Mystery at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

The origin of the mural under the peristyle of the Coliseum was a complete mystery until high schooler Dean Gordon took up the case. Photo by Dean Gordon.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

“We refer to that as the ‘mystery mural,’” the tour guide said. “We know basically nothing about it.”

I pressed further, asking her what she meant. She shrugged. “We don’t know the artist, installation date, materials used, inspiration, or cost,” she said. “So truly, nothing.”

I sensed an opportunity for adventure, so I set out to uncover the true history of that giant, gold leaf mural — a real “needle in a haystack project,” a USC history professor warned me. To me, that just meant the answer was out there, just waiting to be found.

I was apprehensive about spending my summer trying to solve a mystery, but for someone who grew up reading his dad’s old Hardy Boys books, the opportunity was too enticing to pass up. While my friends interned at big companies and science labs, I sifted through old books and photos to uncover the origins of a forgotten piece of Los Angeles history.

During my junior year, I joined a group called the Los Angeles Service Academy, which is designed for students interested in the historical and infrastructural development of the city. Once a month, we go to a unique area in L.A., so in December, our group visited the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to learn about the 1932 and 1984 Olympics, as well as all the other historic events that took place at the stadium. It was there that I discovered the mystery that I ended up pursuing that summer. For the next few months of school, the idea that a mystery in one of the most important landmarks in the country could be uncovered by a random high school student, like myself, was stuck in my mind. To confirm that it truly was a mystery, I searched for hours on google, old LA Times articles and art history books for any information about the mural. Nothing… not even a reference. “Great,” I thought. “This would be solely my project.”

The Coliseum’s mystery mural. Photo by Dean Gordon.

As I gathered suggestions and thoughts from historians and experts, it became a consensus that I should research either in the timeframe of 1920-1923 (when the Coliseum was being built) or around 1932 (the Olympic Games). I received especially helpful assistance from Bill Deverell, a USC history professor and the founder of LASA, who put me in contact with many incredibly knowledgeable people about the history of Los Angeles and the Coliseum. Unfortunately, none of them had any information that could lead me in the right direction. A particularly disheartening email came from another USC professor who Bill described as “a guy who knows more about the Coliseum than anyone.” He told me that it is a mystery he is yet to figure out, and he looked through all the minutes of the Coliseum Commission from the mid-1950s onward and couldn’t find anything. It is because of this that I limited my research to before the mid-50s, focusing on the two time periods I mentioned before.

For the first couple weeks of my research, I scoured Southwest Builder and Contractor magazines, impossibly dense journals the size of the Yellow Pages that documented every transaction in Los Angeles from 1920 to 1965. I examined these and similar books inside the USC architecture library and didn’t find a single mention of the mural. I started to question how I, a mere high school student, expected to solve a mystery that no one else could crack — and was I the only one who even cared about this mural, anyway? I was frustrated, not only because my efforts had been fruitless thus far, but also because my work didn’t require any creativity. I wanted to be an investigator looking for clues around the city, not stuck monotonously flipping through books and journals. So I decided to try a new method of research.

Instead of looking through historical books, I decided to analyze the mural itself. With the assistance from a professor at UC San Diego, I decided that the golden sun-like symbol that is the centerpiece of the mural looks like a Masonic symbol. These symbols struck me as very similar looking to the sun-like symbols at Los Angeles’s Central Library, which was built around the same time as the Coliseum. The next day I rushed to the Central Library, excited to talk with the librarians about my project. After I explained my theory, the librarian gave me a stack of books on both the Coliseum and the Central Library; much to my disappointment, there wasn’t one mention of the mural in any of the books. I talked to the librarians once again, a little discouraged about losing my lead, but she suggested that I look through old photos of the Coliseum that the library had digitized. Looking back at my project, that should have been the very first thing I did, because after twenty minutes of looking through these photos, I realized that all my research up to that point was useless.

After looking through a few hundred pictures, I came across a grainy, black and white picture of the 1932 Olympic games, and on the top right corner, it caught the underside of the archway where the mural was supposed to be. Instead of the mural, however, there was just the same pale beige color as the rest of the peristyle. From the very start, I knew that I was looking for a needle in the haystack, but it turned out I was looking in the wrong haystack!

Even though I was slightly irritated that my research up to that point was in the wrong era, I felt a sense of renewed hope that I was onto something that no one else thought about. Every historian and writer who I talked to about my project suggested that the mural was painted in 1921 or 1932 (or didn’t have any suggestions), but now I had proof that it wasn’t. Though this was a very minor step in the right direction, this discovery was the catalyst that gave my project some traction.

