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Crossroads of the World is a short walk from the glitter and tourist throngs of Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. Head south on Highland Avenue from Hollywood & Highland Center. Turn left on Sunset and walk another two blocks, and you’ll find a quietly charming relic of the past hidden in plain sight.
One concise description of Crossroads of the World might be transcendent kitsch: A piece of “high concept” firmly rooted in its own era, transformed into something classically appealing thanks to imaginative execution and the passage of time. Originally a themed outdoor shopping mall often claimed to be the first in Los Angeles, it’s now a group of “unique offices,” many of them occupied by “creatives” in the entertainment industry. It has been meticulously restored to the way it looked when it first opened in 1936.
An Art Deco tower 18 meters high topped with a rotating globe marks the entrance on Sunset Boulevard. Today most people barely notice it as they drive by. But in the 1930s, that tower promised a taste of exotic far-away places. It must have been alluring at a time when international travel was a rare, costly, and time-consuming privilege reserved for the wealthy few.
A foreign trip in those days meant an ocean voyage. Sure enough, at the center of the mall’s entrance beneath the tower, is a building shaped like an ocean liner. It has two “decks” of round “porthole” windows and a red railing. Along with the characteristic streamlined curves, nautical accoutrements were a common motif of the building’s Streamline Moderne architectural style, at the peak of its popularity when Crossroads of the World was designed. (The Maritime Museum on the San Francisco waterfront, built in 1939, is also in the form of a ship.) The “ship” might seem quaint and perhaps laughable now; but in 1936 it would have symbolized the most modern and glamorous kind of travel.
Before it was Crossroads of the World, the lot on Sunset Boulevard contained the headquarters of Charles H. Crawford, the infamous real estate developer and organized crime boss. His real estate developments included speakeasies, casinos, and brothels frequented by the most prominent politicians, judges, and police officials of Jazz-Age Los Angeles. In 1931, Crawford was shot to death in his office. The murder, and the trial and acquittal of the former deputy district attorney who shot him “in self-defense,” became a scandal that kept tabloid purveyors around the country busy.
When the scandal began to fade, Crawford’s widow Ella decided to tear down her late husband’s notorious offices, and to replace them with something attractive that might earn her a more respectable legacy. She and architect Robert V. Derrah devised an appropriately Hollywooden “international” shopping mall occupying a full block, modeled after a famous bazaar in Jerusalem. Its eight two-story buildings imitate different architectural styles from around the world, and were designed to have shops on the ground floor and offices above.
Despite the Middle-Eastern inspiration and the pretension of a “trip around the world,” the itinerary Crossroads of the World offers is decidedly Eurocentric. Across a parking lot from the central “ship” is a “European village,” with timbered houses that could be from Germany, Switzerland, or somewhere in between. Other buildings are in French, Spanish, and Italian styles. (The Italian building has a nice antique-looking stone staircase and an iron gate. If I weren’t so scrupulously honest I could probably get away with labeling my picture of it as a small-town plaza in Italy, Spain, or Provence.)
The United States is also represented with a “California Mediterranean” building and a New England house. And there’s a lighthouse with a functioning rotating lamp, presumably to prevent the central “ship” from getting lost in fog (or smog).
One building does comes close to the Middle East. It has a Moorish or Moroccan design, with white stucco walls, characteristic ogee arches painted with colorful patterns, and a minaret. A minaret is normally attached to a mosque; it’s the spire that a muezzin climbs five times a day to call the faithful to prayer. There’s no mosque at Crossroads of the World, but the minaret is right next to the neighboring Catholic Church of the Blessed Sacrament. Close enough, I suppose.
Although Crossroads of the World seems rather sedate compared to the high-intensity bustle of nearby Hollywood Boulevard, it didn’t start out that way. The well-connected Mrs. Crawford arranged for an appropriately flashy Hollywood premiere. For its opening gala on 29 October 1936, she exploited the mall’s “international” theme by inviting film stars of various nationalities, along with consular representatives of six countries.
The original collection of shops offered upscale merchandise and services to a celebrity clientele. But that wasn’t enough to make it a successful shopping center. The shops soon shuttered, and Crossroads became an office complex. In the 1940s and 1950s, its tenants represented a mixture of entertainment (the Screen Actors’ Guild, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billboard magazine) and more mundane industries (Standard Oil and American Airlines).
In the 1960s, Hollywood’s movie, television, and radio studios all relocated to larger quarters in other areas of Southern California. They took the fabled Hollywood brand with them, but left Hollywood itself to the drug dealers, panhandlers, and dodgy operators of strip clubs and tattoo parlors.
Crossroads of the World suffered from Hollywood’s neglect and decay. Its offices became a favorite location for pornography publishers and “song sharks.” The “song sharks” placed cheap ads in the back pages of popular magazines offering to set aspiring songwriters’ “poems” to music, and then to record and “distribute” the resulting songs. (They avoided the word “lyric,” assuming their intended victims would not know what that word meant.) The “song poem” authors, of course, paid for all those services. The scammers actually did record the “poems,” set to generic melodies and perfunctorily performed in assembly-line sessions that recorded as many as a dozen songs in an hour. Those recordings were “distributed” only to the authors.
By 1977 the dilapidated complex was scheduled for demolition, to accommodate a developer who had plans to build a generic office tower. That May, real estate investor and philanthropist Morton La Kretz bought Crossroads of the World. He spent just over three years painstakingly restoring it, following the original architectural plans. La Kretz enhanced the restoration with some of his own touches. He added decorative cobblestones, fountains, and whimsical knickknacks that include a sink incongruously attached to a brick wall, holding potted plants.
Crossroads joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It’s also a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument. The complex frequently serves as a filming location for commercials and music videos; and it has been featured in movies set in 1930s Los Angeles. Morton La Kretz still manages the complex.
If you’re visiting Hollywood Boulevard, it’s well worth making the short detour to explore Crossroads of the World. You might find it a welcome respite from the crowds and sensory overload of Hollywood & Highland Center and the Walk of Fame, although its comparatively subtle charms may not hold the interest of young children.
When you enter at the tower on Sunset Boulevard, don’t be deceived by the parking lot at the far end of the central “ship.” It’s easy to get the impression that Crossroads ends there. But keep walking! Half of the distinctive buildings are on the other side of the parking lot. And speaking of parking lots, it’s best to avoid the traffic and parking hassles of this popular part of Los Angeles by riding the Metro Rail Red Line to the Hollywood/Highland station.