Downtown Los Angeles is full of remarkable 19th century buildings, making it a required stop for architecture buffs. But perhaps no structure receives as many oohs and aahs from tourists as the Bradbury Building.
Built in the Romanesque Revival style, with sandstone and brick, the Bradbury Building looks perfectly nice from the outside. But it’s the interior that made it famous.
If you haven’t been inside the building before, perhaps you’d recognize it from the many movies that have used it as a setting. The most iconic is the 1982 dystopian science fiction classic “Blade Runner.” Director Ridley Scott filled the Bradbury Building with neon and smoke, lending it a creepy film noir quality. Yet stepping inside, one is immediately struck by how bright it is.
“It’s just this explosion of balconies and stairs and Victorian elevators that go up and down, and it’s totally unexpected,” said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group that promotes historic conservation.
The entire roof is made of glass, allowing beams of light to enter the five-story structure, like a cathedral. Architecture critic Esther McCoy called the oversized skylight “a fairy tale of mathematics.”
The building was constructed in 1893 by mining and real estate millionaire Louis Bradbury, who wanted an office building that he could walk to from his house on Bunker Hill. Architect Sumner P. Hunt was tapped to design the building, but Bradbury was unhappy with his work and instead turned to one of Hunt’s employees, a young draftsman named George Wyman.
Wyman wasn’t sure whether to take the commission so, according to legend, he took to a planchette, a precursor to the Ouija board, and summoned the ghost of his dead brother, Mark.
“And the question was, ‘Should I do this?’,” explained Los Angeles historian Kim Cooper, who co-runs a tour company, Esotouric Bus Adventures, with her husband Richard Schave.
“And it wrote, ‘Take Bradbury, you will be blablabla,’ some sort of random scribble. And it wasn’t until one of the family members got up and walked around the table and saw it was actually script upside down and the word, ‘successful.’ ”
And with that message from beyond, Wyman accepted Bradbury’s offer, and it became his most famous project. Wyman is said to have been inspired by Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel, “Looking Backward,” about a utopian civilization in the year 2000, which described a commercial office building 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.”
“Wyman was obsessed with it. He was a spiritualist,” said Schave. “Spiritualism was something that was very much of that day, and the notion of this temple of industry that was light and elevated the soul, was something he was very attached to.”
Plenty of movies were shot here, including "D.O.A." (1950), Roman Polanski's classic "Chinatown" (1974), "Blade Runner" (1982), "Wolf" (1994), "Pay It Forward" (2000), “500 Days of Summer” (2009) and Oscar winner “The Artist” (2012).
“There’s an old-world charm to it, with all of the ornate work that you see, and the rails, and the brass, and the wrought iron, and the elevator,” said Marty Cummins, the key location assistant manager for “500 Days of Summer.” “It’s like walking back in time, when you walk in that elevator.”
The building was nearly destroyed by fire in 1947, save for the valiant efforts of Minnie Epp, the 62-year-old elevator operator. “She was the only person who knew how to get upstairs at the Bradbury,” Cooper said.
When a carpet company upstairs began to smolder, and fire trucks put their ladders against the side of the building, Cooper said, “she stayed at her post, bravely, despite the smoke and the fear, and she ferried firemen up and down to fight the fire, and saved this building.”
The Bradbury Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Lawyer, developer and preservationist Ira Yellin restored and seismically upgraded the Bradbury Building from 1989 to 1991. The New York Times covered the re-dedication with the headline "New Life for a Neglected Jewel in Los Angeles.”
The building now houses the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, and attorney Ira Salzman represents officers facing disciplinary charges. “Oftentimes, the work that you do here is very tense, very important, but the building exudes its own sense of calmness,” Salzman said.
This is perhaps why hundreds of visitors a day come to take refuge in the light-filled building.