Trove of Architectural Photos Shows When LA's Skyline Became Modern

At the dawn of the 1960s, Los Angeles lacked a true city skyline. A longstanding 13-story height restriction, in force since 1904 and only recently repealed in 1956, had created a downtown whose only vertical accent was the 32-story City Hall.

And then a flurry of new high-rise construction in the 1960s, ‘70s, and 80s transformed the cityscape. Unlike the older and densely clustered commercial buildings of L.A.’s historic core, these glass-and-steel skyscrapers lorded over their own Bunker Hill and Century City superblocks, rising from a flat expanse of plazas, gardens, and parking lots. By emphasizing their stature, this spatial arrangement framed the buildings as monuments to the Pacific Rim capital that financed them—and to the architects who designed them.

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Perhaps no one captured the rise of this new Los Angeles skyline better than architectural photographer Wayne Thom, who treated the Southland’s shiny new buildings as massive works of art. “I always view a piece of architecture as a piece of functional sculpture,” he explains. “As an architectural photographer my task is to capture the artistic form of the sculpture and illustrate the functional aspect of the building.”

Thom’s archive of 250,000 images and supporting documentation—including correspondence, diaries, and field notes—was recently acquired by the USC Libraries, where they’ll soon be publicly accessible to scholars, journalists, and others for the first time ever. This new trove of architectural photos spans more than five decades and ranges far from Los Angeles, but the photos below sample how Thom’s work documented the Southland’s changing skyline.


The Bonaventure Hotel by John C. Portman, Jr., photographed by Thom in 1977:

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The Security Pacific (now Bank of America) Plaza by Albert C. Martin & Associates, photographed in 1974:

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The ARCO (now City National) Plaza by Albert C. Martin & Associates, photographed in 1972:

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The Crocker (now Wells Fargo) Center by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and photographed in 1985:

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The Mutual Benefit Life building (now 5900 Wilshire) by William L. Pereira & Associates, photographed in 1970:

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Century City’s 1900 Avenue of the Stars by Albert C. Martin & Associates, photographed in 1969:

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Aside from the new high-rises of Bunker Hill, Century City, and the Wilshire Corridor, Thom’s archive also documents the rise of new cultural, political, and commercial structures across the Southland.

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Here’s the Long Beach Civic Center by Allied Architects, photographed in 1978:

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Santa Monica’s General Telephone building (now 100 Wilshire) by DMJM, photographed in 1973:

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Newport Beach’s Pacific Mutual (now Pacific Life) building by William L. Pereira & Associates, photographed in 1973:

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Alhambra’s Sears headquarters by Albert C. Martin & Associates, photographed in 1971:

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St. Basil Catholic Church by Albert C. Martin & Associates, photographed in 1969:

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The Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry, photographed in 2003:

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All photos appear courtesy of Wayne Thom and the USC Libraries.

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