One of the greatest art deco buildings ever to grace Los Angeles was torn down over a two year period from 1968-1969. It was the Richfield Oil Building. It was built in 1928-29 by the firm Morgan, Walls & Clements. They’re a Los Angeles firm that surprisingly have yet to have a book written about them. The Richfield Oil Building was torn down and replaced by ARCO plaza which contains two international style skyscrapers that pale in comparison. I’ve been able to locate four articles on the Richfield building and included information from three.
The Richfield Building was produced and published by Atlantic Richfield right after they demolished the building. It’s only 28 pages but it has lots of photos and floor plans! I have a copy of it but I searched online to see if it was readily available. I wasn’t able to find a copy on Amazon but I did find one on Abebooks for $73.00.
Gebhard is a prolific writer and has more than 40 books to his credit. He states that the Richfield Building is zigzag in style yet that’s not how I would assess it. Gebhard claims that Los Angeles City Hall (John C. Austin, Albert C. Martin and John Parkinson, 1928), Bullock’s Wilshire (Parkinson & Parkinson, 1929), and the Richfield Oil Building (Morgan, Walls & Clements, 1930) are all zigzag. I disagree. Bullock’s Wilshire is certainly zigzag if the definition of zigzag is “a line or course having abrupt alternate right and left turns.” Los Angeles City Hall is more of an elongated version of art moderne. The Richfield has a modern, art deco, vertical exterior that is complimented by sculpture and a zigzag interior. It’s a square office building that goes straight up and is topped off by a slender, upward protrusion that uses an antenna as a beacon. Sure, it has those “V” up at the top (see the book’s cover and at various other places) but they’re really fourth to the black and gold color, the vertical, upward thrust and the ornamental sculpture and ornament.
Gebhard accurately compares the Richfield Building to Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building in New York City. That seems right. He claims it’s not just because they are vertical buildings that are similarly clad in black and gold but because both face (or faced) parks so they could be seen from not only a distance but also close up via the sidewalk.
He also endorses Esther McCoy’s theory that the Richfield Building is a combination of both high art and low art. The high art being the newness of the design; art deco was only five years old in 1930. (The Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs took place in 1925.) The low art aspect was sticking a large, neon sign on top of the building to sell a product: Richfield Oil.
Gebhard writes that the reason Morgan, Walls and Morgan accepted Clements into their firm was because they felt their architectural style was too tied to the past and they needed someone with a new outlook on design.
Two examples of the kind of work they did before Clements joined the firm are: The I.N. Van Nuys Building (1912) and The Farmers Merchants Bank (1904). Clements who was a graduate of Drexel and M.I.T. went off to the Beaux Arts Academy in Paris for a year after graduation. The two Morgans and Walls were probably impressed with his resume. They made a good choice when they selected him.
Haig Patigian seems to have been somewhat well known in his time but he wasn’t easy to find information about. He was Armenian, born in 1876, self trained and twice president of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. His sculpture was seen at the Panama Pacific exhibition and he modeled figures for that exhibition’s Palace of Machinery Hall. He also designed the figures in the pediment of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building in San Francisco and was a member of the National Sculptor Society. This is all according to a 1923 article in Overland Monthly and a book from 1929 called Sculpture of To-Day.
In 2010 there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that I clipped out and put in one of my scrapbooks. The article was written by Bob Pool and it was entitled, Historian Watching Over an Old LA Angel. The article was about a guy named Eric Lynxwiler. Lynxwiler obtained one of the cement angels that crowned the Richfield Building from a man who bought it over 40 years before. Evidently, when the building was demolished the angels were removed and sold for $100. Two of the angels were decapitated during the removal process and some lost their wings. Lynxwiler does not know if any others exist. He bought his angel from a man who was using it as a lawn ornament. Here is a link to that article:
In 2005 a pair of Richfield Angels sold for $20,000.00.
What replaced the Richfield Building? ARCO Plaza which contains two international style towers. They are the work of Albert C. Martin and Associates.
I don’t know if they are still owned by Atlantic Richfield but below are some images.
There’s a publication called California Arts and Architecture which promoted the Case Study House program in the 1940s. In that publication there’s an article from 1930 regarding the Richfield Building by Harris Allen. Unfortunately, the article is rather esoteric. It’s not didactic but it’s headed in that direction.
The writer does make one interesting point that is a result of actually seeing the building. Allen is describing the terra cotta when he states, “But they are not really black. The building in New York which first displayed a color scheme of black and gold, was faced with a dull black brick, and the gold was contained to the top of the tower. It is certainly less theatrical, more integral to weave the colors together in a more structural way and the black is more of a gun-metal shade, in some lights bluish or purplish gray.”
Allen also states when describing the color scheme that “Gold is one of our most durable materials; vanishing value of stocks to the contrary notwithstanding.” When I read that I re-examined the date of the article which was February 1930 a mere four months after the stock market crash. Now, I don’t know exactly what he meant by that sentence because it seems like a double negative but I suspect what he meant was: Gold > stocks.
Finally, he points out something that completely escaped me in regards to this building. Allen says the reason the colors are black and gold is because oil is often referred to as black gold. Oil = black gold hence the colors.
There were three photographs that I hadn’t seen before. Those three photos follow.
I drove up to San Barbara a month after I posted this post because someone told me there would be something of interest, to me, on the UCSB campus.
The Richfield Building in some advertisements.
The 1960s were a terrible time for great buildings. In that decade alone the Richfield Building was demolished along with Pennsylvania Station in New York City, The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the Fox movie theater in San Francisco, both the Roxy theater and Astor Hotel in New York and practically all of downtown Minneapolis. If these buildings had held on for another ten or fifteen years they would have survived that precarious decade and probably would still be with us today. I blame it all on urban renewal. Urban renewal was the scourge of the 20th century.
In Gebhard’s book he has a short paragraph near the end where he doesn’t even mourn the building’s passing. He simply states more office space was needed so the building was brought down. Since the book was published by Atlantic Richfield I suspect he couldn’t say much more but what I say is oh, how glorious it would be for today’s Angelinos, in 2016, to be able to walk through the Richfield Oil Building’s entrance portal and marvel at the architectural know-how of Morgan, Walls & Clements.
ACMA the work of Albert C. Martin & associates. (1979, November). L.A. Architect, 5(10), 5.
Allen, H. (1930, February). Terra cotta versus terra firma. California Arts & Architecture, 37(2), inside front cover, 3, 32-39, 72, 75.
Details of Richfield oil building, Los Angeles. (1930, May). The Architect and Engineer, 101(2), 27, 33-34, 62-64.
Gebhard, D. (1970). The Richfield building, 1928-1968. Los Angeles: Atlantic Richfield Co.
LeBerthon, J. (1904). Our architecture: Morgan & Walls, John Parkinson, Hunt & Eager; Los Angeles, CA, 1904. Los Angeles: J. L. LeBerthon.
Parkes, K. (1921). Sculpture of to-day. London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.
Pratt, H. N. (1923, August). Haig Patigian: California’s noted sculptor. Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, 81(4), 11.
Richfield building Los Angeles. (1930, June). The Architectural Record, 67(6), 505-510.
Richfield oil advertisement. (1928, June). California Southland, 10(102), 2.
Zigzag. (2016) definition accessed on 4/16/2016 from, https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=zigzag