The LA Coliseum is a landmark and a major destination for both Angelenos and tourists alike. Located in the Exposition Park neighborhood of LA and commissioned in honor of the veterans of World War I, the Coliseum hosts a wide range of affairs from concerts to games and major sporting events.
The Coliseum is a venerable and beautiful building that is a source of historic and civic pride for LA. It was built in 1921 and in 2028 will become the first stadium to have hosted the Summer Olympics three times: in 1932, 1984 and 2028.
You may know all that already. But did you know it also contained an artistic mystery?
The Art, the History and the Mystery Mural
The LA Coliseum, in addition to its history, is also a beautifully designed piece of architecture. Designed by Southern California architects John and Donald Parkinson, the structure uses Egyptian, Spanish and Mediterranian styles to suggest links from the region’s past to a modern present.
The Coliseum is built of reinforced concrete in the shape of an elliptical bowl. It uses classical design elements, including a grand peristyle, or row of columns such as you might see in a Greek structure. It is through these columns that visitors walk to enter the stadium for games and events.
For decades, when visitors have walked into the coliseum, they have had the pleasure of looking up to see a gorgeous mural curving softly over their heads.
The Coliseum’s main central archway is painted with a beautiful blue and gold mural that echoes the classical style. It features a sunburst in the middle, with gold-leaf (real gold!) rays shooting outward, framed by two golden Olympic torches. The mural also features the planet earth and the twelve signs of the Western Zodiac.
While literally thousands of people have walked under and seen this mural over the years, the author of it and the story of its creation was a mystery even to tour guides and historians until just two years ago in 2017 when 17-year-old Dean Gordon took on the mission of finding out who painted it.
Young Detective Gordon
Gordon was participating in a Los Angeles program called the Los Angeles Service Academy, which is designed for students interested in the history of the city. As part of the group, they visited the coliseum. Gordon noticed the mural and asked about it. When the tour guide admitted that it was a mystery, the young man was hooked.
Gordon, in true, old-fashioned “Hardy-boys style” (in his words), “contacted every single person who might have an idea.” He talked to archivists, historians and professors, scoured the internet and spent a great deal of time in the Los Angeles Central Library.
Finally, he found a clue in the library in the form of a reference to “H. Rosien.” That clue led him to a single tweet that the muralist’s daughter in law had sent in reference to renovations to the coliseum asking, “Please don’t touch the mural inside the arch that my FIL Heinz Rosien painted prior to the Olympics!!”
This allowed the young historical detective to track down the daughter-in-law, who had family photos of the artist and the work. The renovations then included the mural, which can now be seen in all its restored glory.
The mural was painted by Heinz Rosien and his son Igor, who were commissioned in 1969 by the Coliseum to help them make the place look good and help with the effort to try and bring the Olympics to LA in 1976. Rosien, a German immigrant, was a well-known artist and had painted many murals around LA including the Ahmanson in downtown LA’s Music Center.
LA didn’t get the bid in 1976, but they did for 1984, and both father and son were proud to see their mural enjoyed by people from around the world.
Conservators working on the restoration were indebted to Gordon for the detective work. The elements had not been kind to the mural and much of the original design was lost. His effort in finding the family also allowed the family to provide original sketches of the mural for the restorationists to use in restoring the mural, which now you can see as the artist originally intended.