When a prominent building that’s been around for a few decades turns up on the chopping block, it’s hard not to freak out a little. So many of us have a deep connection to the built environment around us, and we’re quick to get all riled up when some hotshot developer comes in to replace what we see as a city landmark. Even when we know that new development is necessary (at least, if we want to end the housing shortage that makes it hard to stay in L.A.), there’s still that sense of why does it have to be here?
That’s how it feels with Downtown’s Parker Center. The old LAPD headquarters—built by Welton “Guy Who Designed the Capitol Records Building” Becket in 1955 and named for former police chief William H. Parker—has had a hazy future for years, but now it’s really in trouble. A proposal to save the building in the face of new development is looking unlikely, thanks to a report from the Bureau of Engineering stating that the compromise could be too expensive.
The situation is complicated, but the plans to demolish and replace the building make sense—logistically. The LAPD moved to a gorgeous new facility in 2009, leaving the old HQ dilapidated and largely abandoned. Building a least one high-rise office tower on the land currently occupied by the Parker Center would be more than efficient for the city. It’s also cheaper ($100 million cheaper, per the Bureau of Engineering) than the proposal to leave the Parker Center as is and build an extra-tall tower nearby. The math adds up.
But when a building you feel is truly special—a building that is unique and historic and irreplaceable—is going to be torn down, what can you do but protest? We experience the city largely as backdrop. Sure, we each have our home and our office, but the rest it’s all contributing to that city-wide ambiance we define as L.A. Buildings like the Parker Center help us grasp what our city means, they help us form an identity as Angelenos.
This building especially—so modern, so retro, so imposingly bureaucratic in that classic Mad Men way—is one of the most tonal buildings in downtown. Just as City Hall, a block away, serves as a totem of the 1920s and ’30s, the Parker Center takes us back to the ’50s and ’60s. For some, it’s a remembered past; for those of us who are younger, it’s a past constructed from pop culture images and physical relics like the Parker Center—and the blending of the two in films like Inherent Vice (in which the old LAPD headquarters features prominently).
The Parker Center is also symbolic—of false faith in power structures, of systemic fallibility. Built as a beacon of progress, the structure was a towering glass pledge to leave behind the brutality of the decades prior. That, of course, didn’t pan out (see also: the Rampart scandal, Rodney King), and the department has since moved on, vacating the space and leaving it to deteriorate. Maybe it’s time to let it go?
And yet its shell remains—minimal, blocky, supported on pillars like a glorified dingbat apartment, its blank front marred by the shadows of a couple spindly palm trees. The City Council was scheduled to meet this week to discuss the building’s replacement, but they opted to postpone the decision until January. For anyone emotionally invested in the building’s preservation, there’s still hope.
Thomas Harlander is a staff writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. He recently wrote “The Most Controversial Public Sculpture in the City Is Getting a $100,000 Upgrade.”