Downtown L.A.'s Skyline from the Air: 1940s vs. 2014

Illustration for article titled Downtown L.A.s Skyline from the Air: 1940s vs. 2014

Is L.A. flat? With mountains ringing the Southland on three sides—and even bisecting the city of Los Angeles along the Hollywood Hills—"flat" has never been an entirely fair description. But for decades the city's architecture betrayed a commitment to horizontality. While Manhattan and Chicago strained toward the stratosphere, Los Angeles imposed a strict 150-foot height limit on all structures, making an exception only once—for its own 454-foot City Hall.

In the top-left of the above photo, taken from the air above downtown L.A. in the mid-1940s, City Hall's iconic tower punctuates an otherwise bland skyline. Most of the commercial buildings seen here top out at 13 stories, though some manage to rise higher and skirt the rules by placing unoccupied, ornamental structures atop their roofs.

Now compare the aerial photo to the Google Earth view below, which (roughly) recreates the same vantage point.


A instant city skyline has appeared. Soon after Los Angeles repealed its citywide height restriction in 1956, a flurry of new construction gave rise to a truly modern skyline, crowned by the 1,018-foot U.S. Bank Tower.

Other differences abound. The Harbor Freeway now cuts a wide swath through a once-residential district. Empty parking lots and the oversized structures of the L.A. Live-Staples Center complex dominate the bottom-right.

What else do you notice? Comment by clicking on either image. [USC Libraries/Google Earth]

Illustration for article titled Downtown L.A.s Skyline from the Air: 1940s vs. 2014

Post updated on April 17, 2014, to correct the date of the top image.

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Nathan Masters

If anyone's curious about that black cylindrical tower in the distance: it's the city gasworks.