Original Article – https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-original-sixth-street-viaduct-in-construction
For those whose cultural center comes from within the city, the bridges, especially the Sixth Street Viaduct, are not an entry point to the Los Angeles mystic. They are geographical and historic centerpieces of a larger city, otherwise faceless in pop culture fiction.
Ed Fuentes, KCET
Ninety years ago, the Sixth Street Viaduct may have started life as a functional overpass on the Los Angeles River, but in the decades since, it has grown into a symbolic gateway between downtown and the communities of Boyle Heights. Erected during the Depression in 1932, the viaduct’s famous steel arches have starred in movies, TV shows, music videos and car commercials. This “bridge of destiny,” as referred to by artist Ruben Guevara in his book, is where “east meets west.”
As Angelenos prepare for the opening of the brand new Sixth Street Viaduct, this look in the rear view mirror shows the original Art Deco landmark courtesy of the Los Angeles City Archives located at the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center. One of the gems in this archive is a slightly-worn greyish cloth-covered album displaying about 100 photos documenting the construction of the 1932 Sixth Street Viaduct.
Not only are these images a detailed visual account of the construction process — from hillside excavations to bridge abutments to river piers — but they also show pre-viaduct vignettes of the downtown and Boyle Heights streets and hillsides that were forever changed. As the city officially opens Michael Maltzman’s homage to the 1932 viaduct (demolished because of its “concrete cancer“), these 4×6-sized black and white time capsules provide an important visual record of the original Sixth Street Viaduct and the landscape it transformed.
The concrete viaduct stretched over the river from Whittier Blvd on the east to Sixth Street on the west. It was the longest concrete bridge in Los Angeles (3,546 feet) and, at the time of its opening in 1932, it was the longest in California.
The Art Deco landmark was the last of the Los Angeles River bridges built between 1910 and 1933, and one of the first to break away from the revival architectural styles that inspired earlier bridges. According to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, the Sixth Street Viaduct — designed by Merrill Butler, Louis L. Huot and Louis Blume — was built in the Streamline Moderne style that influenced later bridges such as Mid-City’s West Boulevard Bridge and San Pedro’s Gaffey Street Bridge. While each of the Los Angeles River bridges had a unique architectural style, they were all designed under the guidance of the Municipal Art commission which, to quote D.J. Waldie in his book “Becoming Los Angeles,” had a goal “to work for the gradual elimination of ugliness.”
In addition to the album full of Sixth Street Viaduct construction photos, the City Archives has about 9,000 photographs documenting the Bureau of Engineering’s work throughout the city and beyond — from bridge building to street paving to right-of-way projects. Oversized albums were created for the Glendale-Hyperion Viaduct, Fourth Street Viaduct, Ninth Street Viaduct (now the Olympic Boulevard Viaduct) and Macy Street Viaduct (now César Chávez Viaduct). A look at the bureau’s budget from 1932 (also housed at the City Archives) indicates that no money was set aside for a professional photographer in the department. City Archivist Michael Holland suggests that the viaduct photos were most likely taken by someone on the survey team who swapped a survey scope off the tripod for a camera.
In following their assignment to meticulously chronicle the construction of a new viaduct, these photographers also captured of how this iconic concrete monument forever transformed the landscape along the Los Angeles River.
Galvin, Andrea, Teresa Grimes, and Elysha Paluszek. Bridging Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA: City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Engineering, 2018.
Guevara, Ruben. Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo Wop Singer. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018.
Los Angeles Department of City Planning. “Historic-Cultural Monument Application for the Sixth Street Viaduct.” Published November 1, 2007, https://planning.lacity.org/staffrpt/CHC/11-1-07/CHC-2007-4658.pdf.
Mikesell, Stephen D. “The Los Angeles River Bridges: A Study in the Bridge as a Civic Monument,” Southern California Quarterly (Winter 1986), The Historical Society of Southern California.
Roth, Matthew. “Whittier Boulevard, Sixth Street Bridge, and the Origins of Transportation Exploitation in East Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History 30, No. 5, (July 2004).
Sanchez, George J. Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy: University of California Press, 2022.
Waldie, D. J. Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place. Canada: Gibbs Smith, 2020.