By: Angela D.
Date: November 28, 2022
John Parkinson (1861 – 1935) was Los Angeles’ pioneering and most prominent architect in the early 1900s when LA was striving to become a city of significance. Parkinson defined the look and feel of the city by his body of work. Parkinson was born in England in 1861. He did not finish high school, but he worked many jobs while at a young age. In 1877, he was hired as an apprentice to a local contractor and builder. He enjoyed the work so much that he decided to enroll in school again to study construction and design and even surveying. By the time his apprenticeship ended, he was well trained and educated and ready to adventure out to use his skills.

In 1883, Parkinson crossed the Atlantic via cattle boat from England to Canada, ending up in Winnipeg. While there, Parkinson worked on building fences and made a point of saving the majority of his $2.50 daily salary. Within a short time, he had saved enough to continue his North American adventure and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, working on staircases at the Johnson and Hurd Sawmill.

Parkinson returned to England after working abroad for about a year. Back at home, John could not seem to get the work he wanted, and after seeing a photograph of San Francisco at a local art gallery, he knew he just had to go back to the United States. He set sail across the Atlantic again and found employment in the San Francisco Bay Area. Parkinson was a saver and soon was able to buy a plot of land where he designed and built his house. His new home caught the eye of many, including the President of the Bank of Napa. Parkinson was asked if he would consider designing their next Bank of Napa building, and after a meeting with the board of directors, Parkinson was appointed architect. This was Parkinson’s first architecture project.
Parkinson kept growing professionally and moving where opportunity led him. A Napa family that had moved to Seattle wrote to him to express how their new city was booming. Parkinson thought that maybe going to Seattle would help him start his career as an architect. So, in 1889, he made the move to Seattle hoping that, despite the competition he would face there, that he might make his mark as a successful architect.

Parkinson had a lot to offer from the many skills he learned in varied jobs and also from studying architectural publications regularly. He opened his first architectural firm in Seattle with business partner Cecil Evers, who was a known designer of civic and bank buildings in the Pacific Northwest. Quickly thereafter, the Great Seattle Fire on June 6, 1889, gave the firm the opportunity to be at the forefront of rebuilding the central business district, which had been lost to the blaze. In 1890, at the young age of 28, Parkinson was chosen to be the lead designer of the Butler Block as well as the brand new Seattle National Bank Building. The Butler Block functioned primarily as a hotel until it closed in 1933, unable to survive Prohibition and the Depression. The three top floors were razed, and the bottom two floors remain original in appearance but function as a parking garage today.
The Seattle National Bank Building, also known as the Interurban Building, was billed as one of the largest developments in Seattle in the 19th century, the building today remains an architectural icon. The Seattle National Bank Building was the breakthrough project that popularized Parkinson as a prominent American architect.

Parkinson went on to design many more commercial buildings, schools, and universities for Seattle. By 1893 he owned $150,000 ($4.9 million in 2022) in various real estate investments. However, in the same year, an economic depression swept across the country and Parkinson lost his investments and his position as the Superintendent of Construction with the Seattle Schools.
So, he moved to Los Angeles in March of 1894 with only $50 (~$1,700 in 2022) hoping to make a new start. As a way to promote himself in his new city of Los Angeles, Parkinson advertised in the LA Times that he was an architect from Seattle who designed many of their largest buildings. He wanted to get the word out that he was now here in LA to help the city grow and become “The American City of the Future”!

Between 1905 to 1915, Parkinson partnered with Edwin Bergstrom, the architect of the U.S. Pentagon, and together they worked on the La Casa Grande Hotel in Pasadena and various Downtown LA projects. Once established, Parkinson’s career took off, and he thereafter had the privilege to open one last architecture firm with his son Donald from 1920 until his death in 1935. Through his career, Parkinson has been involved in the design and development of some of LA’s most iconic structures. Here’s a short-list of Parkinson’s contributions to the City of Angels:
- Continental Building (1902), previously known as the Braly Block and widely considered to be L.A.’s first skyscraper
- Rosslyn Hotel (1914), the city’s then-largest hotel
- USC Campus buildings (starting in 1919)
- Grand Central Market (1917)
- Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1921)
- Los Angeles City Hall (1928)
- Bullock’s Wilshire (1929), LA’s finest example of Art Deco architecture
- Union Station (1939)
These projects attest to the significant impact he made on the city during his forty-year career in Los Angeles.

John Parkinson built or helped build dozens of buildings, many of them iconic, in the city of Los Angeles, and most of them are still around today. Twenty-one of those structures are downtown on Spring Street. If you arrive at the corner of 5th and Spring, you can appreciate many of these buildings for yourself in the area that is now known as John Parkinson Square.

See some of John Parkinson’s buildings on our LA’s Beginnings, Old & New Downtown LA, and Koreatown tours.