When it comes to 20th century corporate architecture, arguably no street corner in Los Angeles has seen as many exemplary buildings as the intersection Sixth and Flower Streets. This then and now comparison features two of them, the Richfield Oil Company Building and its successor, Atlantic Richfield Plaza.
The top photograph shows the base of the Richfield Building, completed in 1929 as the headquarters of its namesake petroleum corporation. Designed by Morgan, Walls, & Clements, the 13-story tower instantly became one of the city’s most singular buildings due to its unusual color scheme. The steel-framed structure was principally clad in black terra cotta, highlighted by thin strips of tiles fired with lustrous gold leaf. Aside from the American Radiator Building in New York, the Richfield Building appears to have been the only all black-and-gold office tower completed in the United States.
In spite of its landmark status, the Richfield Building attracted largely negative critical opinion for much of its existence. At the time of its completion, Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier derided the tower’s design for its insensitivity to the region’s climate and architectural context, giving glowing praise instead to Bullock’s Wilshire. In his landmark book The Image of the City (1960), urban planner Kevin Lynch described the Richfield Building simply as “ugly.”
In 1967, shortly after the merger between Richfield and Atlantic Petroleum, plans were announced to redevelop the Richfield property with one of the largest office complexes on the West Coast. Despite some calls for the preservation of the existing building, the company countered that the 38-year-old structure had become only half-usable due to its obsolete utilities, and that its redevelopment was inevitable given the growth of Downtown Los Angeles’ office market. The top photograph, a Palmer Conner Kodachrome, shows the base of the building one week before the beginning of its demolition.
The building’s replacement, Atlantic Richfield Plaza, became one of the most ambitious construction projects in the city’s history. Between 1968 and 1971, the project leveled the entire block between between Fifth, Sixth, Flower, and Figueroa Streets, and replaced it with a pair of 52-story towers with 2.5 million square feet of office space. Designed by Albert C. Martin & Associates, the office complex is now regarded as one of Los Angeles’ defining works of high Corporate Modernism.
Now known as City National Plaza, the project is indeed significant for its comprehensive execution of Modernist urban design. The twin towers are joined by an open plaza, and the entire block sits above a cavernous subterranean garage and shopping center. From the present perspective, the towers’ dramatic effect is highlighted by their large setbacks and the abrupt widenings of Flower and Sixth Streets. The complex’s colossal scale becomes immediately apparent in comparison with the somewhat older Superior Oil Company Building (1956), just visible at the right edge of both photographs.
City National Plaza [Los Angeles Conservancy]
More images and detailed records of the Richfield Building [Library of Congress]
1. “Crews move in to dismantle landmark Richfield building.” Los Angeles Times. 13 Nov. 1968. SG1.
2. “Giant Atlantic Richfield Plaza dominates downtown skyline.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Feb. 1971. G8.
3. Hebert, Ray. “Admirers would save 1929 Richfield Building.” Los Angeles Times. 18 Aug. 1967. A6.
4. Hebert, Ray. “Plaza complex slated for Richfield block.” Los Angeles Times. 9 Mar. 1967. B1.
5. Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. 1960. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
6. Millier, Arthur. “Building reflects region.” Los Angeles Times. 20 Jun. 1929. 19.
7. “Plans revealed for 52-story shopping, office twin towers.” Los Angeles Times. 19 Sep. 1968. B1.
8. “Scientists aid architects.” Los Angeles Times. 14 Jul. 1929. D2.
Original photo: Conner, Palmer. “Last day of Richfield Building’s entrance.” 1968. Palmer Conner Collection of Color Slides of Los Angeles. Huntington Digital Library. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. http://cdm16003.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15150coll2/id/7690