The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was the site of two Olympic Games, professional and college football, major league baseball, and even religious revivals. For much of the twentieth century, the coliseum was one of the city’s most notable landmarks.
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For much of the twentieth century, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was perhaps the most recognizable structure in all of Southern California, being the venue of two Olympic Games as well as other athletic activities such as professional and collegiate football and professional baseball, political and religious assemblies, and numerous other events.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Los Angeles, with a population of over 300,000 in 1910 (up from 50,000 in 1890) was, in the opinion of many, a poor second to San Francisco. Los Angeles, it was said, lacked culture, beauty, and the necessary elements to live a civilized life. There was some question whether Los Angeles was even a true city, and it became a widely repeated cliché that Los Angeles was best described as seventy suburbs in search of a city. What Los Angeles did have were blue skies and balmy temperatures for much of the year, as well as an avid booster mentality. The city was also notable for its public parks, particularly Griffith Park (the result of Colonel James Griffith’s gift of thirty-five hundred acres to the city), as well as Hancock Park, Westlake Park, Echo Park, and Exposition Park, the latter becoming the location of one of the most famous stadiums in the world: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The early twentieth century was an era of stadium building in Southern California. The Rose Bowl was constructed in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, and the first New Year’s Day football game was played there on January 1, 1923. In the city of Los Angeles, the one-time Agricultural Park became the focus of stadium hopes. South of Los Angeles’s Civic Center, Agricultural Park was developed in 1876 to exhibit agricultural products. In 1880, the year that the University of Southern California (USC) was established immediately to the north of the park, the state took over the property. After numerous false starts, and under the leadership of William M. Bowen, a lawyer, and with the support of USC’s President George Finley Bovard and other civic luminaries, the city, county, and state agreed to develop the land for public educational and recreational use. On November 13, 1913, the newly named Exposition Park was dedicated, which was to include a county Museum of History, Science, and Art and a state Exposition Building. Next on Bowen’s agenda for Exposition Park was an athletic stadium.
Bowen was not alone in advocating a stadium for the park. At the November 26, 1919, meeting of the California Fiesta Association, it was urged that a stadium be built in Exposition Park and named the Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum as a memorial to those who gave their lives in the recently concluded World War I. By the following July, “Colosseum” had been changed to “Coliseum.” Partially in hopes of hosting the 1924 Olympic Games, and with the support the Community Development Association–a group of five Los Angeles newspaper publishers who guaranteed a loan of $800,000–the project proceeded, with the firm of Parkinson and Parkinson chosen to design the structure.
Born in England in 1861, John Parkinson had been a prominent Los Angeles architect since the 1890’s. Among other structures, Parkinson had designed Los Angeles’s first “skyscraper,” the Braly Block at Fourth Street and Spring (1904), which remained Los Angeles’s tallest building until the construction of City Hall in 1928. In 1920, Parkinson’s son, Donald, joined his father’s firm, and over the next two decades Parkinson and Parkinson designed many of Southern California’s most famous architectural landmarks, including City Hall, the Bullocks-Wilshire department store (1929), and Union Station (1939). In 1919, USC’s President Bovard chose John Parkinson to develop the university’s master plan, and the Parkinson firm ultimately designed more than twenty university projects.
Bovard promised that if a stadium were built in nearby Exposition Park, USC would play its home football games there. With his status as one of Los Angeles’s premier architects, including his participation in the design of a sunken garden within Exposition Park–later to be known as the Rose Garden–and given his USC project, Parkinson was a logical choice to design the proposed coliseum. Declining to make a profit on the project, Parkinson offered his firm’s services at cost.
Plans for the stadium, with seating for seventy-five thousand, were approved by the Municipal Arts Commission and Allied Architects Association in August, 1921, with the final agreement signed in November. Construction began in December, 1921, and was completed on May 1, 1923, at a cost of $950,000. The first football game was played in the coliseum on October 6, 1923, between USC and Pomona College, with 12,863 in attendance to watch the USC Trojan victory.
Los Angeles was not awarded the 1924 Olympics, but it was chosen to host the Olympic Games in 1932. Modifications to the original structure were deemed necessary, and the Parkinson firm was again chosen to do the improvements, which included an additional thirty-five thousand seats as well as a new press box, a scoreboard, a four-hundred-meter running track, improved lighting, and the Eternal Flame Tripod at the peristyle. Although the 1932 Olympics took place during the height of the Great Depression, the Games were a great success, and the 1932 comedy film Million Dollar Legs, starring Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields, ostensibly featured the coliseum.
Nearly a half century later, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum would again host the Olympics, and although the 1984 Games were boycotted by the Soviet Union, a record 141 countries competed. In addition to the track and field events, both the opening and the closing ceremonies were held in the coliseum. The Games were privately financed, generating a profit of over $200 million, and the organizing president, Peter Ueberroth, was named Time’s Man of the Year.
