As a child, I’d often visit the Griffith Observatory, where my parents took me and my sisters to marvel at the views of the city and see the stars at night through the famous public telescopes. But what I’ll never forget is what greeted me indoors, just through the main entrance, when I looked up.
In the central rotunda, a colorful ceiling mural made my jaw drop: There were frolicking animals, joyful children and wondrous figures (some winged, some nude) having a party in the sky with the moon — and I wanted to join them.
The experience of seeing that 1934 mural — by artist and filmmaker Hugo Ballin, whose paintings can also be found in City Hall, the Southern California Edison building, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the former Los Angeles Times building downtown — has stayed with me. Throughout my life, it’s served as a reminder to gaze upward — or miss the many visual feasts that exist directly overhead.
Over the last several months, I’ve visited and revisited L.A. destinations with breathtaking ceilings, now with my own young daughter by my side. I’ve learned about their history and architecture and the massive efforts taken to preserve them. (Although many of these ceilings are now protected by local and national decree, rapid development, natural disasters and our own vices — decades of cigar and cigarette smoke, for instance — have taken a toll. If not for the passionate work of artisans, engineers, architects, preservationists and funders, many of these ceilings would not exist today.) Here, I share the 32 most spectacular ceilings I’ve found, though the selections could easily triple in number.
Let this guide be a starting point for your adventures in looking up. The list, presented in chronological order by each destination’s completion date (the oldest was unveiled in 1911), predictably includes historic movie palaces, performing arts venues and places of worship — spaces intended to transport us out of our everyday lives. But other destinations may surprise you: a tiny drinking hole, a neighborhood library or office buildings in the middle of downtown L.A.
There are masterpieces in every corner of the city worth getting a neck ache over.
Here’s to the old ceilings and to Angelenos who continue to push creative boundaries with all that’s way above our heads.