Artistry in an Office Building: the Streetlight Museum

While standing in the lobby of the Los Angeles Public Works Building, waiting for our tour guide to show up, someone from another group waiting nearby addressed us. “So, are you guys with a film crew too?”

I was bewildered for a moment, since no one from this other group had any visible cameras or recording equipment. It was only afterwards that I figured out that they must be doing research for a film, possibly a period piece. “Uh, no,” I awkwardly informed them. “We just found out about this from Atlas Obscura.”

The Los Angeles Department of Public Works, sitting at the corner of Broadway and 12th on the south side of Downtown, is housed in a building that’s as utilitarian as its purpose suggests. It’s a gray box of a building, most likely dating from the ’70s, with a narrow lobby that cuts all the way through the middle of the ground floor. Even as I sit here and try to type this description, all my mind can recollect is the bland fixtures of a generic office building. When you enter, you have to check in at the desk in the lobby. There weren’t many benches, so the 20 or so of us who showed up just awkwardly stood near an escalator that led to the offices above. City workers darted across the room, some glancing across the hall at this group of outsiders in their midst.

Usually, people only visit this building if they have business with the Public Works department. But once a month, the Bureau of Street Lighting opens its offices to the public for a guided tour of one of the most unusual museums in the city: the Streetlight Museum.

Electric streetlights first came to Los Angeles in 1882, with the installation of seven 150-foot tall masts with a huge lantern on the top, designed to illuminate a large area at a similar level to a full moon. Prior to this, street lighting in Los Angeles consisted of a handful of gas lamps which required a lamplighter on horseback to ride down the street at dusk and light each one individually. They were temperamental, at best. Electrical lighting changed the nighttime landscape of the city, turning illumination into something that citizens could take for granted.

The first electric street light in Los Angeles, installed on Main Street north of Commercial Street, where the 101 Freeway stands now. (Photo courtesy of the University of Southern California Libraries and the California Historical Society)

The first ornamental street lights were installed in 1905, with 135 seven-globe, cast-iron poles installed along Broadway through Downtown. This was such a novelty at the time that huge crowds turned out to take in the dazzling display. The ornamental lamps proved popular enough that similar ones were soon installed along other Downtown streets and along Hollywood Boulevard, before expanding to other commercial districts. The inauguration of each new set of lamps was often cause for celebration.

By the 1920s, with the explosive growth of Los Angeles, ornamental street lamps were a common feature of the city’s landscape, with new developments installing street lamps to draw prospective homebuyers. As more neighborhoods installed them, they often opted for new designs to distinguish their district. The huge geographical spread of Los Angeles and the hunger for unique lamp designs created a diverse ecosystem of streetlight designs that is perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the United States.

This all might seem overly esoteric. But in a city where public space has traditionally been defined by roads and streets, the features of those roads and streets take on greater importance in the city’s identity. Much of the iconography of Los Angeles—palm trees, taco trucks, green freeway signs with that distinctive California highway shield—are explicitly features of our streets. So why not street lights?

After a while of awkwardly standing in the lobby, our tour guide arrived and led us up the escalator to the second floor. She then led us through a maze of offices, walking us down one hallway after another and pass rows of cubicles. We took enough twists and turns to make us feel truly lost before we arrived at a dark, repurposed conference room. The walls inside were lined with streetlight fixtures positioned behind velvet ropes, just barely visible through the cheap office blinds hanging off the windows. A plaque with the city seal next to the door read “Bureau of Street Lighting Museum” with the opening date of 2015. Our guide flipped on the florescent lights and we filed in.

Our tour guide introduced herself as an employee of the Bureau of Street Lighting who also moonlights as the curator of this museum. After we took a moment to sort ourselves, she turned on a TV screen mounted on the wall and began playing a recording of a man narrating every streetlight fixture in the room. And I do mean every single one—I would say this audio guide went on for a solid ten minutes, starting with a brief history of street lighting in Los Angeles before describing each light fixture individually. Specifications, historical dates, and locations were rattled off with the hypnotic speed and droning voice of a super-nerd. To be perfectly honest, I zoned out within the first minute and started admiring the lamps instead.

The first thing that strikes you when you’re standing face-to-face with these lights is just how large they are. Divorced of the context of sitting atop a tall pole far out of reach, you can begin to appreciate both the size and the intricate details of these street lamps. They’re arranged counter-clockwise from oldest to newest, starting with turn-of-the-century lanterns and ending with a row of modern street lights, which look really strange without their poles. Most of them are ornamental lamps, many with Victorian or Art Deco flourishes. In one corner is a “Hollywood Special,” a 1960s-era street light with three bulbs and stars adorning its sides, which stands as tall as a person. Next to it is an ornamental lantern with a design of a Chinese dragon, built for installation for the 1932 Olympics.

Hopefully the photographs can convey this, because I can’t express the surreal feeling of seeing all these intricate, beautifully designed old lights within the sterile confines of a bland office room. Cheap blinds, ceiling tiles, linoleum floors, and harsh florescent light create a strange backdrop for these wonderful artifacts of the city’s past. I don’t know if it’s fitting that something we take for granted is housed within such a utilitarian setting, or if the artistry of the lamps is failed by it. It’s clearly an accident of resources—the Bureau of Street Lighting is obviously working with what they have. Perhaps there’s a grander message here: if something so beautiful can come from something so bureaucratic, maybe that bureaucracy deserves a setting more fitting for the beauty it delivers. Perhaps all public buildings should look as noble as their purpose.

After we had plenty of opportunity to admire all the lights, we were led back into the hallway and further into the bureaucratic maze of the building. The next room was a reception area, with a massive lantern about seven or eight feet tall sitting across from the reception desk. This one was a light specially designed for Wilshire Boulevard, and built to be as grand as such an illustrious street would deserve. The details on this lantern are exquisite, with female figures adorning each of the corners. As we made our way through the offices we walked by more lanterns, which added a touch of class to the various waiting areas and hallways we passed through.

Finally, we came to our last stop, a green-painted hallway where an ornamental double lantern greeted us. Flanking it on both sides were rows of historical photographs of Los Angeles lining the walls. Most of the pictures were of street lighting crews from throughout the city’s history, a fitting nod to the people who actually did the hard work of installing and maintaining something the rest of us could take for granted. As we meandered from one photograph to the next, we were allowed to ask questions of our tour guide before we wrapped up. The film crew took the opportunity to get into some nitty-gritty details, obviously looking to add that touch of realism and artistry to their production.

We headed downstairs and back outside, where the street lights of Downtown Los Angeles awaited our return. Except now, we were taking notice of their presence.

The Streetlight Museum is located in the Public Works Building, on the northwest corner of Broadway and 12th Street. A lot of Metro buses pass by here, as does the DASH “D” shuttle. The closest Metro Rail station is Pico station on the Blue/Expo Lines, which is about a 10-minute walk away. If you’re interested in visiting the museum, visit this webpage to check upcoming tour dates and instructions on how to reserve a spot on the next tour.

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