Flags from 1932 Olympics. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Although my theory about the symbols was incorrect, I am fortunate that I ended up at the Central Library: after searching through the depths of the labyrinth-like library, I discovered architectural notecards about a construction project in the late 1960s on the peristyle (where the mural is) with a reference to a “golden travertine veneer.” After researching these keywords, I found a 99-page report online by the Cultural Heritage Commission that was written up for a renovation project in 2003. On the 25th page, there was one line about the mural: “The Peristyle is clad in a travertine veneer, and has a mural of an Aztec sun painted by German-born Heinz Rosien, an Alhambra muralist and art teacher, on the ceiling of the Propylaeum.” After all this research, this was the first mention of the mural on a document I had ever found, so I was ecstatic.

Yet I was still skeptical about this information. Although this report seemed official and carefully written out, the description of the Aztec sun was completely wrong. I had done extensive research on the symbols of the mural and not once did an Aztec sun come up as a possibility. Furthermore, this report lacked many details that I wanted to find, most importantly, when the mural was actually painted and details about why the mural was painted. Also, if the Cultural Heritage Commission had this information, why did the dozens of Coliseum experts and historians I contacted not have it? And further, why did the Coliseum administrators never contact the Cultural Heritage Commission about this information mural? Did they contact anyone? How did the person who wrote the report know the artist of the mural? There were still so many unanswered questioned I needed to uncover, but I was right on the verge of something big. And that big thing was an unsuspecting tweet.

In 2016, the official Coliseum twitter page tweeted, “Sign up to become a “Coliseum Insider”! Be the first to know about our renovation projects, and all things LAMC!” This alone was useless information to me, but it was a reply to that tweet that confirmed that I solved the mystery of the mural: “Please don’t touch the mural inside the arch that my FIL Heinz Rosien painted prior to the Olympics!!”

You could imagine my shock. This was Mary Lou Rosien’s reply, the daughter in law of Heinz Rosien, the muralist I read about in the Cultural Heritage Report! When I contacted her about my project, she not only confirmed my findings, but provided pictures of Heinz painting the mural! Most importantly, she gave me a better source than any document or picture: Heinz Rosien’s son, Igor, who actually worked on the mural with his father. We spent hours filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle and reliving the days he spent painting the mural. I was the first person to ever contact the Rosien family about Heinz’s work, so there were so many details that I wanted to share with the Coliseum. I compiled dozens of newspaper articles, pictures, and my notes from conversations with Igor and presented them to the Coliseum. The Director of Community Outreach at the Coliseum explained to me that every year, people claim that they know about the mural, but I was the first person to actually present the true story behind the enigma, with proof. In the midst of this “needle in a haystack” project that seemed so improbable to complete, I felt more connected to the city where I grew up than ever before, contributing a small piece of knowledge to the vast mosaic of Los Angeles history.

Here is a short article that I wrote for the Coliseum archives. Before my research, all of the information was unknown to the Coliseum.

Born in Gorlitz, Germany in 1919, Heinz Rosien was a prominent muralist and art teacher whose work was featured in many venues and galleries, most notably at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As a young adult, Heinz studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg and Munich and later studied art history at the University of Marburg. It was there that Heinz learned the skill of gold-leafing, which he later used in many important works in America, including at the Coliseum. He became an accomplished artist in Germany, showing off his unique ability to work across a wide variety of mediums. However, Heinz always dreamed about coming to America, and in 1952, he moved to Alhambra, California. To initially support himself, his first job as an “artist” was painting billboards for advertisements along route 66 in Arizona and California. As he became more distinguished for his work, Heinz was featured in many well-known art exhibits at the Los Angeles Country Museum, the Long Beach Art Fair and the Laguna Art Fair, among others. In addition to his own art career, Heinz was a respected and beloved teacher at West Covina Adult Education School.

In 1969, Heinz was approached by the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission to paint a mural to make the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum more attractive in hopes of winning the bid to host the 1976 Olympic games. The Coliseum gave Heinz no specific instructions, so he had complete freedom to indulge his artistic vision. As part of a $148,735 renovation to improve the Peristyle, Heinz wanted to recreate the spirit of the original Greek Olympics by painting the flaming Olympic torches on either side of the mural and feature a sun-like symbol with zodiac signs in the middle of the mural. Bordering the mural are Hellenic-style trimmings that is a common theme on USC’s campus and is even featured on their football jersey. As a German artist, he had the unique skill of gold-leafing that many American artists didn’t have, which he features on the sun symbol. Ultimately, Montréal won the bid for the Olympics in 1976, but Los Angeles hosted just eight years later in one of the most successful Olympic Games in history, with Rosien’s mural on full display.

