In a less-traveled corner of Pershing Square you’ll come across a 90-year-old bronze statue of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Ballad of Pershing Square’s Beethoven Statue
On the Hill Street side of Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles, just across the street from the Metro Station, a slightly larger than life bronze statue of Ludwig van Beethoven stands on a marble pedestal. The famous German composer is leaning slightly forward with his hands, holding a cane and a rumpled hat, clasped behind his back. His waistcoat is askew, undone with missing a button, and his trademark wild hair is in full effect. He’s positioned in such a way that he’s facing the corner of 5th and Olive, across Pershing Square, but his eyes cast downwards in deep contemplation. Or perhaps deep concern over the indignity of his current situation.
Around him are three other statues — a soldier from the Spanish-American War (placed in 1900), a WWI doughboy (that’s what American soldiers were called in WWI; placed in 1924), and a cannon from the USS Constitution (1935).
So what’s a German composer, arguably the best-known composer in history, doing in the company of all these wartime remembrances in a public park named after U.S. General John Pershing, no less?
To answer that question we have to travel 90 years back in time and delve into the histories of both Pershing Square and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pershing Square dates back to 1866 when Los Angeles was still a part of Mexico. Mayor Cristobal Aguilar dedicated the space as a public square, naming it La Plaza Abaja (“The Lower Plaza”). Over the years it’s been known by many different names — St. Vincent’s Park, Los Angeles Park, 6th Street Park, and Central Park.
Then, in 1918, it was named Pershing Square after General John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces during WWI. (He also took the job of hunting down Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution — he failed — a task which is the source of some controversy today over the naming of the park. More on this is a future post.)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by a music lover William A. Clark Jr., the son of Montana senator and wealthy copper baron William A. Clark, in 1919. And starting in 1920, the Philharmonic played in the Philharmonic Auditorium (renamed from the Temple Auditorium), which was located across from Pershing Square on 5th Street.
Ludwig van Beethoven was William Clark Jr.’s favorite composer. So in 1931, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic was thinking of a way to honor Mr. Clark for all his support over the years, they commissioned a statue of their founder’s favored composer.
Then-unknown sculptor Arnold Foerster stepped forward to take the commission. For his sculpture, Foerster imagined Beethoven walking through the forest around Vienna as he composed the Ninth Symphony.
After the casting was complete and Beethoven was mounted on a marble base designed by architect Robert Farquhar, the statue was installed on the northern edge of Pershing Square, facing the Philharmonic Auditorium on the other side of 5th Street.
Beethoven was unveiled October 15, 1932 during a huge ceremony that featured a number of speeches from local politicians followed by the Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. When all the fanfare ended, Beethoven the statue was, at last, revealed.
The new statue wasn’t without a small amount of controversy, however. Some people didn’t want any statues of foreign persons in their fair city. Other people were upset that Beethoven was sculpted with the historically inaccurate pants and hat.
Although Beethoven’s tenure as a Pershing Square fixture started out well enough, things went downhill quickly for Beethoven. Someone thought it would be a good idea to plant a series of Eugenia trees (the type often used for topiaries) in a pattern resembling a bass clef behind the statue. There were nine trees in total, symbolizing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
While this was nice in theory, the idea turned out to have negative consequences for Beethoven. Pigeons really appreciated the arrangement of those trees for some reason, and great numbers of the birds would roost there. Naturally, this meant that Beethoven was quickly and almost always whitewashed with bird excrement. Even on the rare occasion when the city got around to washing him off, he didn’t stay clean for long.
Beethoven: Interlude 1
In 1951,Beethoven was removed when the old Pershing Square was completely torn up so a five-story parking garage could be built underneath it (the garage is still there). But you can’t keep a good composer down, and Beethoven returned to the re-instated and re-designed Pershing Square in 1952.
But he didn’t occupy his old spot. Instead, he was installed near the intersection of 5th and Olive in the northwest corner of the square, still across from the Philharmonic Auditorium. He took up his vigil along a shaded path, and it didn’t take too long for the pigeons to find him again.
Then the Philharmonic Auditorium ceased to be the home of the Philharmonic sometime in the 1960s when the orchestra moved to the Los Angeles Music Center, leaving the orphaned Beethoven behind for 30 years until …
Beethoven: Interlude 2
The park was completely re-designed in 1992, giving us the bleak brutalist landscaping we have today. Of course Beethoven was removed for this process, and when the redesign had been completed all the statues were returned in 1994.
But Beethoven found himself far from his accustomed home along 5th Street. Instead he had been stashed on the other side of the park — in what can only be called a haphazard arrangement — with three other unrelated statues.
And that’s where he stand today — out of place (he should be up around the Disney Concert Hall or Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), looking a little weathered (he is 90 years old), and guarding a small area of Pershing Square where dogs (and likely a few humans) relieve themselves.
The indignity of it all.
One last thing. Beethoven statue aside, let’s take just a moment to consider how green and inviting Pershing Square looks in the 1932 photos. It sure would be nice if we had such a thing in Downtown Los Angeles today.
- Pershing Square (Hill St side), Downtown
- GPS Coordinates: 34.048569, -118.252518 [ Google Maps ]
- what3words: ///cove.free.lonely