Los Angeles arguably has only two parks of the Beaux-Arts / Olmsted tradition – large, cultivated gardens in urban settings, home to iconic cultural institutions: Hancock Park and Exposition Park. However, both parks are significantly smaller than similar parks nationwide.
Furthermore, at 160 acres, Exposition Park constitutes half of the public park and recreation space within the 30 square miles of South Los Angeles surrounding the Park itself. The population of this area is over 400,000, at a density of 13,000 people per square mile, comparable to San Francisco. The resulting parkland ratio of 34 square feet per person is dramatically below both the Los Angeles and national averages.1
South Los Angeles 34 sq ft park / person, 13,000 people / sq mi
Los Angeles 130 sq ft park / person, 7770 people / sq mi
Chicago 115 sq ft park / person, 12,200 people / sq mi
Boston 166 sq ft park / person, 4130 people / sq mi
New York City 300 sq ft park / person, 24,330 people / sq mi
Minneapolis 756 sq ft park / person, 6350 people / sq mi
Yet this calculation assumes that all of Exposition Park is verdant green space, when in fact much of the park is dedicated to surface parking for 3800+ cars, various museums and sports facilities – including the under-utilized 101,000 seat LA Coliseum and the 22,400 seat LA Memorial Sports Area. Consequently, perhaps less than half of the park is available as publicly accessible outdoor recreation space. In so far as Exposition Park has been and continues to be encroached upon by development (and simultaneously subject to abandonment), it is an allegory for Los Angeles in general. Just as LA’s natural and agricultural landscapes have been systematically developed without consistent open space protection, Exposition Park has been treated as vacant land waiting for buildings.
Exposition Park was established 1872 as privately owned showground equipped with stables, paddocks and a racetrack for agricultural and horticultural fairs, livestock and farm equipment shows, and horse races. In 1885 the park passed into public ownership, but through lack of funds and mismanagement it was nearly lost – stable public stewardship was not achieved until 1908, when an operating agreement between the state, county and city was reached. In 1913, on the same day Mulholland brought Owens Valley water to LA, Exposition Park was officially dedicated with the completion of the Beaux-Arts “City Beautiful” quad surrounding the famous Rose Garden – framed by USC on the north, the County Museum (now the east wing of the Natural History Museum), the Ahmanson State Exposition Building (now the north faÁade of the California ScienCenter), and the National Guard Armory. To date, the Rose Garden remains the most recognizable and heavily used green space in Exposition Park. But since 1913, the park has seen continued construction at the expense of its primary resource – open space.
1922 – the Exposition Clubhouse constructed.
1923 – architect John Parkinson opens the Memorial Coliseum.
1930s – the County Museum expands and shutters its eastern doors on the Rose Garden in favor of a new south entrance facing the Coliseum.
1932 – the Swimming Stadium is built and the Coliseum is enlarged for the Olympic Games.
1951 – the Ahmanson Building expands as the Museum of Science and Industry.
1959 – architect Welton Beckett opens the Memorial Sports Arena.
1970s – County Museum, now the Natural History Museum, expands again.
1983 – architect Frank Gehry opens the Aerospace Museum adjacent to the Armory.
1984 – the California African-American Museum opens.
1988 – Museum of Science and Industry announces it plans to demolish the Ahmanson building to construct a new facility.
1990 – the National Guard Armory is abandoned.
1991 – LA Unified School District announces plans to build a magnet science school designed by Morphosis on the site of the Armory; the project wins a 1993 Progressive Architecture Award, although it, with the proposed Science Museum, will severely diminish the historic character of the Rose Garden. Construction begins in 2001, but of a modified design that faces Exposition Boulevard and not the Rose Garden.
By the mid-90s, Exposition Park had been divided north-south between culture and sports, and any sense of cohesion had long been lost – the architecture and planning firm Zimmer Gunsal Frasca was commissioned in 1991 to develop a master plan to bring the disparate elements of the park into order. The firm was also hired in 1992 to design the new Museum of Science and Industry, and, at the insistence of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the design incorporates the north faÁade of the Ahmanson Building. The new museum, the California ScienCenter, opened in 1998, and created a public plaza around the ticketing windows and IMAX theater on the south side of the building facing the Coliseum, connected to the Rose Garden through an interior, but public atrium. The design is the first attempt of ZGF’s master plan to unite Exposition Park into a singular entity.2
Yet this modest success is threatened by subsequent projects. In 1994, the Raiders football team leaves Los Angeles for Oakland, vacating the Coliseum – except for USC football games and occassional film shoots, it stands empty. The LA Clippers basketball team also leaves Exposition Park in 1998, abandoning the Sports Arena for the newly completed Staples Center. The following year, as part of a bid to bring an NFL football team to Los Angeles, a plan is announced to gut the Coliseum’s interior to accommodate contemporary stadium standards. The proposal also imagines a large, multi-level parking garage constructed in the south portion of the park. Ultimately, LA loses its NFL bid to Houston, and the above-ground parking garage is not built. But with construction of the Morphosis-designed Science School nearly completed and the proposed expansion of the Natural History Museum by Steven Holl imminent, the erosion of Exposition Park’s public open space continues.