DTLA Make Over: Pershing Square – A Reflection of the Times

New Pershing square

Standing amidst the echoes of history, watching bulldozers gear up once again to aid in the evolution of Pershing Square. 

From its humble beginnings as “La Plaza Abaja” in 1866 through its time spent as a mid-century urban centerpiece, military headquarters, and public speaking hub, the century-and-a half-year-old site will soon be transformed by modernization once again. 

Finally. They are about to take down that purple monstrosity from the previous park design (which, we have to admit, looked pretty cool at one time). And it was installed to honor local veteran Eugene A. Obregon. as part of Ricardo Legorreta in 1992, along with the fountain and bell tower, so it gets a pass. But, America hasn’t been into purple and gray since the days of Miami Vice, so…

View from Park Fifth Towers – Pershing Square 2023

The DTLA MakeOver plan involved a fierce “battle of the architects” and a community-wide voting contest, as brainstormed by then CD14 council member Jose Huizar’s in 2015, won by the French firm Agence Ter and Salt Landscape Architects

Ever notice there are two corners of the entry with stairs and two without? Well, in a few years, at least three of those corners will have seamless integration with the surrounding sidewalks. The winning concept, with its emphasis on “radical flatness,” aims to level the park. 

It’s a bold makeover. 

Photo courtesy: Agence Ter and Salt Landscape Architects winning design

If only the park’s architects like John Parkinson’s could see it now, so far away from their days of Beaux Arts iron fences, bronze statues, strong oaks and pines, thanks to the years of changes brought on by downtown’s ever-rising architectural tide. 

Would they think to themselves in a panic… What happened to the three-tier fountain with the baby cherubs sculpted by Johan Caspar Lachne Gruenfeld? or the Roth fountains donated in honor of his beloved wife? And the trees. What have they done to the trees, and why? Just why? 

Here’s the part where we point out that, at one time, Pershing Square was alive. It didn’t take much to design a park around trees that grew with deep roots long before we arrived. An ecosystem, complete with the chirps of tiny birds and the buzzing of insects, snails, and beetles. All adding to the lividity and freshness of a then-smog-free atmosphere. 

Pershing Square circa 1920

For decades, dozens upon dozens of trees and short paths lent shelter to the people and animals of the park, with direct sunlight only found within John Parkinson’s intersecting cross of cement, directly in the center of Downtown Los Angeles. 

That’s right! X marked the spot! Pershing is and has always been known to be the center of our town.

What lies beneath

But, in 1950, somebody decided to build a parking lot underneath Pershing Square as if there were no other spaces from which to choose. And believe it or not, they surrounded the park with airport-looking sub-ramps and walls that cut the park off from pedestrian view. And they sold off the whole of the trees to Walt Disney, who thought they’d be perfect for his new Jungle Ride in Anaheim.

Pershing Square post op – circa 1951

In fact, the entire square was demolished to make way for this underground parking garage, which marked a turning point in history, signaling a shift towards modernization.

However, the spirits of Yaangna were not pleased, and the loss of its roots and trees undoubtedly took a toll on the spirit of Pershing Square, stripping away the natural beauty and vitality that once defined its character.

A 1970s mirror pool here, a new statue of Beethoven there, yet over time, the park began to spiral into decay morphing into a drug infested unhoused urban disaster that couldn’t even be fixed in time for the 1988 Olympics. 

Pershing Square in the 1970s

Now, as the city embarks on yet another makeover, with plans for “radical openness” and promising a sanctuary of greenery, with chess games and playgrounds abound, downtowners await the unveiling of a new Pershing Square.

In time, there will even be glass elevators instead of those old, crusty escalators that never seemed to work, going up or down. And the hope that taking away the bluntness of its current exteriors with the removal of the park walls and offering an inspiring design for the entry ways to the underground parking lot, Pershing Square may just spark the downtown needs to restore its lost spirit.

Author: Keri Freeman

Military mom and proud parent, artist, writer, musician and film maker. Cocktail connoisseur. Publisher of DTLA Weekly.