For the 26 million tourists who find their way each year to the place in Los Angeles where the Oscars are broadcast, the view from Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue is likely not what they expected. Ascending a staircase into a nondescript beige stucco mall, visitors eager to spot a celebrity are greeted by an imposing four-story Babylonian gate rising in the distance, and, to its right, perched atop similarly styled pedestals, two gargantuan white elephants.
Most of those visitors don’t know why their Hollywood–sign photos are framed by ersatz Mesopotamian architecture, and it’s difficult to locate the plaque that explains what this thing is doing here. It is, as it turns out, a full-scale replica of a portion of the set from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance. And that’s a problem, because Griffith directed one of the most notoriously racist films ever made. This well-intentioned architectural folly is literally the elephant in the room, and it won’t be there much longer.
In 1915, Griffith — born in Kentucky to a Confederate general — made the sweeping epic The Birth of a Nation. It’s inarguably one of the major milestones in the development of ambitious cinema, and it’s also an unapologetic love letter to white supremacy. It portrays the Ku Klux Klan as American heroes and glorifies the killing of Black people, who are portrayed by white actors in blackface. The impact of the film on a country just decades out from Reconstruction is well-established. The number of lynchings increased the year after the film was released. Cross burnings, which weren’t common before the film, became more frequent. Klansmen actually used the film as a recruiting tool. The NAACP picketed and protested screenings for decades, and a campaign to ban the film led by a Black newspaper editor, William Monroe Trotter, created momentum for the modern civil rights movement. Griffith took the criticism personally and petulantly, publishing a pamphlet the following year titled “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America.” It excoriated his critics by accusing them of censorship in a manner startlingly similar to the open-letter debate on “cancel culture” that’s playing out right now. He was so bothered by the widespread accusations of racism, says Vulture film critic Alison Willmore, that he made intolerance the theme of his next film out of spite, and gave it that very name. “While The Birth of a Nation has this incredible, straightforward ugliness to its messaging, Intolerance is more complicated,” she explains. “It was born out of Griffith’s resentment about having been criticized so heavily. It’s this grandiose ode to intolerance across the eons that is part personal grudge and part commentary on social ills.”
The Birth of a Nation had been an unqualified hit, and the production design of Intolerance became intertwined with Griffith’s attempt to flaunt his commercial success with a film that would be even more over-the-top. It was filmed on location on a vacant lot in Los Feliz where Griffith erected exquisitely detailed sets and hired thousands of extras. The final film would run three and half hours, jumping among segments about Catherine de Medici and the Huguenots, Christ in Judea, a contemporary California crime-and-love story, and the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C. The Babylon Court gates — which logged less than a quarter of the film’s screen time — became a tourist attraction, even after the film flopped. The abandoned set sat in an increasingly derelict state for four years until the city eventually made Griffith take it down (the Vista Theatre was built on the site in 1923). The reproduction at Hollywood & Highland went up in 2001.
I lived right behind Hollywood & Highland for four years — I stared at the gate and elephants each morning as I brushed my teeth — but I didn’t quite make the connection until I saw a tweet by the architect Daveed Kapoor during a Black Lives Matter protest at the mall. Kapoor had learned the story behind Intolerance from a talk given by the late California historian Kevin Starr, who noted that the film’s Babylonian influence became a trendy trope in local architecture, perhaps even inspiring the ziggurat shape of L.A.’s 1928 City Hall. To Kapoor, the decision at Hollywood & Highland to reference the film in the contemporary built environment was shameful, especially for the place selected to be the new home of the Academy Awards. “I mean, really, you choose to enshrine that?” he says. “This is where the Oscars are, the headquarters of film production, and you have something that’s literally about the Klan.”
It won’t be enshrined much longer. Earlier this month, Hollywood & Highland announced that the complex will be receiving a makeover, which will include the removal of the replicas of the replicas of ancient Babylon. According to David Glover, a principal at the architectural firm Gensler who has been working on the redesign for over year with developers at DJM and Gaw Capital, the plan for Ovation Hollywood — or “OH!” for short (the social media handles have already been secured) — is to turn the mall into something it never was: a place for locals. Without elephants.
