Triforium

I went on a LAVA tour that was conducted on March 25, 2018. The tour’s final destination was the Triforium; that strange piece of public art that opened in 1975.

The tour began in the Grand Central Market which is an old John Parkinson building. In the Market’s basement Richard Schave, the host, gave a short overview of the Triforium and then we took off. On the way there we made a stop at Parker Center which is a beautiful mid-century modern building.

This is Parker Center.

Parker Center opened in 1955. The architects for the building were Welton Becket & Associates and J.E. Stanton. It’s going to be torn down. Why?

There is a mural inside the building by Joseph Young titled The Mural of Los Angeles which is a mid-century modern artwork and depicts landmarks around the city. It’s scheduled to be boxed up and wheeled to a new location though that location hasn’t been determined yet.

Nathan Marsak, who is an architectural historian, was one of the speakers on the tour. He’s a snappy dresser and I noticed he was wearing a shirt with French cuffs.

This sculpture is called The Family Group by Bernard J. Rosenthal. It is slated to be saved too.

Evidently, there was some controversy about the sculpture at the time. Many people thought it was too ambiguous. It wasn’t clear what kind of family was being depicted. A white family or a black family?

The Triforium sits in the shadow of city hall.

The architects of city hall were John C. Austin, Albert C. Martin, John Parkinson.

Before we actually got to the Triforium we stopped on the bridge that spans Temple Street. Joseph Young created the Triforium and his daughter recounted her memories of her father and his ideas behind the Triforium.

That’s her in the middle. Richard Schave is on the left side, in the green jacket and blue shirt, laughing. The building in the background is the city hall annex.

The Triforium with the Federal Courthouse in the background. The Triforium’s speakers have ladybug covers over them.

There is a walkway under the Triforium and this plaque is embedded into the walkway. The time capsule is buried beneath it.

Young signed his work by attaching his signature to one of the Triforium’s legs.

What became obvious after reading various newspaper reports regarding the Triforium is that before it was finished many Los Angeles city council members were dismissive of the Triforium and spoke disparagingly about it in an effort to save their own reputations. One of the big problems was that in the summer of 1974 the city council voted to spend $210,000 to build the structure but the cost really got out of hand and the final price of the Triforium was $925,000 which is almost five times the original estimate. News reports referred to it as the million-dollar Triforium.

Like the Trylon & Perisphere at the 1939 World’s Fair, the Triforium was the “theme building” for the new Civic Center mall and while the $31 million-dollar Civic Center mall opened in April 1975 the Triforium, scheduled to open on August 8, 1975, fell behind schedule. It was still a “concrete skeleton” according to reports when it should have been finished and its opening date was pushed back to September then pushed back again and then again.

In October 1975 the City Council agreed, by a vote of 9 to 3, to hire a “program director” for the Triforium. The pay range was $14,820 for the first year and $18,468 by the fifth year. The qualifications for the director included:

  • being a graduate of a musical conservatory or a university school of music
  • a keyboard performer
  • have two years’ professional choral or instrumental experience
  • be able to program a computer.

Two of the “no” votes, who were against hiring a program director, were also negative in their comments. Councilman Ernani Bernardi sarcastically referred to the job as a phonograph player. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky called the Triforium “the biggest joke I’ve ever seen.” Councilman Donald D. Lorenzen, who was a “yes” vote, said the Triforium cost more than expected but it’s finished and whether it succeeded or not depended on city support. The third “no” vote (Joel Wachs) wisely refrained from commenting. [note: I’m guessing that this program director position no longer exists.]

Two weeks before its dedication the city council voted to approve another $3,000 to promote the advertising and public relations aspect of the entire mall which brought that total up to $38,000 but the extra money was only allotted after a great deal of heated debate. Many city council members felt they had already spent too much.

