On April 30, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System celebrated the opening of its new west coast headquarters at 6121 Sunset Boulevard. Officially christened as Columbia Square by the Board of Public Works, the eight-studio, three-building complex represented a crowning achievement in the growth of American radio, and instantly became one of Hollywood’s greatest icons. In addition to its many auditoriums and exhibition rooms, a chief draw for visitors was the master control room for CBS’ entire western network, housed in a glass-enclosed space in the main lobby.
Columbia Square also marked a significant milestone in the emergence of architectural modernism in Los Angeles, being the first large-scale International Style project completed in the city. Its functionalist design was a significant departure from Hollywood’s longstanding preference for decorative extravagance, replaced instead by sharp angles, ribbon windows, and white concrete walls. For the project, CBS commissioned New York-based William Lescaze, then one of the country’s most prominent modernists. Although much of his legacy has since fallen into obscurity, Lescaze remains well-remembered for his collaboration with George Howe on the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society tower, widely considered to be the magnum opus of the International Style in the United States.
As with many of Hollywood’s broadcasting units, Columbia Square’s prominence was cut short by the imminent rise of television, which demanded ever larger studio spaces. CBS gradually shifted its operations to CBS Television City and the CBS Studio Center, while successive alterations ate away at Columbia Square’s original elegance. Its ground-floor courtyard and restaurant were closed off, windows were replaced by advertising boards, and its white walls were repainted in an uneven mauve. In 2006, the complex was fully vacated after the departure of its last two television stations, leaving only rumors of its imminent demolition.
At the moment, the property is approved for an ambitious redevelopment project that will build condominiums, offices, and a hotel on the rear end of the lot. Thankfully, given the large portion of the “superblock” that is currently taken up by surface parking, the current proposal includes the preservation of Lescaze’s original buildings. However, given the unlikelihood of imminent development in this weakened economy, those in support of Columbia Square’s preservation would do well to keep on their guard.
Columbia Square Redevelopment [Curbed LA]
1.”New Broadcast Unit Dedicated.” Los Angeles Times. 1 May 1938. A8.
2. Pool, Bob. “The State; Hollywood, Radio Finally Part Waves.” Los Angeles Times. 11 Aug. 2005. A1.
3. “Studio deemed tourist mecca.” Los Angeles Times. 30 Apr. 1938. 8.
Original photo: “CBS Studios at Columbia Square in Hollywood, [s.d.] – chs-m30099.” California Historical Society Collection. USC Digital Library. USC Libraries Special Collections. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/assetserver/controller/view/CHS-37071.