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Street Light
Los Angeles History of Streetlights

The first era of street lighting began in the 1860s when Los Angeles had fewer than 10,000 residents, concentrated near the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, the L.A. River, and what is now downtown. In 1867 the Los Angeles Gas Company, a private concern operating under a franchise given by the City and a precursor of today’s Southern California Gas Company, installed gas street lamps around the historic plaza and major thoroughfares, adding over 130 to the cityscape by 1873. These lamps were lit nightly by a traveling lamplighter. The gas was first made from asphalt and later with oil.

In the 1880s, the introduction of direct-current electric arc lighting changed the trajectory of streetlight design -lifting streetlights. So-called Brush lamps using this technology produced such an intensely bright light that their masts rose as high as 150 feet, so as not to blind pedestrians. These lights, referred to as “moonlight towers,” had three lamps, illuminating similarly to a full moon.

In 1905 the City installed over 130 electroliers along Broadway, financed by the Broadway Boulevard Association. This became the norm, private developers or merchants paying the City to install lights to bring illumination and sophistication, creating foot traffic and business. This was also the beginning of high-design streetlights. Hill, Spring, and Main streets soon installed similar lighting and created a nighttime effect that drew wide notice.

A decade later, Mazda C, a gas-filled lamp, emerged as an upgrade over the incandescent bulbs. Providing stronger, more reliable light, the Mazda C helped propel a new version of the electrolier featuring dual upright lamps. It wasn’t until 1911 when the Board of Municipal Art Commissioners was established that Los Angeles began an approval process for new streetlight designs. In 1916, the City became responsible for delivering municipal power to streetlights. Later that year, the City installed streetlights for the first time, lighting Sycamore Park in northeast Los Angeles.

The Bureau of Street Lighting was established in 1925. Its primary task was to provide power and maintenance to streetlights chosen (and funded) by developers from City-approved designs. Los Angeles also began installing basic, utilitarian streetlights (a lamp attached to a timber pole) subsidized by the City’s General Fund.

As Los Angeles quickly grew in the late 1920s, streetlight designs became central to efforts by commercial districts along Wilshire Boulevard and in Westwood Village to distinguish themselves from other sections of Los Angeles. Often, they included wire carrying attachments for the region’s expansive streetcar network.

In 1936, the Hoover Dam’s energy allowed the City to illuminate more territory. That same decade, two significant changes led to the post-World War II designs to come. The first saw upright forms give way to pendants — with teardrop-shaped lamps — attached to horizontal arms extending from the pole. The second change was in the technology, with High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps that ignited a gas (mercury vapor). The years following World War II brought the third era of streetlight design, based on advances in HID technology. Some new designs came from MidCentury Modernism of the region’s latest residential architecture, while others were more efficient versions of existing designs.

The most significant milestones came in 2009, when the Bureau of Street Lighting began installing LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamps. Smaller, lighter, and more efficient, LEDs represented a leap forward in lighting technology as great as any in the history of streetlight design in Los Angeles.

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