The Man Who Designed the Coliseum
Over the past 99 years, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has hosted a spectacular number of events, ranging from the Olympics and the World Series to so many great USC football teams. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that the man who designed the venerable venue was an architect from a tiny English village who just wanted to make his mark in America. As the Coliseum approaches its 100th birthday, let's take a look at the man who brought it to life.
John Parkinson was born to a millworker on December 12, 1861 in Scorton, a small village in Lancashire, England. Growing up, Scorton's main moneymaker was a cotton mill and a railway. It was a small community that happened to have three churches.
When he was 16, young John apprenticed with Jonas J. Bradshaw, an architect in Bolton, while taking night classes at the Bolton Mechanics Institute. It proved to be the perfect location to learn all about architecture and design as Bolton was filled with majestic cathedrals and old, rustic buildings. For the next six years, he learned the finer points of architecture, the way that his forefathers had.
When he finished his apprenticeship, he hopped on a cattle boat and immigrated to North America; a young man of 21 ready to take on the known world.
Parkinson and Parkinson
In his early years on the continent, John Parkinson spent time building fences in Winnipeg and learning how to build stairs in Minnesota. He briefly returned to England but soon learned that opportunities would be hard to come by in his homeland, whereas in America, construction jobs and architecture opportunities were ripe for the taking. America didn't know it at the time, but it needed some culture added to its growing metropolises.
Emboldened with the opportunity of an entire continent before his feet, John Parkinson settled in Napa, California where he would continue to build stairs and take on various architectural projects. His first architectural masterpiece was his own home, which he built himself. His landlord was impressed and put him in touch with the Bank of Napa which was looking for someone to build them an annex for their building.
It turned out to be his pièce de résistance at the time and he was soon fielding offers from all over the area. His confidence rose to a level he didn't know was possible and from then on, he considered himself an architect rather than just a craftsman. Considering the town's opportunities to be bleak, Parkinson left for greener pastures in Seattle, Washington in 1889.
He soon set up his own architectural firm when he first moved to Seattle and immediately began picking up projects. There were the hotels such as the Olympia and the Calkins as well as numerous residences. He even capitalized on the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 by securing deals such as the Butler Hotel and the Seattle National Bank Building. After successfully designing the B.F. Day School, the Seattle School Board appointed John Parkinson as the Seattle Schools Architect and Superintendant. He did well in that role for a few years, designing the first buildings of both Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University.
By 1894, he decided to move to Los Angeles, having a feeling that the sleepy little town of barely 50,000 was a burgeoning metroplex waiting to burst. He seemed to have an eye for the future when he posted an ad in the LA Times stating that he wanted to help LA become "the American City of the Future". He wasted no time making a name for himself in the City of Angels, building the city's first Class "A" steel-frame structure two years after setting up residence there. Years later the Homer Laughlin Building would be the home of the Grand Central Market, the city's largest and oldest public market.
From there, his career in the City of Angels took off. In the forthcoming years, he would design buildings such as the Continental Building, the Rosslyn Hotel, and the Grand Central Market. By the time USC called him to inquire about designing several of their buildings beginning in 1919, his firm had become a Los Angeles institution. He achieved many a father's dream when his son, Donald, joined the firm in 1920. With his son beginning his own architectural career, John decided to rename his thriving practice: Parkinson and Parkinson. Within a year, John and Donald were hired to design a new stadium for USC. Little did they know just how much of an imprint it would leave on their legacies.
Since the program's birth, the USC Trojan football team had been somewhat homeless. They had played in places as sparse as a vacant lot on Jefferson Boulevard (before residences took their place), Athletic Park and Fiesta Park. None of these places could hold the Trojans for long and all the while USC yearned for a permanent residence. At the same time, Los Angeles was growing at a.rapid pace and was beginning to be viewed as a possible location for numerous events that would draw tens of thousands. When Parkinson and Parkinson were summoned, they knew that this opportunity could make or break them.
Construction began on December 21, 1921 and soon a massive hole was dug in the middle of Exposition Park. As unthinkable as it may seem now, the grand stadium was completed in just 16 months and was completed on May 1, 1923 at a cost of just under $1 million. In comparison, Yankee Stadium was built for $2.4 million in the same year, more than twice Los Angeles' new, massive stadium cost.
At the time, it was common practice to name stadiums as memorials for those lost overseas during the Great War. Following the flow of the era, the newly built stadium was named the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Soon, people from all over the world wanted to see the gleaming new jewel of Los Angeles.
After a short walk south of the USC campus, one could see an archway with a staircase on the other side. The sight of the arches often reminds one of the coliseums of ancient yore
Looking down into the lower bowl, one can see a vast tunnel that at once welcomes the home team and makes opponents quake in their boots. Ideally, on fall Saturdays, a sea of red would overwhelm opposing teams into submission.
At a cost of just a shade under $1 million, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum instantly became the crown jewel of the ever-growing Los Angeles metroplex.
An Everlasting Legacy
With acclamation often comes the spoils of success. After Parkinson and Parkinson successfully designed the Coliseum, the job opportunities rolled in waves. In the coming years, they designed the Los Angeles City Hall, Bullocks Wilshire (a luxury department store) and Union Station. By the late 1930s, it seemed like the Parkinson name was imprinted everywhere you looked. Once a small city of 50,000, Los Angeles had become John and Don Parkinson's canvas.
Though he wouldn't live forever, it sure seemed like John Parkinson's name did as his company lasted through 2008. As the kid from tiny Scorton gazed at all he had designed, he realized that he had truly lived the American Dream. John Parkinson passed away on November 17, 1945 at the relatively young age of 50.