John Parkinson designed many of Los Angeles’ iconic buildings. But this immigrant Brit has been largely forgotten by the city. James Bartlett uncovers the man who made City Hall.
Los Angeles was a backwater with a population of barely 50,000 people when John Parkinson arrived in 1894.
He had no formal education, no contacts, and just a few dollars and a tool box to call his own.
By the time of his death he had designed many of the city’s iconic buildings, including the city’s first skyscraper, the first luxury hotel, the Homer Laughlin Building (now home to the Grand Central Market), high-end department store Bullocks Wilshire, the Memorial Coliseum, which hosted the 1932 and 1984 Olympics, and Los Angeles’ City Hall.
Last week, several great-grandchildren looked on as an ornate certificate proclaiming 5 July as John Parkinson Day was unveiled at City Hall. It marks a reawakening of his legacy, partly driven by the 90th birthday celebrations of City Hall.
His story sounds like the classic American Dream, with a British twist – he was the son of a millworker and born in Scorton, Lancashire. He is virtually unknown in his native land, and all but forgotten in the city he came to call home.
“No one knew who he was when I was doing my research,” said Stephen Gee, another British transplant and author of Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles and the accompanying documentary, which had its premiere that night in the council chambers.
Parkinson began his career working as a builder’s apprentice, taking night classes at the Bolton Mechanics Institute.
He went to Winnipeg, Canada, in search of adventure and after a humble job building fences there he headed to Minneapolis, where he was hired to work on staircases in a sawmill. A quick learner, he was foreman within two years.
He returned briefly to England but was soon back in Napa, California, where he worked as a sawmill foreman and built his own home. Impressed by the work, his landlord put him into touch with a local bank who were looking for someone to design an addition to their building.
Parkinson won the commission and was confident enough to call himself an architect from that moment on.
“He was always a voracious reader of trade publications and books,” Gee says.
A friend suggested he move to bustling Seattle. There he designed hotels, banks and schools, until a recession forced him to try his luck in Los Angeles.
Over the next few decades Parkinson was at the centre of shaping and creating the city’s new-era look, largely defined by the popular Art Deco and Spanish Colonial styles.
His son Donald joined him in practice in 1920, and collaborations with other architects made Parkinson’s influence visible across the city.
Despite expensively shipping his latest-model car to England to drive around on his annual visits, Gee says that Parkinson “remained true to his working-class roots, and I don’t think the success he had went to his head”.
“He was a modest man who rarely talked about his achievements,” he added.
Los Angeles did celebrate his buildings – about 500,000 people lined the streets for a parade to celebrate the opening of City Hall in 1928.
Although Union Station is perhaps his most-seen work (filmed for movies like Blade Runner, LA Confidential, The Dark Knight Rises and many others), Parkinson died before it was finished.
Even so, it’s hard to see why Parkinson faded so quickly from memory.
Others from the British Isles who left their mark in early Los Angeles history are better remembered – Belfast-born William Mulholland oversaw the huge engineering project that controversially bought water to the city in 1913 and was memorialised with Mulholland Drive.
And Welshman Griffith J Griffith gave most of his vast lands to what became the 4,310-acre Griffith Park, which is home to the Griffith Observatory and Greek Theatre, projects he both funded.
Essayist and author DJ Waldie has some ideas about why Parkinson doesn’t have the same name recognition.
“He was of an earlier generation, and when tastes changed and minimalist austerity prevailed, his commercial buildings may have seemed out-of-date. He wasn’t a ‘starchitect’ in any sense, didn’t publish his work, and shied from controversy. Also, his sudden death in 1935 prevented him from curating his own legacy.”
But some items Gee found during his research hints at a very active and connected architect, including the “John Parkinson Scrapbook”.
“It literally had that written on the side and was four boxes of his own records and mementoes. The family knew about it, but it had gone ‘missing’ back in the 1980s. Luckily, I got a call that it had been found again. There were letters in there from Parkinson to President Hoover, to Henry Ford, and so much more.”
As for Parkinson’s legacy, more than 50 of his buildings still stand in downtown alone, and the Coliseum will certainly feature again during the 2028 Olympics.
As Waldie notes, “For a very forgetful city, the buildings themselves remember Parkinson for us.”