The dedication ceremony, on December 11, 1975, didn’t go as well as expected. The Triforium was described as both 6-story and 60 feet. It had 1,494 Italian-made prisms and its base was constructed of concrete and weighed 60-tons. While the Triforium looked great. There were problems with the p.a. system during the dedication ceremony and according to artist Joseph Young there was an unsightly barricade over the spot where the time capsule would be buried. Afterward, Young called a press conference to draw attention to what he called the mishandling of $38,000 spent on publicity. When writer Steve Harvey asked City Council President John Gibson about Young’s claims Gibson responded by saying, “What’s the Triforium?” When questioned further, Gibson said “Oh, you mean the Jukebox. I don’t think there’s any problem at all. There’s nothing to investigate.”

The director of the Bureau of Public works, Marvin Levin, said in reference to the time capsule that the city planned to include newspapers, which detailed the opening day’s activities, but couldn’t include them before they were published — so they had to wait until after the opening day’s events to seal the time-capsule.

At his press conference Young stated that he was paid $50,000 for the Triforium but was upset his name wasn’t on the invitations or advertisements. Young also said the failure of the public address system was because “they (the city) tampered with my work. They fooled around with the sound system and didn’t consult me.” Evidently, at the dedication ceremony many of the speeches were interrupted by a sound similar to a foghorn.

An unattributed article, on December 14, 1975, titled, “An Urban Happening” had a variety of insights. First, the writer made an astute observation when he or she wrote that the future will either judge the Triforium as a great civic attraction or an embarrassment. The writer also didn’t mince words when they referred to the Triforium as enormous, weird looking and futuristic. The goal of the Triforium was to attract crowds and despite the rather inauspicious opening night the writer recounted this reaction, “At its public debut Thursday night, when the carillon let go with Let There Be Peace on Earth to the accompaniment of a panoply of lights, the audience oohed and aahed. It was nice.”

Young’s biggest mistake may have been that he copyrighted the Triforium. He claimed he always copyrighted all of his work even the murals he designed for public buildings. The city retained the ownership rights to the Triforium but Young made it clear repeatedly that he wanted a say in any commercial exploitation and he specifically stated that he didn’t want the Triforium on t-shirts. Since Young owned the copyright the city was unsure about how to use the building as a symbol. Could they use it on city stationary? In advertising? The city council probably felt like fools. They had spent almost a $1 million to construct the Triforium, they owned it and had to maintain it, but they couldn’t use it for city purposes unless they got permission from Young.

Young may have had a heightened sense of importance when he said, “To me it’s a Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Joe Young’s Triforium. I’m proud of it. I hope the city is, too.” He went on to say that he didn’t mind if the structure was used in conjunction with the malls’ logo as long as it was done in a manner he felt was appropriate.

Young thought very highly of his creation calling it “the Rosetta stone of art and technology.” Rosetta stone or not, I suspect the City Council had grown tired of Young’s ego and wanted to put Young “in his place” because everything they did after the dedication, including their indifference, seemed designed to sabotage the Triforium’s success.

Which is unfortunate because the Triforium should be moved to a more publicly accessible spot. Grand Park or 7th and Figureora would be ideal locations. At either of those locations it could receive the respect it deserves but if Young’s heirs still retain the copyright what motivation is there to move the structure or update it? Why should the city invest more money in an object it can’t exploit as it sees fit?

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An ubran happening. (1975, December 14). Los Angeles Times, p. J2.

Baker, E. (1975, October 29). Call for Triforium chief hits sour note in council. Los Angeles Times, p. C1.

Bernstein, S. (1975, December 14). Triforium hits its first sour note. Los Angeles Times, p. A3.

Everett, B. (1975, April 28). Mall blossoms. Los Angeles Times, p. C1.

Harvey, S. (1975, December 18). Triforium’s creater sounds off, calls for inquiry. Los Angeles Times, p. D1.

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Note: I have a book coming out in the latter half of 2018 from The History Press titled: The Architects Who Built Southern California. It will be 10 chapters with each chapter devoted to a different architect (or architectural firm) including: Harrison Albright, John Austin, Claud Beelman, Elmer Grey, Hudson & Munsell, A. C. Martin, Meyer & Holler, Julia Morgan, Morgan Walls & Clements and Alfred F. Rosenheim.