Exploring One of the Most Storied Boulevards in Los Angeles

Why Wilshire Boulevard contains the past, present, and future of Los Angeles all at once.

Los Angeles was the quintessential city of the 20th century; now it’s trying to remake itself into the quintessential 21st-century city, largely by undoing its old self. The pop-culture capital has incubated one of the world’s most exciting arts scenes. A metropolis built for cars is figuring out how to wean itself off them. And the city that practically defined sprawl is renegotiating its relationship with nature and learning to love—well, tolerate—density.


Johnie's Coffee Shop. Liz Kuball

Wilshire Boulevard offers a view onto L.A.’s slow, spasmodic metamorphosis, just the latest chapter in a history of dramatic change. The first draft of the modern city consisted of a dense center, clotted with streetcars and pedestrians, amid a scattering of settlements. Before there was Wilshire Boulevard, there was a dirt lane lined with bean fields and oil wells linking Downtown with the village of Beverly Hills. Then, in 1920, the developer A. W. Ross bought an 18-acre strip of land along that road and announced an improbable plan to turn it into a shopping artery designed for the newfangled automobile. He wanted shops with big signs, bold looks, and parking lots—the kind of destination you couldn’t miss, even zipping by at 30 miles an hour. Within the decade, his scheme had proved so successful that the flamboyant Wilshire Tower rose 11 stories up from the flatlands at No. 5514, and the marketing tag Miracle Mile stuck. In 1939, the May Company anchored a new department store at the corner at Fairfax with a golden cylinder resembling a stack of coins, topped with a flagpole. This architectural gesture celebrated the intersection of commerce and speed.


LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Liz Kuball

For the next six decades, this second L.A. expanded as far as the car could drive, building itself from scratch. The private car and, later, the network of freeways turned L.A. into a loose mesh cast over mountains and flatlands. “The idea that every point can be reached with equal ease from any other point on the map—that’s very powerful,” says Christopher Hawthorne, the former Los Angeles Times architecture critic, who is now the city’s chief design officer. “It’s a David Hockney city of suburban amenities, a privatized landscape set within a metropolitan landscape, and for a long time the experiment succeeded brilliantly. But that city isn’t sustainable. It’s not the way to build the future.”

Stand at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, and you can feel Los Angeles’s past swirl together with its future. After the May Company store on Wilshire closed in 1992, the building grew increasingly shabby. The façade’s porous Texas limestone started to crumble. The interior was gutted. Now, like so many aging Angelenos, the landmark is being painstakingly, expensively rejuvenated. After a $388 million renovation, it will reopen as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and the old halls that one held hosiery and shoes will be crammed with Hollywood history. In the huge parking lot that A. W. Ross’s logic demanded, architect Renzo Piano has placed a 1,000seat movie theater inside a great concreteand-glass sphere.

This corner is one of those spots where the celluloid city and the real one merge. Right across Fairfax from the museum, Johnie’s Coffee Shop, a landmark of Googie architecture, keeps the spirit of the ’50s aliveor taxidermied, anyway—even though it no longer serves up burgers and malteds. With its red-script sign, blue-and-white stripes, and V-shaped roof, the old café is a perfectly preserved bit of Atomic Age Americana. Peer through the window to the teal walls and burnt-orange vinyl seats, and you may recognize it from the scene in The Big Lebowski when John Goodman’s character shouts at the waitress: “Lady, I got buddies who died face down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!”

Next door to the Academy Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the city’s preeminent storehouse of artistic memory, is about to launch itself into the next generation with a new building, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, that will stretch up and over Wilshire Boulevard, and touch down again in a parking lot at the corner of Spaulding Avenue. The plan is controversial, partly because of the $650 million budget and Zumthor’s tenuous ties to California, but mostly because the museum gets recast as an overpass. Darkened interior galleries give out onto glass-walled halls, where visitors can watch the ceaseless motorized procession below.

On the southeastern corner, the Petersen Automotive Museum honors the contraption that made Los Angeles possible. In 2015, two decades after the Petersen opened, the architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox gave it a makeover, gift-wrapping the old store in a taillightred box and swirling steel ribbons around the outside like headlight streaks at night. It’s a monument to the Second L.A.