Close-up of mystery mural. Photo by Dean Gordon.

While painting, Heinz and his son, Igor, faced a number of challenges. Because they were under an archway well above the ground and had to paint facing upwards, they were often compared by friends and onlookers to Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In fact, their job was even harder than Michelangelo because they had to paint outside and had to deal with the element, such as extreme winds that rush through the archway, called the Venturi effect. Essentially, the air flows through a restricted area (the archway), making the winds extremely potent and quick. Because of this, it was extremely difficult to quickly transfer the paint onto the ceiling and have it stick. An especially challenging component was the gold-leafing: the gold needed to be transferred immediately from the paint brush onto the ceiling, but with the wind whipping through the archway, the gold often flew off the paintbrush and stuck to the face and hair of Heinz and his son. When the day of painting was finished and Heinz and Igor climbed down and walked home, they often got stares from people wondering why they were coated in gold. Finally, Heinz had to be aware of the dimensions of the mural, since the perception is very different from the ground level as opposed to right under the ceiling. Due to the magnitude of the mural which covers the entire underside of the archway, he had to spend hours meticulously drawing dots across the archway to ensure the dimensions would be proper. After almost a year of work, Heinz finally unveiled his mural to the public in a small ceremony.

Besides his work for the Coliseum Commission, Heinz painted a number of other high profile and well received murals. After just five years of living in Alhambra, he gifted a mural valued at $4,000 to Granada elementary school. The 50 by 10 foot mural depicts the story of Southern California, with native fishermen, the Los Angeles Civic Center, a freeway in the background, and the mission archangel San Gabriel. This was such a notable act of generosity that Heinz was featured on the front page of the Alhambra Post Advocate newspaper as well as a lengthy article, highlighting his quote: “I wish for the children – all children – to grow up with art… it is one of the highest forms of civilized culture.” His influence on Alhambra extended beyond this mural, as Heinz quickly became an invaluable leader for the Alhambra art scene. As the president of the Alhambra Art Association, Heinz organized the largest art exhibit in Alhambra history. Due to his fame and respect amongst the art community, he was able to attract prominent artists from around California to donate pieces of art, and also featured many of his own works. Another notable mural Rosien painted was commissioned by Howard Ahmanson, one of the richest and most influential men in California, who asked him to paint a mural for the Ahmanson theater as well as a number of savings and loan buildings around Southern California.

Heinz’s artwork and legacy are forever immortalized in the most important landmark in California, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The archway is one of the most iconic and photographed parts of Los Angeles. The lighting of the Olympic torch that sits atop the archway is an image that millions of people saw during the 1984 Olympics. Every year, over a million people walk under the archway, undoubtedly looking up and noticing the giant gold-leaf mural on the ceiling of the peristyle. Somehow, his work at the Coliseum was never properly appreciated as an important component of the Coliseum, but now we know that Heinz Rosien painted one of the most significant murals in California.

Heinz Rosien painting mystery Coliseum mural. Photo courtesy of Rosien family.

 

4 thoughts on “Mystery at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum”

  1. Having attended countless games and events at the Coliseum, including the Track & Field Finals at the 1984 LA Olympics, I was fascinated by this story. Dean, you should consider being a detective considering how you recognized that several interpretations were incorrect in terms of the true origin of the mural. And, you are an excellent journalist. Fight On!

  2. I’m so thrilled to see this feature on Heinz. He was a great artist and a wonderful man.

    One small correction: He taught at Tri-Community Adult Education, not at West Covina Adult School (there is and was no such school). Tri-Community included the Covina-Valley Unified, West Covina, and Charter Oak school districts.

    My father, Vincent Van Detta, was the Director there for many years, knew Heinz well, and deeply appreciates his work to this day.

  3. Wow, Dean! I am so impressed with your work! Thank you so much for the dogged determination that led you to the discovery of the origins of the peristyle mural at the Coliseum, and for recognition of the Alhambra artist who created it. I am an amateur historian myself, and I appreciate what a big deal this is. Congratulations!

  4. Dean, What a spectacular story you told. You were able to piece together clues that told the story of an Alhambra artist that has all but been forgotten in time. The Hardy brothers would have been proud. Well done!

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