A ‘tour’ on the town

Alumna Laura Massino poses outside a Victorian home along Los Angeles’ famed Carroll Avenue.

Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles' Angelino Heights district is a slice of carefully preserved history, where Carroll Avenue residents and visitors step back in time to the late 1800s. Here, alumna Laura Massino ’95 MA points out the cement step that riders would have used when unloading from a carriage or getting off a horse. To her left is an original horse hitch.

Laura Massino ’95 MA holds a key to Los Angeles’ past.

Continually driving from Silver Lake to the Hollywood Hills, from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, Massino unlocks the city’s architectural gems, prominent residences, and bits of culture and history for hundreds of Los Angeles tourists and residents.

“I take people from around the world on tours of L.A.,” she said. “They know something is here—they just don’t know how to get to it.”

Massino, who studied art history at Cal State L.A., launched Architecture Tours L.A. 10 years ago. The concept for the company was developed from Massino’s master’s thesis in which she documented and studied the city’s architectural progression from 1781 to 1995. (There are buildings still standing in Los Angeles that date back nearly 200 years, she notes.)

“There are a lot of people interested in the city’s architecture,” Massino said, acknowledging that few others offer tours that showcase the city’s cultural and historical roots. “There’s more going on here than just Hollywood and the movie business.”

Among her tour highlights: “The Witch’s House”—or “The Spadena House”—in Beverly Hills, a whimsical fairy tale-like cottage built for a 1921 silent film; Pasadena’s “Bubble House,” a concrete dome igloo built after World War II and designed by acclaimed architect Wallace Neff; and Carroll Avenue, a street that features the greatest collection of Victorian Manors in the city. She also includes architectural masterpieces of Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright and many others.

A street sign at the start of Carroll Avenue in the Angelino Heights District.

“People from all over say there is no other place like Los Angeles. It’s really a unique city,” she said.

When Massino started out, she chauffeured clients around town in a 1962 Cadillac. The classic car paired nicely with the historical tour, she said, but poor gas mileage, and limited temperature control and comfort eventually lost out to a more economical van.

Since her initial tour days, Massino has also greatly expanded her reach, moving beyond West Hollywood/Beverly Hills and honing her expertise for tours that encompass Silver Lake, Hancock Park/Miracle Mile and Pasadena. She is currently designing tours for Santa Monica/Venice, the San Fernando Valley and Westwood/West L.A.

Each added tour requires roughly six months of historical research and on-the-road exploration, for which she also develops self-guided tour books that retail in bookstores, online and at museums and historical sites around the city.

“I took a family from London on a tour the other day,” Massino recounted. “And I’m kind of a one-person shop. I do the tours, respond to e-mail and answer the phone. So, I answered the phone and said ‘Hi, this is Laura.’ And the man from London was like, ‘You are Laura of the books!?!’”

The gentleman brought his well-worn copy of the family’s guidebook on the tour, she said. 

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how people have been taken by the tours. It’s almost like they were starved for it,” Massino said. “I never know what to expect. I just know that I love my subject and I want to see and share it in three-dimensions.”

This is the first historic zone designated in Los Angeles in 1983. It is called Angelino Heights, and it is where the largest concentration of Victorian architecture still in existence is—and most of these dating from 1870s to 1890s. It’s a step back into what life would have been—life would have looked like in the late 19th century. So in the historic preservation overlay zone, there is a design review board that approves any alterations on the exterior of these houses.

 

This building used to house artisan artisan’s, hence the name the fine arts building.

The corner, there is this polished stainless steel section. Right. That’s the Founder’s Hall, so that major donors get to go for dinners and a private area for them. Well, it was reflecting the sun so intensely that it was heating up these apartments by 15 degrees.

You know, Broadway was the center of things. And then again, after the war and people started to leave downtown, it really changed, deteriorated and started to come back lately.

A lot of department stores were down here. The Broadway was down here; Bullock’s was down here, all the department stores were down here, so this was also a shopping area. When I take people who grew up here, they tell me ‘We used to go down here to see the Christmas window displays at the department stores.’

But the building that I really wanted you guys to see is coming up on the right. But before that is the Tower Theatre—and this one, from the 20s—this was the first one that could play sound movies, ‘talkies.’ The first ‘talkie’ was the Jazz Singer. Al Jolson was the actor and that was in 1927. So this theatre, the Tower, would have shown that.