10 Oscar-Worthy Landmarks

Some of Hollywood’s most memorable scenes aren’t stolen by actors—but by the scenery itself. In this week's newsletter, we count down our favorite picks for California landmarks that helped make a movie. 

Built in 1908, the Gamble House was designed by architects Greene & Greene, for use by David and Mary Gamble (of Procter & Gamble fame) as a winter residence.
Built in 1908, the Gamble House was designed by architects Greene & Greene, for use by David and Mary Gamble (of Procter & Gamble fame) as a winter residence.

Some of Hollywood’s most memorable scenes aren’t stolen by actors—but by the scenery itself. In several of my favorite films, the setting plays as vital a role as the leading lady. In others, the location comes into focus only once I learn its history. That’s been the case with the Gamble House, a Pasadena architectural treasure that served as the rambling home of Doc Brown in the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. Film journalist and Los Angeles Film Critics Association president Claudia Puig details the Gamble House’s architectural splendor in her Alta article “Arts and Crafts Icon.” And as Puig reveals, not only does the house at 4 Westmoreland Place represent a pinnacle of the Arts and Crafts movement; it was also the birthplace of the flux capacitor.

To celebrate my newfound Gamble House knowledge, I’ve rounded up some other California buildings worthy of stars on Hollywood Boulevard. Let’s roll the opening credits as I present you with the 9 other entries in my list of the top 10 California architectural landmarks in film:

Marin County Civic Center, San Rafael: Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1962, the Marin County Civic Center provided a futuristic setting in the 1997 film Gattaca. The sleek government building has been used as a backdrop for other movies, notably 1971’s THX 1138, but I maintain that it served the filmmakers best in Gattaca.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles: Despite its appearance in dozens of movies, including Rebel Without a CauseGriffith Observatory, a 1935 domed art deco planetarium that sits high above the glittering lights of downtown Los Angeles, looked best in La La Land (2016).

Cabazon Dinosaurs, Cabazon: Does a roadside attraction of concrete-and-steel dinosaurs count as an architectural landmark? Yes. And anyone who’s seen Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) knows why the Cabazon Dinosaurs deserve a spot on this list.

Los Angeles City Hall, Los Angeles: The easily recognizable 28-story white concrete tower of Los Angeles’s city hall is one of the most popular spots to film movies. The building’s best scene takes place in the stylish 1997 Oscar winner L.A. Confidential, when Russell Crowe’s battered and bruised Bud White drives away from the corruption of L.A. politics and into the sunset with his leading lady.

Filoli Gardens, Woodside: This stunning estate and grounds on the outskirts of Silicon Valley is the former home of Matson shipping magnate William Roth and his family. Today, the world-famous gardens and home are open to the public—and they served as the San Francisco compound of Michael Douglas’s sad millionaire Nicholas Van Orton in The Game (1997).

Fab Forties, Sacramento: The Fab Forties isn’t so much one building as it is an upscale neighborhood of classic colonial homes in Sacramento. The idyllic cedar-lined residential streets, and specifically the big blue mansion on 44th Street, set the scene for Lady Bird’s fantasy and humiliation in the 2017 film Lady Bird.

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur: This oft-photographed open-spandrel arch bridge along the Pacific Coast Highway might stun in the opening of the HBO series Big Little Lies, but the Bixby Creek Bridge secured its spot on this list with its appearance alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Sandpiper (1965).

Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco: Here’s another iconic skyscraper that has appeared in a number of films. But it was Zodiac (2007) that so perfectly used the construction of the Transamerica building to demonstrate the passage of time. Watch the 44-second clip.

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego: Formerly the Naval Air Station Miramar (or to some, Fightertown, USA), this military installation was home to the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School—known to many as the setting of Top Gun. Today it serves the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, and the real-life “Top Gun” has moved to Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.

You may disagree with some of the picks on this, my highly subjective list—maybe even all of them! Educate us on the best California landmarks to appear in film by emailing letters@altaonline.com. Your comments may appear in a future Alta newsletter.  

This article originally appeared in the May 30, 2019 Alta newsletter.  

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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