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Why LA’s Citadel looks like an ancient Assyrian palace




The facade of the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California is modeled after an Assyrian palace. The building was originally a tire and rubber factory.
The facade of the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California is modeled after an Assyrian palace. The building was originally a tire and rubber factory.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

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On Interstate 5, near the City of Commerce, a regal building flanks the congested road. Complete with concrete battlements and tall and winged figures, it's the Citadel — L.A.’s only outlet mall. And it makes quite a statement.

According to Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, that kind of architectural grandeur was taking off in the 1920s, when the Citadel's wall was first built.

Adrian Scott Fine: Being a place of filmmaking and movie-making, it was also about fantasy... Places like the Mayan Theatre, the Chinese Theatre and other places that were evoking a style from an ancient past, but kind of doing their own twist on it. Very much an L.A. way of doing things.

Proliferating that Hollywood feel were architecture firms like Morgan, Walls & Clements. They built some of L.A.’s most historic structures, including the Mayan and El Capitan theaters. And yes, that original Citadel wall.

The Citadel's director of architecture, Louis Troiani, said the building's original 1929 construction was based off just five drawings. Troiani says it would take about 500 sheets to explain the same building’s construction today.
The Citadel's director of architecture, Louis Troiani, said the building's original 1929 construction was based off just five drawings. Troiani says it would take about 500 sheets to explain the same building’s construction today.
Courtesy of Louis Troiani

In those early days, Commerce wasn’t a city yet. The area was industrial, unlike downtown L.A. or Hollywood. Commerce, Vernon, Bell Gardens and their surrounding areas were all about manufacturing, production and jobs. 

There’s a reason such a spectacular structure was built in an industrial place. Adolph Schleicher, founder of the Samson Tire & Rubber Company, had the idea for the building's construction.

In 1929, just before the stock market crash, Schleicher didn’t just decide to build a factory in L.A. He wanted to go big.

Palace big. 

Like the kind built for the Assyrian King, Sargon II. Never mind that Sargon's reign ended a long time ago, in 705 B.C. He was an ancient ruler whose style coincided with the Samson theme Schleicher was going for.

A carving of King Sargon II representing him in front of a dignitary, v. 716-713 BC. From the Louvre, Oriental Antiquities, room 4.
A carving of King Sargon II representing him in front of a dignitary, v. 716-713 BC. From the Louvre, Oriental Antiquities, room 4.

Samson, before he was associated with tires, was a biblical figure known for his great strength. Fine, of the L.A. Conservancy, said there may have been correlations between Samson as a symbol for strength in the company's tires.

"Also, there's the idea about strength in the tires, and the tires are the foundation for your car. So there’s some correlations that probably exist between those too," Fine said.

A concrete figure representing a King Sargon II, modeled on ancient carvings, decorates the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
A concrete figure representing a King Sargon II, modeled on ancient carvings, decorates the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

According to Fine, the factory’s style could also point to the discovery of King Sargon’s palace, which was found excavated in the late 1920s.

"There was a lot of interest in kind of antiquities during this era. People were gravitating towards this architecture, and it was all about exotic cultures from far away places bringing it to L.A."

Unluckily for Schleicher, the economy’s foundation crumbled with the stock market crash, which put a damper on the Samson tire business. Soon after the factory opened, he was forced to sell it  to the company now known as Uniroyal. 

Photograph of an exterior view of the Home of U.S. Tires, [s.d.].
Photograph of an exterior view of the Home of U.S. Tires, [s.d.].
Via University of Southern California libraries and California Historical Society

After World War II, the tire industry bounced back and L.A’s automotive industry took off. In fact, the Commerce area in car manufacturing was second only to Detroit up until the '60s.

And at that time, the factory crashed again. It was an abandoned eyesore, dulled by pollution. 

The City of Commerce purchased it in 1983. And a development company, Trammell Crow Co., later bought it, transforming it into a mix of stores, office buildings, even a hotel that opened 28 years ago. 

The original steel roof beams from the tire and rubber factory that later became the Citadel Outlets are still visible above the mall's food court in Commerce, California.
The original steel roof beams from the tire and rubber factory that later became the Citadel Outlets are still visible above the mall's food court in Commerce, California.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

Louis Troiani was the lead architect behind the Citadel’s most recent transformation in 2003, where people go now to find brands like Coach, Levi’s and DKNY on the cheap.

If you've ever seen those 30-foot-tall LED screens just above the wall, that was Troiani’s baby. A pretty eye-catching way to show commuters it's open for business.

Next to each screen is a large winged creature. The creature’s official name is a Lamassu, an ancient Assyrian protective deity with cloven feet and a human face. Troiani added that too. And if you happen to catch a glimpse of them at sunset, the light and shadows reveal extra textural details.

A lamassu modeled on ancient carvings decorates the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
A lamassu modeled on ancient carvings decorates the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

"If you were to see them up close, the veins in the legs. It is truly an exact replica of the original," Troiani said.

But the wall also has hidden gems, like a series of triangular engravings that literally tell Sargon’s story.

"That is the original language of the Assyrians which is called cuneiform. This language helped tell [King Sargon's] story in a written format while the visuals gave you a taste for the story they were trying to tell," Troiani said.

A facsimile of cuneiform writing decorates the facade of the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
A facsimile of cuneiform writing decorates the facade of the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

Embedded in the Citadel wall, there are also genies. They were military advisors back in the day. Troiani also gave some insight on their roles.

"They conquered kingdoms all over the place and had such power. Until one year, one battle, King Sargon II died, and they moved from that palace to another palace."

A concrete figure representing a genie, modeled on ancient carvings, decorates the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
A concrete figure representing a genie, modeled on ancient carvings, decorates the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, California.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

And that new palace? It's the Citadel, of course.

The genies still serve a purpose. They stand guard, protecting, even today in a little kingdom called Los Angeles, where the Citadel looks like it’s here to stay.