Stalking style and history

A striking cathedral, hot restaurants, and a stylish hotel bring glamour and inspiration to downtown L.A.
Matthew Jaffe

Most of downtown is not as fully realized as the emerging arts acropolis along Grand. But with a growing population―many moving into converted lofts in historic buildings―the area's ongoing evolution is apparent. Improbably, it has even become cool.

At the Downtown L.A. Standard hotel, the big draw is the bar and pool scene at the Rooftop―but the rooms are stylish and range in size and price. Even if you're not staying at the hotel, its 24-hour lemon-colored retro coffee shop called the Restaurant serves up a great burger and a fine breakfast.

One good way to explore is to do what we did and take one of the new guided walks offered by Red Line Tours. Suitably, the company has its small office in a true downtown landmark―the 1893 Bradbury Building, famed for its light-washed lobby and ornate ironwork.

Outfitted with headsets that enabled us to hear his narration over traffic noise, we followed guide Philip Ferentinos. We strolled down Broadway―alive with shoppers and the thumping bass oompah of norteño music―before reaching the modern face of downtown, Bunker Hill.

Once an area of Victorian buildings that many likened to San Francisco, Bunker Hill's homes were razed by redevelopment that began in the 1950s. A loss, but Ferentinos ably guided us to places of surprising beauty set within the shadows of the glass-and-steel towers that now stand there.

Public art abounds: there's a massive Frank Stella mural, not to mention a Calder stabile as well as a Robert Rauschenberg mural. At the Music Center, another sculpture by Graham, an open bronze door, frames city hall like a formal portrait.

We stopped for a look at the $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall, which will open next fall as the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Even while under construction, the performance center―like the cathedral―has become a symbol of downtown's renewed spirit.

The hall's stainless steel panels curve against the cloudless blue horizon. Across the street, a couple studies the structure. The man's arms move like a conductor's as he traces the concert hall's lines in the air, sketching, too, the outline of downtown L.A.'s future.