Wednesday, February 3, 2010

American Arcades

When I discovered Paris's 19th Century covered shopping arcades this summer, I learned it was a fad that sprang up in other European countries, giving rise to London's Burlington Arcade, the Saint-Hubert Galleries in Brussels, and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy. In St. Petersberg, Russia, a 19th Century glass-roofed arcade called the Passazh is still standing today.

The fad came to America, too. The first American arcade was built in Providence, Rhode Island in 1828. The Westminster Arcade is an imposing building with a facade of six massive Ionic columns facing the street.

Cleveland Arcade - photo from the Library of Congress Historical American Building Survey

There are a few notable arcades in the Midwest, notably the magnificent 5-story Cleveland Arcade still operating in the downtown theatre district today, and others in Dayton and Nashville, Tennessee. They were built a bit later, in the 1890s and 1900s.

By this time, the Parisian arcades were in their decline, but American businesses were booming in downtown districts, and the arcades catered both to leisurely shoppers and office workers alike.

Broadway Arcade Building, 1953 from Los Angeles Public Library

Here in Los Angeles, in 1924, architects Kenneth MacDonald and Maurice Couchot built the Arcade Building at 541 Spring Street between 5th and 6th. There were entrances on both Broadway and Spring.

This elegant candy shop once graced the Broadway entry of the Arcade building, as seen in this 1930 photo from the Los Angeles Public Library.

The Broadway entrance today
Each entrance is marked with a beautiful archway lunette, decorated with ornate Beaux Arts/Spanish Renaissance motifs. It's really two 12 story buildings, one on Spring and one on Broadway, linked by the glass-roofed arcade. The iconic KRKD radio tower still stands on the rooftop today, although the station went off the air in the 1970s.

The arcade itself is three stories high, with a broad curved glass roof. Here in this 1953 photo you can see the storefronts and the broad passageway and upper galleries with planter boxes.

Image from the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

It's as spacious and elegant a space as the Parisian passages, although by 1927 when it was built the Parisian passages were going into a decline.

Spring Street facade, undated photo from Los Angeles Public Library -
Click to "embiggen" for detail

The Los Angeles City Directories from 1929 through 1956 show offices for attorneys, insurance companies, collection agencies and medical businesses on the upper floors of the building, and the shops in the Arcade were the kind that served office workers. Stationers, shoe repair shops, smoke shops, a barbershop, a branch of the U.S. Post Office, a travel agency. There was a shoe store, and a restaurant called the Arcade Grill on the ground floor, and there was a billiard parlor and bowling alley in the basement.

Los Angeles Public Library, photo by William Reagh

Through the '60s and into the '70s, white businesses began to leave downtown. In this photo from 1963, the Arcade looks quiet and a little deserted.

Today it bustles with activity - though the primary language is Spanish. The displays of merchandise spill beyond the shop fronts, encroaching into into the walkway.

Music and electronic noise fills the air from the stores selling DVDs, electronics, toys,luggage and knockoff attire.

This display is totally kaleidoscopic in its abundance and chaos. I would guess that today's Arcade is perhaps a more vital community than it was as an office building.

Not too far from here, up on North Broadway in Chinatown, there's another crowded shopping passage that show us a another take on arcades - the arcades of today.

This is the narrow and choked passage of Saigon Plaza. You enter past a scrum of food and novelty vendors on the sidewalk, then plunge into a claustrophobic crush of people moving past crowded stall. On some days, it's so crowded you're shoulder-to-shoulder with other shoppers.

It's just a narrow alley between buildings, with vending stalls that raise awnings to shelter their merchandise. T-shirts, bed linens, childrens' toys, hoisery, lingerie, luggage - you name it, it's here.

This is where we go to find ant chalk, after the County inspectors have cracked down on the storefront merchants on Broadway.

As you go deeper into the passage, it turns and suddenly overhead arches a ribbed roof covered with transparent glazing.

PVC pipe and heavy-duty plastic cover the walkway, in an ingenious and perhaps entirely unconscious replica of a 19th century Parisian passage, enclosing it and creating an environment that our old friend Walter Benjamin might well recognize.

Passage Jouffrey, Paris, 1855, Bibliotheque Nationale

If you look carefully in either of these two passages de Los Angeles, I'm sure you will find a flaneur or two strolling about.

Look, there's some now.


Cloudia said...

Well done post!

The first malls. Even Honolulu has a vestigial arcade.

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

I'm trying to figure out where one of these would be located in Nashville...a city we have spent quite a bit of time exploring. I'm off to Google.


Von said...

Beautiful! Love them, we have some very old ones and some new here in Adelaide.

kcinnova said...

If I still lived/lived again in Spokane, WA, I would take photos of the enclosed skywalks for you.

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Middle Aged Woman said...

Personal binking? That sounds impolite. Anyway, Cleveland's is quite nice, and there is one in Washington, DC, too. I'll always remember that one because my daughter was interviewed for CNN's book talk when she was about 10 years old. Poor microphone guy didn't know what he was getting himself into. I think she explained the whole history of fur trapping in Michigan, which is what her book was about.

Sharon said...

Discovered your lovely post on arcades just today. I've been in arcades in Paris and Brussels and found them magical. Your post brings back great memories!

Jason T. Sparks said...

Sue, Nashville's Arcade has entrances on 4th and 5th Avenue, and is between Union and Church Street.

Jason T. Sparks said...

Sue--Nashville's Arcade is between Union and Church street, with entrances on 4th and 5th avenues. And it is overwhelmingly worth discovering.