This story was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated with the most recent information.
The timeless, fantastic Bradbury Building at Broadway and Third Street is a much-beloved Downtown Los Angeles landmark, most widely known for its significant appearances in movies including the original Blade Runner, (500) Days of Summer, and Marlowe, starring the late James Garner.
But the popular film set also has a lesser-known occult connection. Avery Trufelman, producer of the design and architecture podcast 99 Percent Invisible, talked to Esotouric operators Kim Cooper and Richard Schave about the eerie history of what 99 PI calls “arguably the biggest architectural movie star of Los Angeles.”
The edifice was the idea of a gold-mining magnate who really wanted to put his name on a building. His vision led him to turn down a prominent architect and mysteriously commission a totally untrained one instead, and that not-quite-architect, George H. Wyman, turned to ghosts and literature to pull it off.
As the story goes, Lewis Bradbury, a gold-mining millionaire, decided he wanted to build and put his name on a building, so, in 1892, he commissioned prominent architect Sumner P. Hunt, who alone and with partners would design the Southwest Museum, the Ebell Club, the Automobile Club in University Park, and loads of private homes for wealthy clients throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Hunt prepared some plans for the proposed building, but when Bradbury visited the office to check them out, none of the designs impressed him.
Here’s where things got weird.
As Bradbury was leaving the office, he noticed Hunt’s draftsman, a young man named George H. Wyman. Wyman had zero training or experience as an architect at this point, but Bradbury, for reasons still not really known to anyone, walked up to Wyman and offered him the chance to design a large, high-profile, half-million-dollar office building.
Wyman was initially and justifiably “weirded out.” He was totally unqualified for the job, and, in taking the commission, he would essentially be stealing a client from his boss. Unsure of how to proceed, Wyman decided to consult someone wiser: his dead brother.
To do this, Wyman employed a planchette, which looks exactly like the instrument that everyone puts their hands on to navigate a Ouija board. This planchette has a pencil attached, and so instead of indicating letters one by one, it writes out whole words and sentences. At the time, spiritualism was very much in fashion, says Esotouric’s Cooper, and planchettes “would typically be consulted when someone had an issue that they wanted some guidance on.”
In Wyman’s case, he and his wife sat down together, put their hands on the planchette, and asked Wyman’s dead brother whether to take the job. “In a very childish, script hand,” Cooper says, the mystical device wrote out the phrase “take Bradbury … you will be … .” After that, there was a word that at first appeared to be gibberish, but when read upside-down, it supposedly said “successful.” Take Bradbury and you will be successful? Okay! The dead brother came through, and the job was a go.
And Wyman was successful. The Bradbury was such an invigorating project that he eventually went to school and became an actual architect. As for Wyman’s first big commission, the Bradbury has a kind of timeless versatility that’s led it to play a diverse set of locations—a Burmese hotel, a seedy office building, a futuristic ruin.
It’s said that Wyman’s inspiration for the building’s design was directly inspired by a novel, Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy, a popular science fiction novel about a utopian society that was published in 1888.
A passage from that book describes this incredible building in the future (which, in those days, was 2000): “a vast hall full of light received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome.”