Blue Bottle Coffee
May 11, 2017

Coffee Break: Blue Bottle Coffee in Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building

  • By: Lauren Walser

There are plenty of places to find a cup of coffee in downtown Los Angeles. But the new outpost of Blue Bottle Coffee, a San Francisco-based roaster, brings something different to the table: It’s located in the storied Bradbury Building.

Opened in 1883, the Bradbury Building, at the corner of Third Street and Broadway among the city’s old movie palaces, is the oldest commercial building in the downtown area and a National Historic Landmark. These distinctions are noteworthy on their own. But there’s more to its story.

Bradbury Building

The Bradbury Building at Broadway and Third Street in downtown Los Angeles.

In 1892, gold-mining and real estate millionaire Lewis Bradbury commissioned architect Sumner Hunt to design an office building for him bearing his name. (Hunt is the architect behind several prominent Los Angeles buildings, including the Southwest Museum, a National Treasure of the National Trust.)

Hunt turned in his designs, but Bradbury, for reasons never fully understood, took him off the job and offered it to Hunt’s draftsman, George H. Wyman.

It was a surprising move. Wyman had no real training or experience as an architect. And as the story goes, before Wyman made his final decision about the job, he consulted one very important person: his dead brother.

Using a planchette (the device used in a Ouija board) with a pencil attached to it, he asked his brother for advice. The message he received was clear: Taking this job would lead to great success. So Wyman accepted.

From the outside, the Bradbury is a relatively unassuming, five-story, Romanesque building with a brick, sandstone, and terra cotta facade. But inside is a different story. There’s a majestic skylit atrium, with marble stairs, Mexican tile, decorative terra cotta, iron railings along the stairs and balconies, and open “bird cage” elevators. It feels thoroughly old-world and completely futuristic, all at once.

Bradbury Building atrium

photo by: KW Reinsch/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

The atrium in the Bradbury Building.

Chances are, you’ve seen the Bradbury Building plenty of times before. It’s been used in countless television shows, commercials, and movies, most notably Blade Runner (1982), but also in White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Chinatown (1974), 500 Days of Summer (2009), and The Artist (2011), among others.

And now, you can step inside the building for a cup of coffee.

That grand atrium isn’t visible from inside Blue Bottle Coffee, which opened this new cafe on New Year’s Eve 2016. In fact, the coffee space is ultra-minimalist in comparison, with white walls, Baltic birch wood counters, and pale wood furnishings and accents.

"We were enthralled by the Bradbury Building and could not imagine a more magical place for one of our cafes," says Blue Bottle CEO Bryan Meehan. "Our design approach is really about responding to the site we're in and finding ways to complement and highlight a building's existing architecture and mythology."

Working with architect Jo Nagasaka of Tokyo-based firm Schemata, the shop worked to keep the building’s original character intact. There’s still plenty of old features to ogle, like exposed brick walls, metal columns, concrete pillars, and concrete and terrazzo tile floors. And the tall street-facing windows—perfect for people-watching—still flood the ground-floor space with light.

There are no electrical outlets here, and no Wi-Fi. This is a space designed for reading, visiting with friends, or meeting with colleagues over a latte. Or, perhaps, sitting and reflecting on the city’s history.


A cafe latte inside the Bradbury Building.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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