The building housed the CBS Radio Network's West Coast facilities, as well as CBS' original Los Angeles radio stations, KNX and KCBS-FM. What is now KCBS-TV moved into the complex when CBS acquired that station in 1951, and the CBS Television Network's West Coast operations were based there until it moved to the larger CBS Television City in November 1952. After its purchase by CBS in 2002, KCAL-TV moved to the Square from studios adjacent to CBS' then-corporate sibling Paramount Pictures. Between 2005 and 2007 all of these operations moved to other facilities in the Los Angeles area.
Columbia Square was designed by Swiss-born architect William Lescaze in the style of International Modernism and built over a year at a cost of two million dollars — more money than had ever been spent on a broadcasting facility.
Lescaze's sweeping streamline motifs, porthole windows and glass brick were true to Modernist design, though CBS President William Paley insisted the Square's form follow function. In his dedicatory speech, he remarked, "It is because we believe these new Hollywood headquarters, reflecting many innovations of design and acoustics and control, will improve the art of broadcasting that we have built them and are dedicating them here tonight."
Columbia Square opened on April 30, 1938 with a full day of special broadcasts culminating in the star-studded evening special, "A Salute to Columbia Square" featuring Bob Hope, Al Jolson and Cecil B. DeMille. Crowds thronged Sunset Boulevard and a blimp bathed in searchlights hovered overhead as the program was carried coast-to-coast on the Columbia Broadcasting System, beamed to Europe via short wave, and carried across Canada on the CBC. On that premiere broadcast, Hope joked that Columbia Square looked like "the Taj Mahal with a permanent wave." Jolson quipped, "It looks like Flash Gordon's bathroom."
The Square's original configuration included eight studios. Studio B held 400 seats. Nearby, the Square's large auditorium was capable of seating 1,050 audience members. The complex included Brittingham's Radio Center Restaurant and a branch of the Bank of America. Tours of the studios cost 40 cents and passed by a glass-windowed control room housing Columbia's West Coast master control.
"Columbia Square was one of the glories of radio. It was somewhat sacred to those in the industry. There was nothing comparable to its splendor in New York" says writer-producer Norman Corwin whose most famous broadcast, On a Note of Triumph, originated from the Square on VE Day, 1945.
Dramas included "Suspense," "Gunsmoke," "Dr. Christian," "The Whistler," "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," "The CBS Radio Workshop" (author Aldous Huxley introduced a production of "Brave New World") and "Columbia Presents Corwin" (dramas produced by Norman Corwin.)
Musical acts performing at Columbia Square included Eddie Cantor, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby and Gene Autry. Composer Bernard Hermann frequently scored and conducted Columbia Square broadcasts. Through the facilities of KNX, the Columbia network broadcast big band music from nearby ballrooms including the Hollywood Palladium and the Earl Caroll Theater.
In the 2005 KNX broadcast, "A Salute to Columbia Square," announcer George Walsh recalled crowds jamming the Square's forecourt for tickets to live broadcasts. (Ushers would sometimes walk down Sunset Blvd. to NBC's studios at Vine Street to urge audience members to watch a Columbia Square broadcast instead.) After their on-air appearances, actors would dash to the Radio Actors Telephone Exchange in the Square's lobby to check with their agents about their next bookings.
Bob Crane was a top-rated KNX deejay at Columbia Square in the 1960s. James Dean was an usher. The pilot for I Love Lucy was filmed on the Square's stages in TV's early years. Some of the Square's once-luxurious radio theaters were converted to recording studios for Columbia Records where Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand, among many top stars, recorded albums.
The Square fell into disrepair during the years in which Laurence Tisch was at the helm of CBS, and asbestos problems have been cited as a reason to demolish the broadcasting venue. Columbia Square was acquired for $15 million by Sungow Corp in 2003. In August 2006, the property was acquired by Las Vegas-based developer Molasky Pacific LLC, for $66 million. It plans to redevelop the complex to continue to attract entertainment industry tenants. It is considering options that would include adding some residential units to the office and broadcasting facility. The project is valued at $850-million and is the largest development project in Hollywood, California. Developers plan a major mixed-use project that will take up an entire city block and restore the historic CBS building as creative office space. Other proposed elements include a office tower, 400 housing units, of retail and a 125-room boutique style hotel. Groundbreaking is hoped for 2009.
Helmi Hisserich, regional administrator for the City of Los Angeles’ Community Redevelopment Agency, says redevelopment of Columbia Square will provide new housing, office and entertainment uses “while preserving the key historical elements of the property.”
In the fall of 2007, the location was chosen for the site of MTV's Real World: Hollywood, which is a Viacom owned show.
These efforts have been hindered by recent developments, including a car wash worker strike.