“This is giving a presence to a dark area of town at night, and Los Angeles an identity,” says lighting designer Tom Ruzika of his illumination of the Old Bank District, two blocks within a historic district of Los Angeles that is being revamped. The LD is engaged in lighting the exterior facades of the structures, brightening a once-blighted section of the city that adjoins Skid Row.

Tom Gilmore, a transplanted New Yorker, is a key player in the rebirth of downtown, buying up chunks of LA properties to develop. He is transforming these edifices into loft apartments and condos, with retail, restaurant, and commercial establishments on the ground floor. The architectural firm Gilmore called upon to design and renovate the Old Bank District is Killefer, Flammang and Purtill Architects (KFP Architects). The Santa Monica, CA-based company renovated the buildings with interior work and exterior upgrades to create the urban lofts. Then KFP hired The Ruzika Company, led by the LDI Award-winning designer, to shed some light on the subject.

Ruzika says the four buildings in the Old Bank District were mostly built between 1913 and 1919. The iconic structure, the Continental Bank Building, is 12 stories chockful of architectural detail, and is prominent on the Los Angeles skyline. Before anyone could even consider lighting the exteriors, however, structural improvements to the buildings' frames and foundations had to be made. Additional bracing brought the buildings up to code in the earthquake-prone city.

His biggest challenge was trying to blend the equipment into the building to preserve its historic quality. The placement of fixtures had to accent and highlight architectural features at night, without taking away from them during the day. To work around this problem, Ruzika and his team climbed all over the buildings, hung out of windows, and scoped every nook and cranny to determine possible fixture locations. The next step was the digital documentation of potential mounting spots. An evening of on-site tests finally determined what types of fixtures and lamps would be used.


The fixtures and lamps were specified according to which would accentuate the architectural character of each of the four buildings. As a result, each building has its own lighting identity.

The San Fernando Building is painted cream with white and tan accents. For this structure, Ruzika chose Hydrel narrow-spot fixtures with ceramic-tube metal-halide lamps. These spots uplight and accent the exterior columns of the building, providing beams of white light sweeping up the facade. The Farmers and Merchants Bank Building is gray granite. Concealed on the roof, 4200K linear fluorescent fixtures give an even wash of light to the solid rock facades, while highlighting the architectural details. Ruzika lit the Verde green stone structure known as the Hellman Building with halogen and mercury vapor wash fixtures. This choice highlighted the many cornices and columns on the building. In addition, he used biax fluorescent lamps in decorative cylindrical fixtures to provide pedestrian lighting at the sidewalk level.

The sandstone-colored Continental Bank Building, the core of downtown, called for high-pressure sodium lamps in Lithonia floodlights. Ruzika says this choice washes the building's fine details with a golden glow. “We were really able to accent and highlight them, and that made it come to life,” says the LD, who considers the lighting here his favorite part of the project.

The downtown restoration took about a year to complete. Last July, the first lights were turned on; much more was done in August. The initial lighting ceremony was held shortly before the Democratic National Convention, and progress on the illumination continues. So far, the restoration plan seems a success, with the San Fernando Building fully occupied, and the Hellman Building, which opened in January, already at 50% occupancy. The Continental Bank Building is set to open this August.

Ruzika spoke to Lighting Dimensions between trips to Osaka, where his firm has lit the restaurants, retail, and guest services areas, plus six attractions, at Universal Studios Japan. But working on something closer to home had special appeal for him. “It was an exciting project, because I grew up 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles. More exciting than that, my father worked about four blocks from these buildings,” he says. Growing up in the late 1950s, he used to take the bus downtown, where he would meet his father. “At that time, it was an area that was our ‘big city downtown,’ with all the major department stores and banks.” During the mock-up lighting tests, it was thrilling for Ruzika to see the buildings illuminated, because they had never been lit before. “As I stood back and looked at them, I had to call my mom on my cell phone and tell her. I got her all sentimental and teary-eyed.”

Joy Marie Lofton is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.