The coliseum was long noted as a mecca for track and field, and during the middle decades of the twentieth century one of the premier world events was the annual Coliseum Relays. The coliseum was also the site of United States and Soviet track and field competitions, and United States Olympic trials were staged there. The stadium was used for other sporting events. In 1936, Sonja Henie even ice-skated in the coliseum, and motorcycle races and rodeos were held there. In the last decades of the twentieth century, as soccer increased in popularity, the coliseum was frequently the venue for soccer matches.
Major league baseball was played in the coliseum. In 1958, to the dismay of the people of Brooklyn, their Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the new Dodgers played in the coliseum from 1958 through the 1961 season. Baseball purists were disdainful of playing baseball in a football stadium, and because of the short dimensions in left field (250 feet), a high wire screen was added to keep at least a few ordinary fly balls from becoming home runs. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles fans fell in love with the Dodgers, and, playing in the coliseum, the team set baseball attendance records, with 92,706 at one World Series game in 1959.
Nevertheless, decade after decade football remained the major coliseum sport. USC continued to play all its home games at the facility, as did the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) before moving to the Rose Bowl. Through the decades a number of professional football teams also used the coliseum. The one-time Cleveland Rams, renamed the Los Angeles Rams, played their home games there from 1946 until 1979. The Los Angeles Chargers used the stadium a single season before relocating to San Diego. The former Oakland Raiders played there as the Los Angeles Raiders between 1982 and 1994, and two Super Bowls were held in the stadium. Through the years, thanks to television, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum became familiar to millions of football fans.
The coliseum was also a favored site for nonsporting events. Politicians and statesmen made regular appearances. Vice President Charles Curtis, substituting for President Herbert Hoover, opened the 1932 Olympic Games. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke there in 1935, and during the 1940 campaign his rival for the presidency, Wendell Wilkie, appeared there. In 1960, with Los Angeles the host city for the Democratic National Convention, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy delivered his nomination acceptance address in the stadium, as did the vice presidential nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson. Religious figures made use of the coliseum. It was a site of the evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades, with a one-day record of 134,000 in attendance in 1963, and in 1987 Pope John Paul II performed a papal mass in the stadium. The 1988 Amnesty Tour also played there, and through the years there were many musical concerts. As recognition of the coliseum’s significance, the state of California and the United States government declared it a State and National Historic Landmark in 1984.
By the last decade of the twentieth century, the coliseum was showing its age. Many new stadiums had been constructed with modern amenities, including luxury boxes. In 1993, at a cost of $15.5 million, the running track was eliminated, the floor was lowered eleven feet, and new seats were added which were closer to the field action. The 1994 Northridge earthquake caused considerable damage, necessitating $94.6 million in repairs, but in part because of the coliseum’s remaining inadequacies as a state-of-the-art facility, the Raiders returned to Oakland after the 1994 season, and Los Angeles was left without a professional football team. Various plans were subsequently suggested to modernize the coliseum or, alternatively, to construct a new football stadium elsewhere in order to attract professional football back to Southern California, but at the close of the twentieth century neither proposal had been acted upon, and the future of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum remained unknown.
In addition to the Memorial Coliseum, Exposition Park is the location of the Sports Arena, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, the California Science Center, the California African American Museum, and an Imax Theater. USC is just to the north, and UCLA is in Westwood. Downtown Los Angeles has several historic ethnic sites, such as El Pueblo de Los Angeles and Olvera Street, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown. The Los Angeles Civic Center has numerous architectural examples, ranging from the Bradbury Building (1893) to the Crocker Center (1983). Hollywood, with its film legacy–the Hollywood Bowl, Mann’s Chinese Theater, and Griffith Observatory–is nearby, as are Beverly Hills, the Pacific Ocean, and the Getty Museums, old and new.
Southern California is the location of many Spanish missions, including Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano among others, and the region is notable for its domestic architecture, such as the craftsman houses of Green and Green (Pasadena’s Gamble House) as well as homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (Barnsdall House) and Richard Neutra. To many, Southern California seems to have only a brief history, and thus even Disneyland, which opened in 1955, can be claimed to be historic in its own right. In spite of its relative youth, Southern California is a cornucopia of twentieth century history.
Field, William Scott. Parkinson Centennial, 1894-1994. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Conservancy, 1994. Historical summary of the Parkinson architectural firm. Girvigian, Raymond. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. South Pasadena, Calif.: R. Girvigian, 1984. Materials regarding the dedication ceremonies for the State (California) and National Historic Landmark designations for the Coliseum in 1984. Hoobing, Robert. The 1984 Olympics: Sarajevo and Los Angeles. Washington, D.C.: United States Postal Service, 1984. History of the 1984 Olympics, with numerous coliseum photographs. “Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.” www.mediacity .com/~csuppes/NCAA/Pac10/usc/index .htm Brief history of the coliseum. “The Parkinson Archives.” www.parkives.com/history.htm Parkinson firm Web site. Valuable for Parkinson contribution. Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. The author, a premier historian of early twentieth century California, discusses aspects of Los Angeles. Weaver, John. Los Angeles: The Enormous Village. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1980. Weaver, a novelist and historian, gives an insightful and readable account of Los Angeles.