L.A.’s beleaguered Parker Center is threatened with demolition
By Antonio Pacheco
The Architect’s Newspaper
1 November 2017
Photo courtesy of Tequask/Wikimedia
In the 1950s, College of Environmental Design alumnus Louis Naidorf (B.A. Arch ‘49, M.A Arch ‘50) was one of the architects responsible for designing the Parker Center in the Downtown Los Angeles Civic Center. The complex, which opened in 1955, was originally designed as a headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department. Now, over 60 years later, city officials are working to organize the building’s demolition.
The Parker Complex has been a controversial space since its inception, as it construction displaced a full city block in an area that was once part of the commercial center of Little Tokyo. Its use as a base of operations for the LAPD during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots also left negative associations with the building that psychologically linked the space with widespread police abuse and dysfunction for many Los Angeles residents.
Perhaps understandably, city officials are moving towards demolishing the complex rather than saving it. Estimations put the cost of demolition at roughly $12 million, and the complex will be replaced by an office tower containing 712,500 square feet of office space and 37,500 square feet of ground floor retail.
As it stands, the Parker Center’s structure is defined by its midcentury-era script and tile-clad facade. The main office sits atop a one-story piloti, a design feature that was thought of as innovative during the time.
The Parker Center was primarily designed by the architectural firm Welton Becket & Associates, where Naidorf worked for over a decade starting in 1950. His first job with the firm, at just 24 years old, was assisting in the design of the iconic Capitol Records tower in Hollywood.
Naidorf explained that the conceptual idea of placing an office tower over thin piloti was Becket’s idea, and that Naidorf himself had designed “the entire first floor, [including] the auditorium and the lobby, the concession stand, and the parking structure.” Naidorf explained that fellow mid-century designer Richard Dorman was the author of the police and jail wings of the complex, with Naidorf designing exterior treatments for those areas as well as an accompanying security gate.
“My job was to design a welcoming setting—something light airy, friendly, and courteous,” Naidorf said.
In describing the design of the interior lobby, Naidorf had proposed a “battery of telephones to call bail bondsmen from, with a floated panel spanning across the structural columns. The mounted telephones—with a mural at the front that had some liveliness—gave people a degree of privacy and tucked that less-than-happy aspect of the lobby out of view.”
Naidorf described the era surrounding the early post-war boom during which Parker Center was built as a “strange period that, in effect, wiped out the lives of a generation of architects” who had been educated before the Great Depression, but who, because of the economic collapse, the deprivation caused by the ensuing global conflict, and their age, were never drafted for the war and had been left bereft of professional opportunity as a result. In this period, Naidorf explained, any architects of the time found work on Hollywood film sets as set designers, working in light timber framing and plaster.
Naidorf explained that, “people old enough to be our parents were just getting licensed” during the tumultuous era, adding, that “architecture had been in the tank” for the preceding decade. Younger architects like Naidorf —who was “three days out from UC Berkeley” when he was hired by Becket’s office—found themselves enjoying a great deal of responsibility and creative agency consequently.
Naidorf lamented the loaded and problematic history of the building. He said, “ always assumed architects were supposed to positively affect the lives of the people who used their buildings and that the ‘real client’ for projects like Parker Center were the people who work in the building, the people who walk by the building, the people who were affected somehow by the presence of the building.” Naidorf added, “Your work was a setting for their lives. At a more basic level, [you] can create spaces that are depressing or spaces that are happy."
Regarding the proposed demolition of the Parker Center, Naidorf said:
Buildings need to be seen as mute elements in this society. The police from that time are probably mostly dead. The most productive thing is not to destroy it; it’s to find some good and productive use for [the building] that serves a good civic purpose. Perhaps that purpose should be related to the needs of people who have not been listened to very much. I don’t know if spending the money to tear it down and then rebuilding it is in our best interest.
There are areas of the site that are less significant; the parking structure could go away, for example. It won’t be seriously missed. If you wanted to—remove the jail wing. But the building [overall] is really a pleasant, adaptable office building with a useful auditorium and a welcoming lobby that can go to many new uses. To throw away a piece of the city’s history—as well as throw into the recycling bin the narrative of that building—seems to me very foolish.
You can read the article on Naidorf and the history of the Parker Center here.