South LA is not known for high rises, but it does have some landmarks worth admiring. In fact, there are over 140 Historic-Cultural Monuments in this region that are recognized by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission. Many of which are architecturally-significant homes, churches, and businesses.
In this roundup, I’ve picked 5 essential landmarks that really encapsulate South LA history.
Near the heart of Leimert Park, you’ll find this striking Spanish-style Art Deco theater that first opened as “Leimert Theatre” around 1931. The building’s most unique feature—aside from its thoughtful attention to detail—is its towering steel frame that features the theater’s name. Back in the 30s, that steel centerpiece read “Leimert Theatre,” instead of the “Vision Theatre” that you’ll see today.
The theatre has changed hands a number of times over the last 90 years. Most notably, it was used as a Jehovah Witness Watchtower Assembly Hall for nearly two decades.
In 1990, Actress Marla Gibbs purchased the property and renamed it the Vision Theatre, with plans to showcase black art at this establishment. Gibbs lost the property to foreclosure in 1997, and the City of Los Angeles acquired it, converting it into a performing arts center.
Today, the property is undergoing a massive renovation with plans to reopen in 2022.
It would be wrong for me to have a video about South LA landmarks and not include the Watts Towers. More likely than not, you’ve heard of these spiraling structures built by Watts resident Simon Rodilla, who began working on the towers in 1921 and finished them in 1954.
Today, you’ll still find these towers standing nearly 100 feet tall in Watts. The Towers sit in an open park, adjacent to the Watts Towers Arts Center. The interior of the towers is closed for maintenance and renovation, right now, but you can still admire them from behind the gates.
Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building
Near the southern edge of Historic South Central—roughly a block from the Dunbar Hotel and across the street from the KFC on 43rd and Central—you’ll find this Mission/Spanish Revival Storefront built in 1928.
I’ll be honest, I’ve passed this building several times, and it’s non-assuming—until you take a closer look. Then it’s nearly natural to admire its terracotta roof, decorative moulding, and old-style light fixtures.
This building is an important one too: The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance was one of the largest and most successful black-owned businesses in South LA in the 20th century. Today, you’ll find the building occupied by the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, a non-profit, community-based organization that serves disadvantaged individuals and families in the Los Angeles area.
Felix the Cat
If you’ve been on the 110 Freeway—or even driven down Figueroa street in the USC area—then you’ve seen this Felix the Cat sign that’s nearly 64 years old.
Winslow B. Felix established the Felix Chevrolet dealership in 1921. According to the dealership’s website, Winslow Felix was friends with Pat Sullivan who created the cartoon black cat, Felix, in 1919. Being friends, and Winslow’s opportune surname, the two decided to cross promote the dealership and Felix the Cat the same year the dealership opened.
When Nickolas Shammas purchased Felix Chevrolet in 1957, he commissioned the Felix the Cat Sign that sits towering above the dealership today. Shammas believed having a recognizable sign that could be seen from the 110 Freeway would make customers aware of the dealership as they cruised along the highway.
In 2007, Felix Chevorlet attempted to obtain historical status for the sign, but that request was rejected by LA City Council.
And if you’ve driven here by night, you may have noticed the sign doesn’t illuminate the same way it did in the past. In 2021, Felix Chevrolet removed the neon lights in the Felix the Cat sign and replaced them with energy-efficient LED lights. It might not look the same, but I bet Chevrolet’s energy bill is better.
If you drive past the dealership now, you’ll find the dealership is under construction and has demolished a series of buildings on its lot. I’m looking more into this to see what the final results will be.
The Watts Shopping Center MLK Monument
The last landmark on this list is, well, not really a landmark. It’s about 20-feet too short, actually, but it’s significant enough to be put on this list.
In the non-assuming Martin Luther King, Jr. shopping center in Watts, you’ll find a monument dedicated to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech tucked in the corner of the center. At first look, you’ll find a sculpted hand welcoming a dove that sits on a monolith with King’s “I Have a Dream: speech engraved on it. It’s a wonderful piece of art to admire any time of the year.
What is even more spectacular than this essential monument is this Watts shopping center that was built in the mid-80s. This commercial development brought the first major grocery chain since the Watts Riots of 1965—only 40 years ago. Today, the Food 4 Less that anchors this shopping center is the only major grocery store in the bounds of the Watts neighborhood.