Automatic Beauty: A history of streetlight design in Los Angeles
Angelenos with even a passing interest in the shape of the public realm know that the history of streetlight design in the city is unusually rich: a point of civic pride. This section of the competition brief will attempt to do some justice to the variety of designs that have graced (and continue to grace) the streets of Los Angeles. But it is possible to make a stronger case than stylistic range or eclecticism for the significance of streetlight design in Los Angeles history. Streetlights represented a widespread early effort by the City of Los Angeles, its departments, boards, commissions, successors and assigns to make an argument for the importance of aesthetic ambition in the public realm, as opposed to the idea that designing or illuminating streets is fundamentally a utilitarian exercise.
Years before eye-catching bridges designed by the city engineer Merrill Butler were built spanning the Los Angeles River or architects such as John and Donald Parkinson and Bertram Goodhue brought world-class design to new public buildings in the city, Los Angeles began using the approval, distribution, and installation of streetlights to advance a series of ideas about the importance of design in the public right of way — and to sketch out some new ideas about the kind of city, as the 20th century dawned and its population skyrocketed, it aspired to be.
It is certainly true that many of the best-known early designs were either designed or financed by figures outside city government. This was especially the case once a sort of streetlight arm's race emerged in the 1920s, with nascent business districts and new residential subdivisions attempting to outdo one another with the decorative elegance of their new street lighting. The result was a variety of types and styles rare among major American cities.
That in turn brings us to one of the central goals of this competition: to deliver the same level of ambition that has long marked private or semi-private production of streetlights in the city to the design of the City's standard lighting pole, and in the process distribute well-designed streetlights more equitably across the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. If the story of street lighting in Los Angeles, as the historian and preservation architect Daniel Prosser has observed, can be divided into three significant eras, it is our hope that the design that emerges from this competition as the new City standard will mark the beginning of a fourth important period.
The first era, one of gas lamps and experiments in electric lighting, begins in the 1860s, when Los Angeles had a population of fewer than 10,000 people, most of them living in a concentrated area near the historic Plaza, the L.A. River, and what is now downtown. In 1867 the Los Angeles Gas Company, a private concern operating under a franchise given by the City and a precursor of today’s Southern California Gas Company, installed gas street lamps around the historic Plaza and major thoroughfares, ultimately adding more than 130 to the cityscape by 1873. These gas lamps -- using a technology introduced in London in 1807, leading traditional oil lanterns to begin to disappear -- were lit by a traveling lamplighter on a nightly basis. The gas in early versions was made from asphalt and later with oil.
In the 1880s the advent of direct-current electric arc lighting changed the trajectory of streetlight design -- lifting streetlights, literally, to new heights. So-called Brush lamps using this technology produced such an intensely bright light that the masts carrying them rose as high as 150 feet above the sidewalk, so as not to blind pedestrians. Typically these lights had three lamps, producing a level of illumination, even from that height, similar to a full moon. Sometimes they were referred to as “moonlight towers.”
Los Angeles was anxious during this period to join the ranks of significant American cities, an aspiration that directly shaped the debate over L.A.’s streetlights. By 1881, the year the Los Angeles Times began publication, San Jose, then roughly as big as Los Angeles, had managed to install a single Brush tower, a fact that drove the Times to fits of envy. One front-page article early in 1882 carried this headline:
Los Angeles Wants
And Must Have One
In another story soon after, the Times emphasized both the power of the Brush lamps and the compact size of the Los Angeles of that period by noting that “but one tower placed on Temple Hill would give light to the entire city.” One February day in 1882, the Times devoted much of its front page to a report from San Jose celebrating this giant light pole and accompanied by a detailed illustration. According to Eddy S. Feldman’s excellent 1972 history, The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles, this picture “was the first illustration ever used by the paper in a news story.” Ultimately 36 of the Brush lamps were installed in Los Angeles, 17 of which reached the full height of 150 feet.
The difficulty of maintaining a streetlight of that size is not difficult to imagine, and the towers began to be phased out in the early years of the 20th century. This made way for the second important era in this history, one based on an incandescent lamp supported on a decorative post. This new approach brought a decidedly architectural sort of sophistication to the task of illuminating the streets and sidewalks of Los Angeles.
Relying on newly reliable alternate-current incandescent lighting, these streetlights, known as electroliers, directly followed the logic of the neo-classical architecture then in fashion; the streetlight was reimagined as a classical column, with base leading to a shaft and then, at the top, a collection of lights, inside (typically opaque) glass globes, standing in for the capital. Sometimes they were topped by finials or other decorative elements.
In contrast to the Brush lamps, the electroliers gave off a warm but weak light: typically less than 100 candlepower, in contrast to the 3,000-candlepower force of the Brush lamps. This had at least one positive byproduct, since the new streetlights, fabricated by the local company Llewellyn Iron Works and nicknamed “Llewellyns,” had to be bunched closely together.