Bradbury Building, 1893

A History

The following information is from a visitor's handout, available at the Bradbury Building. There is no author name on the handout.

It has been called a tour de force, a student's dream, Los Angeles' most pleasant surprise.

Its central court, a symphony of glazed brick, ornamental cast iron, tiling, rich marble, and polished wood capped by a huge skylight five stories above is from another era, yet somehow more modern than the new sky-high obelisks just a few blocks away.

It's The Bradbury Building, built in 1893, one of Southern California's most remarkable architectural achievements and on its way to becoming, once again, one of its most prestigious office addresses.

The story of The Bradbury Building is as dramatic as the building itself - inspired by an 1880s science fiction story, designed with an assist from the occult by a draftsman with no architectural or engineering training and built by a mining millionaire as his final monument - it is the perfect end result of a highly imperfect set of circumstances.

Lewis Bradbury was a mining millionaire turned real estate developer when, in 1892, he decided to construct a five-story building at Third and Broadway, just a few blocks from his home on fashionable Bunker Hill.

Ill and aging, Bradbury felt that this would be his last building. He wanted it to be a monument to himself, a unique entity that would ensure the perpetuation of his name.

Bradbury approached a well known local architect - Sumner Hunt - to design the building. His plans were a disappointment. They were in the mode of the day, but Bradbury wanted something more.

Bradbury then asked 32-year old George Wyman, one of Hunt's Draftsmen, to try his hand. Why Bradbury thought that Wyman, an obscure draftsman, would be able to create a better design is still a mystery. Perhaps in their conversations over the preliminary plans, Bradbury had recognized a potential that had escaped everyone, even Wyman.

Wyman at first refused the commission, feeling that it would be unprofessional. While he debated the matter, it was decided by his 22-year old brother, Mark, then dead six years.

One Saturday evening, as Wyman and his wife sat at a planchette board - a forerunner of the ouija board, equipped with a pencil to write out "spirit" messages - long dead Mark communicated with his brother. The message read: "Take Bradbury Building. It will make you famous." The word Bradbury was written upside down, but the message was clear. With the assurance from the spiritual world, the Bradbury-Wyman partnership was born.

Wyman had been greatly influenced by Edward Bellamy's book, "Looking Backward" which was published in 1887 and described a utopian civilization in the year 2000. The typical commercial building was described as "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....The walls were frescoed in mellow tints, to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior." This was to be the description of Wyman's Bradbury Building.

To find beauty, Wyman turned the building inward upon itself. Except for the uncharacteristic restraint in ornamentation, there is nothing unusual about the Italian Renaissance exterior facade of brown brick and sandstone terra cotta. It is the beauty of the dazzling center court of its interior that has given the building its fame.

The court is flooded with light, not artificial illumination, but pure space-filling daylight falling from the glass roof five stories overhead. In free standing shafts enclosed in light and grillwork instead of masonry, two open cage elevators rise toward the roof. Offices open onto the balconies surrounding the court.

The entire area, including geometric patterned staircases at either end, is covered with ornately designed railings of wrought iron giving the illusion of hanging vegetation. The wrought iron decoration was made in France and first displayed at the Chicago World's Fair before installation in the Building. Even the mail chutes are tall poles of metal not supported by any wall. The walls are pale brick and the floors are Mexican tile with imported Belgian marble used in the staircases. Such was Bradbury's desire for quality that the rich wood paneling is even carried out in the basement.

Knowing Wyman's background, it seems impossible that such an innovative, lasting design could be his. Neither an architect nor engineer, his only building experience had been a few years as a $5 a week apprentice to an architect. But a major trade magazine, "Arts and Architecture", is quick to reject the idea it was all an accident.

"There is nothing whatever accidental about it. There are no afterthoughts," the magazine says.

"It is a forever young building, out of a youthful and vigorous imagination. But it has left nothing to chance. Stairways leap into space because of endless calculations. The skylight is a fairy tale of mathematics."

Construction was not without problems. Excavation uncovered an active spring that threatened to undermine the foundation. In his typical spare-no-expense approach, Bradbury approved the importation of massive steel rails from Europe to bolster the building.

The original building estimate was $175,000. By the time it was completed, Bradbury had put about $500,000 into it - a fantastic sum for the era. It was the monument Lewis Bradbury wanted, but he never saw it completed. Bradbury died a few months before its opening in 1893.

For Wyman the building was to be his one masterpiece. Although he later enrolled in an architectural course by mail to learn the science he had practiced this one time to perfection, he never again designed a building of any significance. It was as if one great achievement had drained him dry of creativity.

But the building remains - a monument to both men. Its beauty is ever youthful, ever exciting, ever enchanting.

It is today, as it was when it first opened, a unique, wholly satisfying, completely different office building. An office building for those who want beauty, along with convenience, in their day-to-day business setting.


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