Yet just down the block, the corner awaits the most potentially transformative newcomer to hit it in years: the Wilshire/ Fairfax Metro station, which, when the Purple Line extension opens in 2023, will turn the original backbone of L.A.’s motordriven expansion into an axis of public transit. That prospect is both inconceivable and inevitable: Once a skeletal and inefficient service whose existence barely registered with many Angelenos, the subway system is gradually expanding into a network that reaches from mountains to beach, will allow millions to forgo owning a car, and is rewriting the city’s social geography. Voters recently approved the $120 billion Measure M, funded by sales taxes, to expand the public transit system. And so, in a few years, visitors who arrive by train at Union Station will be able to take the subway to the old May Company store, no automobile required.


Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Liz Kuball

Today Wilshire is being reborn as one spine of what Hawthorne calls “Third L.A.,” a city folding back on itself, building up, and filling in. He plans to launch a competition encouraging architects to come up with alternatives to the single-family house: innovative triplexes and fourplexes that could bridge the gap between densityaverse communities and the kind of hulking apartment buildings they abhor.

Some architects aren’t waiting. A mile west of Fairfax is Gardenhouse, a cross between a European hilltop hamlet and a railroad suburb squeezed into a single lot. Designed by the Beijing-based firm MAD (also the architects of the future Lucas Museum of Narrative Art near USC), two floors of apartments double as the podium for a cluster of gabled villas raised above the street and arranged around a common court. Draped in vegetation and wrapped in a green wall, the complex has a pleasantly overgrown air, as if an artificial oasis had somehow popped up across the street from a gas station. Yes, it’s a one-off, a fanciful huddle of expensive homes at the edge of Beverly Hills. But it’s also a master class in sneaking modest density into a neighborhood that’s resistant to change.

More than environmental concerns, housing costs, and the technology of transportation are driving Third L.A.; art, too, is a powerful driver of urban change. The artist and architect Millard Sheets designed the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple between Plymouth and Lucerne Boulevards, a monumental oddball of a building erected in 1961. Virtually without windows, faced in travertine and marble, and accented with a colorful mosaic and gold lettering, the temple could almost be an imperial sarcophagus. But by the mid-1990s, the dwindling Freemason membership no longer needed such massive quarters; 20 years passed before Guess Jeans founders Maurice and Paul Marciano decided to transform the building into a museum.

The Marciano Art Foundation has the right address for an ambitious cultural player. As Wilshire heads east toward Downtown, it meets Grand Avenue, where, a couple of blocks north, another powerful collector, Eli Broad, built a major new museum to house his collection in 2015. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the Broad sits right next to Walt Disney Hall and has helped propel the ongoing reinvention of this once dour stretch of Grand Avenue into a teeming cultural allée.
Wilshire doesn’t dead-end there; it doglegs onto Sixth Street, which winds up in the Arts District, a former industrial zone dotted with galleries, boutiques, craft breweries, and wine bars. Sixth Street ends at the spot where an Art Deco viaduct was recently demolished and is being replaced. The architect Michael Maltzan designed a slender, wavy white-steel span that will jump the Los Angeles River and land in Boyle Heights, a historically Latino neighborhood where locals have been protesting gentrification. That’s the thing about the way a city molts and morphs: It’s expensive, haphazard, and full of unfairness and conflict.

Perhaps the most telling indicator that the city is deep into its third chapter is the park that Hargreaves Associates is designing for the land beneath the viaduct. Second L.A. had an acquisitive attitude toward the ecosystems all around, reaching deep into canyons and colonizing steep bluffs. Third L.A. has to clear some space for nature in the city’s heart. The park under the viaduct will provide much-needed open space, complete with soccer field, skate park, bike path, and other sites of strenuous leisure. But the park will also reintroduce Angelenos to their river—a shallow, often dry channel so isolated and bleak that many know it only as a filming location for movies like Grease and Terminator 2. Today, it’s gradually being redeemed, section by section, and though it will never be a roaring torrent or a bucolic stream, just being able to approach its embankments on foot will be a marker of how far Los Angeles has come along the path of self-rediscovery.