Mill town boy from Lancashire who created the iconic skyline of Los Angeles

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

The amazing journey from a small Lancashire village to creative genius behind some of America’s most famous landmarks is the subject of a fascinating new book. Author Stephen Gee tells the story of John Parkinson

John Parkinson always believed he was capable of great things. As a young boy growing up in Scorton, near Preston, however, it would have been hard to imagine the remarkable adventures which lay ahead of him or the enormous impact he would have on the skyline of one of America’s greatest cities.
Parkinson would go on to become the dominant architect of Los Angeles at a time when the city was inventing itself.
Spanning a four decade career in the city beginning in 1894, he designed Los Angeles’ first steel-frame structure, the Homer Laughlin Building; the first skyscraper, the 12-story Braly Block; the first world-class hotel, the Hotel Alexandria; the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, central to an ambitious bid to bring the Olympic Games to the city; Los Angeles City Hall, the most iconic building in California; and Los Angeles Union Station, the last of the great American railway stations.
When he died in 1935, the Los Angeles Times proudly proclaimed, “Future citizens have only to walk through the streets of Los Angeles to be reminded how much John Parkinson contributed to the city that grew up under his hand.”
Today, more than 80 years after his death, the iconic structures he imagined remain entwined with the city’s identity.
So much so that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently proclaimed July 5, 2018 as John Parkinson Day in Los Angeles to coincide with the US release of a new documentary exploring Parkinson’s rise to prominence. Parkinson’s story is a potent mix of ambition, determination and good fortune that began on December 12, 1861 when he was born in a modest structure (still standing) on Station Lane (pictured inset).
“Scorton was at that time a small village of whitewashed stone houses with thatched or slate roofs, built hundreds of years ago,” Parkinson wrote in 1935.
“The house I was born in was one of these. In the field adjoining the house, and back from the road, was an old cotton mill in which most of the village people were employed.”
It was here his father Thomas Parkinson worked as an engineer. “My father started work at an early age,” Parkinson wrote.
“He had a good brain, was enterprising, and must have had a natural ability in the line of mechanical engineering, which resulted in his becoming engineer for the Scorton Mill.”
Like his father, Parkinson’s mother, Mary Ann Bibby (who grew up on The Square), had roots in the area stretching back many centuries.
“She was a strong, independent character, perfectly able to plan and think for herself, and comprehend what was transpiring in the outside world,” Parkinson reflected. His parents were married at St. Thomas’ Church in Garstang in 1857 and two years later his sister Margaret was born. Shortly before John’s third birthday, the family moved to Swinton when the senior Parkinson was hired at a weaving mill.
In 1870, they moved to Bolton when Thomas Parkinson found work as an engineer at a newly opened cotton mill.
Young Parkinson, who attended St. Luke’s Day School in Bolton, admitted he was “never keen” for school though he found pleasure in drawing and painting. He began work aged 13 as an errand boy in a hardware store before quitting to join the local newspaper as a delivery boy.
In 1877, he began a six-year apprenticeship with a local contractor named John Roberts. By night, he studied building construction theory at Bolton’s Mechanics Institute.
At the end of his apprenticeship, Parkinson travelled to Winnipeg, Manitoba, with $5 and a toolbox looking for adventure.
He built fences along prairies bounded by the Red River before travelling to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was hired at a sawmill to build staircases.
“I was devoid of any experience in stair-building, but had studied the theory of handrailing and was confident I could make good – and did,” he recalled.
Parkinson quickly rose to become a foreman at a local sawmill.
After two years, he returned home to Bolton, only to discover local employers “scoffed” at his American experience offering him a position at a level just above that of an apprentice.
“I was disgusted and immediately decided to leave the country at once,” he wrote. After viewing an image of the “Golden Gate from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco” at the Bolton Art Gallery, he decided to relocate.
“I had a very vague idea where it was but knew it was in California, which I understood was a hot, tropical country where one had to be very civil in to avoid being shot or stabbed.”
Parkinson settled in Napa, California, after responding to an advertisement for a foreman at the Enterprise Planing Mill.
It was in Napa where he met his first wife, Meta Breckenfeld, the daughter of German farmers, and was given his first opportunity as an architect.
When his landlord noticed the quality of plans Parkinson produced for his own house, he suggested he Parkinson contact his brother who worked at the Bank of Napa and was looking for an architect to design an addition to the bank.
“The architectural germ was developing very fast and when the bank building was completed I concluded to start out as an architect, absolutely devoid of business experience,” he remembered.
When Parkinson received a letter from Napa friends who had moved to Seattle suggesting it would be a great place to set up practice, he made the move north.
After some lean months, he established his practice and was eventually hired as Seattle’s first School’s Architect and Superintendent of Construction.
He would design 32 schools in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a host of other notable structures, including the Seattle National Bank, now better known as the Interurban Building.
The economic crash of 1893 left Parkinson with little alternative than to explore opportunities elsewhere and he decided to head south to Los Angeles.
He arrived with little money and no contacts at a time when the city’s population was just over 50,000. He quickly introduced himself to business leaders, and by 1915, estimated he had been involved in the design of 80 per cent of the modern office buildings in the city.
In 1921, he joined forces with his son Donald, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the family business grew to new heights.
Together, the father and son team created memorable structures, including the Bullock’s Wilshire department store, widely regarded as one of finest Art Deco structures ever built anywhere.
When John Parkinson died, the population of Los Angeles was approaching 1.5 million, and the city was firmly established as the major metropolis on the west coast.
He was by far the most respected architect in the city and his architectural imprint could be found as far away as Dallas, Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah.
“As I look backwards it is clear how easily one’s experiences could have differed,” Parkinson wrote shortly before his death.
In light of his many successes, he cherished memories of his childhood and throughout his life regularly returned to visit family and friends in Scorton, whom he referred to as, “my people.”
Perhaps now it is time for Scorton to honor this proud son and the values that shaped him and helped pave the way for John Parkinson’s monumental success.
l Stephen Gee is a British-born writer and television producer based in Los Angeles and the author of Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles published by Angel City Press.
Wyre Council is keen to find out more about the life and times of John Parkinson and his early days when he lived in the borough.
If you know anything of Parkinson’s early life in, please get in touch with Wyre Council by e-mailing communications@wyre.gov.uk

Architect John Parkinson, centre, designed many of Los Angeles most famous landmarks

Architect John Parkinson, centre, designed many of Los Angeles most famous landmarks

Bullock's Wilshire department store in Los Angeles

Bullock's Wilshire department store in Los Angeles

Los Angeles City Hall

Los Angeles City Hall

House architect John Parkinson was born in on Station Lane, Scorton

House architect John Parkinson was born in on Station Lane, Scorton

Los Angeles' Union Station

Los Angeles' Union Station