During one of my many chats with CNN journalist Sandro Monetti, he spoke of his friend and colleague Stephen Gee.
Stephen is a Los Angeles based director and writer who discovered, almost by accident, that half of Los Angeles was built by a man from Bolton.
What drew you to creating a documentary about the architect John Parkinson?
I first became interested in John Parkinson because I was amazed that the greatest public architect in the history of Los Angeles came from Lancashire and my father was also from Lancashire. Parkinson designed Los Angeles City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum (home to the 1932, 1984 and 2028 Summer Olympics), Union Station, Bullock’s Wilshire and a host of other iconic buildings in the city. He was born in Scorton and my father was born in Salford and although they came from different generations I felt in many ways they had the same value system. My father was very proud of his Lancashire roots and loved the hard-working, unpretentious spirit of Lancashire people.
Did your dad know about John Parkinson?
I told my father about Parkinson’s story and he was fascinated by it. One of the things that makes Parkinson’s story so interesting is that so little has ever been written about him and yet he was such an important player in Los Angeles at a time when the city was inventing itself.
How did you get all your information?
I started researching John Parkinson at the Los Angeles Central Library. I had been on several tours where Parkinson’s name had been mentioned and wanted to know more. I went to the architecture section in the library and asked for all the books on John Parkinson and the librarian said: “Who is that?”
Initially I couldn’t find very much written about him but gradually I found more and more information. I tracked down many of his family members and even went to Scorton and walked down the street where he used to live. I knocked on the doors and asked people if they had any old photos of the area and often was invited in for a cup of tea. In Los Angeles you would never expect to be invited into someone’s house if you randomly knocked on the door.
So had they heard of him?
No. Not at all.
So when they let you into their houses, what did they think they were letting you in for?!
I was looking for old photographs of the area and asking them if they’d got any. A lot of people just let you in and tell you about their own family history.
How did he get to America and why did he go there?
His family moved to Bolton in 1870 via Swinton. He had a six-year apprenticeship with a local builder and at the end he decided that he wanted some adventure so he took $5 and a toolbox and went to Winnipeg in Canada and took an apprenticeship. He thought it would just be a three-month adventure but he ended up going to Minneapolis where he got a job in a saw mill building staircases. He had never built staircases, but he understood the theory of it and was determined to make good. He then became the foreman of a saw mill that made staircases. He’d made a promise to his parents to go back to Bolton after two years, and in Bolton there was an advertisement to be the foreman of a saw mill building staircases. He went for the job and said he’d been the foreman of a saw mill in the United States of America, but he found that the reaction was that they couldn’t care less. The American experience didn’t matter to them. There was a very ridged, established system in Great Britain and you would go through a series of advancement at a certain set time and this was very frustrating for him. He decided after going to see an exhibition of American photographs that he wanted to go back to America as fast as possible and he never looked back.
This is reminding me of my own life and maybe you of yours too. Do you feel there is more opportunity there?
Yes, I’d say so. I’ve been here since 1995. Everyone’s experience is different and I don’t want to use it as an excuse. I’ve found a career writing books about architecture and doing documentaries and I don’t think that would have happened to me in Britain. But it could’ve done. I just never found out.
All John Parkinson knew about California was that it was a warm, tropical country where you were well-advised to be civil and polite in order to not be shot or stabbed, which is still fairly accurate. He moved to San Francisco where he saw an advertisement for the foreman of a saw mill in Napa. He got the job, made a little bit of money, and decided to design his own house.
At the time he was renting a room in a house and his landlord saw the plans for the house and thought they were well put together. He suggested John contact his brother at the Bank of Napa. His brother gave him the job to design the Bank of Napa and then John Parkinson decided he was an architect. He moved to Seattle where he became the first schools architect, the superintendent to construction. He designed 32 schools and numerous bank buildings.
In 1893 there was a huge economic crash and he moved to Los Angeles looking for opportunity. So he arrives in Los Angeles in 1894 when the population is about 50,000. By 1915 he estimates that he’s designed about 80% of the office buildings in the city, he designed the city’s first steal frame structure, and in 1902 he began work on The Braly Block, which was the first sky scraper. After that it’s one landmark after the other.
He died in 1935. The population then is about 1.6 million people and he’s lived through that transition of 50,000 to 1.6 million. It’s really an outpost when he gets there and when he dies it’s a metropolis, and most of the buildings that transitioned it from an outpost to a metropolis were designed by him: Grand Station, which was the last great American train station; the Coliseum; City Hall; an art deco cathedral, all designed by a Lancashire man with no architectural training.
How did you discover him?
I was living in Burbank. Burbank is a nice place but not a lot of stuff happens. There isn’t anywhere to walk to. The office I worked for moved Downtown. Downtown to me was fascinating because I didn’t know it particularly well and I could walk around. There were so many buildings there that had their original architectural details and I wanted to find out more about it so I started doing tours. On one particular tour, the guide kept pointing out John Parkinson buildings but he didn’t tell us much about him. I went home and Googled him and when I found out he was from Lancashire that was really it for me. If he’d have been from Yorkshire it probably wouldn’t have done the same thing for me. It was the connection to Lancashire that made it interesting.
It’s been a fun ride for me. I used to work in TV news and it was very disposable. I was looking for a project that had more lasting meaning. I decided to make a documentary about this guy, so I applied for all these grants, and I’d hear back that they’d never heard of him. We asked people in Los Angeles who know about these things and they’d never heard of him either. It was a giant story hiding in plain sight. All these buildings are right in front of you but nobody has spent the time doing it.
I really just wanted to make a documentary and wasn’t interested in writing books, but the first book I wrote about him came about purely as a way to raise awareness and get this documentary made, and that led to two other books that I was asked to write because of that and it actually took eight years to get the documentary finished. It was fun to see it finally air, and this story that people said nobody would be interested in got a national airing.
It’s a fascinating story. Not only that John Parkinson created this life so far from home, but also you happening upon him and were in the position to dedicate yourself to telling his story.
We have a 19th Century theatre in Burnley that was being considered for demolition. It would cost the same amount to knock it down as it will to regenerate it. The only other surviving theatre by that architect is on Shaftesbury Avenue in London which is the most important theatre district in the world. With your experience of historical buildings do you have any thoughts on that?
Many of the buildings I’ve written about in Los Angeles have been important statements about the city’s ambition and also a reflection of its priorities. To be considered a world-class city Los Angeles needed a world-class sports stadium, city hall, train station etc. The structures reflect the values of the city leaders and citizens who created them. I don’t know much about the theatre in Burnley but I would imagine the sentiment is similar. To have a significant theatre was probably a reflection of civic pride and considerable undertaking at the time. No doubt those who created it saw it as a cherished gift to the community.
My relationship with Los Angeles changed when I came to understand its history. The people who created these structures believed anything was possible and even though they are no longer with us, their work is a reminder of the spirit of possibility that brought the place to life.
We’ve lost some significant structures in LA that people still mourn decades after they were demolished - the value of these buildings as places of memory cannot be underestimated.
For more information about Stephen's book, please visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/Iconic-Vision-Parkinson-Architect-Biographies/dp/1626400083/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1544757124&sr=8-1&keywords=iconic+vision+john+parkinson