CityDig: Above Los Angeles in 1919 - CityThink - Los Angeles magazine

CityDig: Above Los Angeles in 1919

Photograph by George Watson, courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive

How does a bird see Los Angeles? Today Google Maps, a flight out of LAX, or even a small aerial drone provides a ready answer. But the notion of a bird’s-eye view was still a novel one in 1919, when George Watson soared over the city in a Curtiss biplane and captured more than a dozen aerial images for the Los Angeles Times. Sitting in the plane’s front seat while Captain W.S. Kenyon of the U.S. Army piloted from the back, Watson photographed Hollywood, Pasadena, Glendale, and downtown Los Angeles, recording images that offered the Times’ readers a radical shift in perspective.

Watson—a member of the Watson dynasty of news photographers—was not the first to photograph Los Angeles from the air. E. H. Husher had done so in 1887, floating 9,000 feet above the city in a hot-air balloon. C. C. Pierce had repeated the feat in 1910. But Watson was likely the first to photograph Los Angeles from an airplane, covering more ground than his predecessors and capturing the city amidst a sustained, landscape-altering growth period.

Photographers today would be hard-pressed to recreate the scenes Watson caught in his lens. Near the center of the above photo of downtown Los Angeles, contemporary newspaper readers would have quickly identified the twin-towered Hall of Records (built 1906) and red-sandstone County Courthouse (1891) at Broadway and Temple. Neither landmark remains standing. Construction of the 101 freeway, which today cuts a wide swath through the photo’s left side, claimed many other structures shown here. And in the bottom-right quadrant, newspaper readers of 1919 would have recognized the quiet residential community of Court Hill, long since regraded, now occupied by the modern administrative buildings of the Civic Center and landscaped grounds of Grand Park.

Nathan Masters of the USC Libraries blogs here on behalf of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, cultural institutions, official archives, and private collectors hosted by the USC Libraries and dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden histories of Los Angeles.

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  1. Suzy Beal posted on 08/06/2013 10:10 PM
    You can see some of the bricks from the old County Courthouse today, which form the base of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. Walk along Temple between Spring and Broadway to see them.
  2. John Bengtson posted on 08/07/2013 10:35 AM
    You can easily see both ends of the Hill Street Tunnel, running slightly lower left to upper right, towards the center of the photo. It's the stretch of road that is elevated. The Bradbury mansion sits on south side of that elevated block, on the corner, right of center.

    This post shows a good 3D map of the former Hill Street Tunnel, and how it appears in 1920s silent comedy and 1950s film noir
  3. J. Shannon posted on 08/14/2013 07:36 AM
    The old Hall of Records was constructed in 1910-1911; the red sandstone Los Angeles County Court House in 1888.
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