trees in leaf in winter, the healing effects of the sun, and was soon strong enough to work again.

The firm of Peters and Burns was dissolved in Los Angeles by that time, and although the two men were associated in the building of various structures at the National Military Home, Burns was for a while an associate of Sumner P. Hunt, architect for several downtown office buildings in the 1880's and 1890's. Through this connection, Wyman went to work for Hunt. Wyman was then thirty or thirty-one. He was thirty-two when he accepted Bradbury's offer to design the building at Third and Broadway.

Wyman's conscience troubled him a little in taking the job away from his employer. Bradbury assured Wyman that regardless of whether he accepted the job, it would not go to Hunt. Wyaan's daughter reports that one Saturday evening while he was struggling with his conscience he sat at a planchette board (a forerummer of the Ouija board) with his wife; a pencil attached to the board was touched lightly by Wyman and it moved "without conscious effort" on the part of Wyman and spelled out a message from his brother Mark, then dead six years. The message, now in the possession of Wyman's daughter, read: "Take the Bradbury Building. It will make you famous". Whereupon, Wyman accepted the half million dollar Bradbury job.

What puzzles most critics is the conviction of the design, the fine sense of scale, the excellent use of materials in an unorthodox building designed by a relatively inexperienced young man of thirty two. It is possible that Luther Peters provided Wyman with the clue to the design of the Bradbury Building; Peters spent many months in travel in Europe and his accounts of buildings of cast iron and glass may have excited Wyman. But, Although the central-court concept of the building may not have been Wyman's, the sincerity and boldness of the detailing certainly was. Nothing is accidental about the building; all details work toward a unified whole. What makes it even more unusual is that the Bradbury Building is Wyman's only work of lasting importance.

Some of the later work of Wyman was the Ferguson Building, 301 South Hill Street, Los Angeles, at the foot of Angels' Flight, the Tahoe Building for Bradbury's son, First and Broadway, Los Angeles, and a remodel of the Jonathan Club, Los Angeles. Shortly after the completion of the Bradbury Building, 1893, Wyman enrolled in a correspondence course in architecture, which may account for the fact that from that time on his work became less adventurous. At any rate, the Bradbury Building is still young and vigorous while Wyman's other works have aged without ever having stirred emotion in the viewer.

The architect shows an understanding of drama in the way the interior forms rise to the source of light, and the stairways leap into space, turn and return again to the rhythm of balconies. Balcony passages give depth and deep shadows to the enclosed space. He shows an understanding of materials in the way he combines marble and cast iron in the stairs, preserving the integrity of each; marble treads slide into openwork metal strings. The rose-colored Italian marble is visible from above and below each step, the light giving it a luminosity. He shows an understanding of detail in the repetition of the rectangular shape of the court in the iron work, the design in the oak paneling in the ceilings of the balconies, and in the webbing of the roof. The relationship between sizes of tile used as paving on the ground floor and balconies is well considered.

There are planned stationary objects, such as the platforms of the landing of the first flight of stairs, which reassure the eye before it makes the leap into the breathtaking space of the open court. There are small observation balconies on which are mail shutes; these appear to be free standing. They relate well to the open metal elevator cages which operate hydraulically. The leisurely pace of the elevators are a part of the larger sense of leisure created by the interior court.

Wyman was devoted to Edward Bellamy's novel "Looking Backward", published in 1887, which describes a typical commercial building in a Utopian civilization in the year 2000 as "... a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above.. .The walls were frescoed in mellow tints, to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior."

During construction of the Bradbury Building, the builders ran into an underground spring, and massive steel rails were imported from Europe for use in the foundation.

The building is 125 feet wide on Broadway and 188 feet wide on Third Street.

Office spaces, two rooms deep, are "built on four sides around an open glazed court; the north corner of the building on the first floor was originally a bank, approximately 30' x 100', extending on the Third Street side of the building back to the Third Street doorway. The plan of the first floor is L-shaped, the glazed roof occurring only on the long leg of the "L". The long leg of the "L" is 15' wide by 85' long; the short leg is 15' wide by 40' long, approximately. The balcony around the second floor is 10' wide at the ends and 15' wide on the sides; on the third and fourth floors the balconies are 10' wide on all four sides. The widening of the court space, as the building rises, gives it a sense of openness as well as increasing the amount of light for the ground floor. The rectangle of the court roof plan is estimated at 50' x 100'. The width of the offices around three sides of the court is 30'. On the southeast corner of the building, the plan extends about 24' beyond the south wall, and on the east side of the building the plan is stepped-in 8' for an approximate width of the glazed roof, apparently to create a side court to light the east-facing offices.