“It always felt like someone from somewhere else designed this place who didn’t have any idea what L.A. is about,” Glover told me this week. Making the place more palatable to Angelenos includes greening the barren interior courtyard to create a public “oasis” and turning the top floors of stores into office spaces. (Their research revealed that humans were unlikely to travel more than two stories above ground level to shop.) The renovation should be ready for its close-up within 18 months, although it’s difficult to imagine what the world will be like then, given that on the Walk of Fame these days, the Batman impersonators currently outnumber tourists two to one.
The nod to Intolerance was purportedly inspired by someone who did live here, the author Ray Bradbury, who made a second career of offering unsolicited shopping-district planning advice; his essay “The Aesthetics of Lostness” also inspired Jon Jerde’s postmodern labyrinth at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. In a posthumously published essay in The Paris Review about his work as an “accidental architect,” Bradbury claims to have proposed the thematic elements to a local planning group — likely the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency — as an homage to Hollywood past:
I told them that somewhere in the city, they had to build the set from the 1916 film Intolerance by D. W. Griffith. The set, with its massive, wonderful pillars and beautiful white elephants on top, now stands at the corner of Hollywood and Highland avenues. People from all over the world come to visit, all because I told them to build it. I hope at some time in the future, they will call it the Bradbury Pavilion.
This history has led some preservationists to question the removal of the Intolerance elements, partially because of the Bradbury connection but also because so little of the silent-film era remains in Los Angeles. A ten-minute walk north from the mall, just opposite the Hollywood Bowl, is the Lasky-DeMille Barn, which was used in the production of the 1913 film The Squaw Man, the first motion picture made in Hollywood. A few blocks east on Hollywood Boulevard is an alley that was used by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd in films made in the 1920s, which activists (including silent-film historian John Bengtson) are trying to preserve as a historic landmark. “I think it would be sad to see this architectural element come down without discussion,” says Kim Cooper, co-founder of the history and preservation group Esotouric. “There’s so little that speaks to the early film industry in Hollywood, and even though this is just a tribute, it tells a cool story about how those massive gates sat for years in Los Feliz, rotting away like real ruins.”
Preserving the Intolerance references isn’t in the cards, according to Glover. “We need to tell a better story,” he says. “We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward.” And although the elephants will be banished, the gate will remain. In renderings, the angular Babylonian profile is more rounded, creating an Art Deco vibe that recalls Golden Age glamour, if a little more generically.
Fortunately, unless visitors are particularly attuned to Hollywood history, they probably never made the racist connection in the first place. “The movie is linked to Birth of a Nation inexorably but also doesn’t share the reputation,” says Willmore. “Which is why this feels more like an oddity to me than something immediately outrageous.” Besides, she says, even if the mall developers chose another early–Hollywood director’s work to somehow represent, they’d likely run into other problematic issues. Oscar-winning “classics” like Gone With the Wind are being revisited for their perpetuation of racism and bigotry; the requisite film-school references to The Birth of a Nation are prefaced with a string of disclaimers, the way Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will are.
Yet in the same way those Hollywood stereotypes have become ingrained in society, it will take more than an infrastructural reversal to make real change in the neighborhood of Hollywood. Tearing down the elephants won’t stop the increased policing sure to be deployed by a new mall owner that will determine who feels welcome in the revamped courtyard. Still, to Kapoor, even the tenuous connection to Griffith’s white-supremacist ideology deserves to be dismantled, especially as marches continue to draw tens of thousands of Angelenos demanding racial justice through the echoing canyons of Hollywood Boulevard. “We had this polyethnic city, and then you have these people coming from the Midwest who are white supremacists, these white male engineers renaming places and diverting rivers for cars and drilling for oil,” he says. “All the challenges we have in L.A., they’re all tied to this.”