Los Angeles has often been characterized as a jumble of “suburbs in search of a city.” But Los Angeles has always boasted a significant downtown and it looks a whole heck of a lot like it did eighty years ago. Unlike Manhattan (on an island) or Philadelphia (squeezed between two rivers) or Chicago (pressed against a lake), developers in Los Angeles could build freely to the west rather than destroy existing structures.
The Historic Core is stuffed with grand old buildings, many exactly 150 feet in height, owing to a height limit ordinance passed in 1911. The restriction was intended to limit the density of downtown Los Angeles and allow the famous Southern California sunshine to reach the sidewalks. Rare exceptions were granted for decorative towers with setbacks in the upper stories that appeared in the 1920s. The restriction was lifted in 1957 but there is still none of the experience of being stranded in an urban canyon in the Downtown Core.
The Downtown Core is roughly defined by four north-south streets from Hill Street to the west to Main Street to the east. The Financial District tour will travel down Main Street and back up Spring Street (the Theatre District tour covers Broadway and Hill Street). When the City’s banks began seeping out of the Los Angles business center in the early 1900s they congregated to the south along Spring Street. There were so many banks and law offices and insurance money here that Spring Street became known as the “Wall Street of the West” and Los Angeles became a player on the national financial stage.
The Financial Center stayed intact for more than half-a-century until the lifting of the height restrictions triggered a move several blocks to the west and the money men departed en masse. Nobody bothered to rebuild, they just left and there was no money still here to tear much down. The empty buildings spawned an unsavory element that dominated the area into the 1980s. In recent years the old Financial District has undergone redevelopment and re-gentrification. Perhaps most pleased with the state of affairs is Hollywood which mines the richly decorated blocks of Beaux Arts buildings that stand virtually unchanged for movie sets.
There are dozens of such period-piece visages waiting in the Financial District but we will begin our walking tour with a structure from still an earlier era, today just about a one-of-a-kind in Los Angeles...
Pershing Hotel at the 1888 Charnock Block
502 South Main Street at southeast corner of 5th Street
This rare splash of Victorian flavor in downtown Los Angeles was originally built as a commercial block in 1888 but the upper floor has functioned as a hotel for most of 100 years. Look up above the ground level to see a still lively second floor punctuated by finely crafted projecting oriel bay windows against the painted brick. The Owl Drug Company was a one-time prominent tenant. The corner weathervane is a 1989 addition from blacksmith sculptor Adam Leventhal, called “Sun Moon Dome.”
ACROSS THE STREET, FRAMING 5TH STREET, ARE THE TWO PARTS OF THE..
west side of 5th Street at Main Street
The Rosslyn Hotel began its hospitality career as a four-story operation in the 400 block of Main Street before embarking on a major expansion in 1913. The town’s go-to architect for big projects, John Parkinson, was called on to design the “Rosslyn Million Dollar Fireproof Hotel.” Main Street at the time was the pulsating heart of Los Angeles and the Rosslyn prospered so greatly that Parkinson was brought back ten years later to create a sister hotel across the street. The Rosslyn Hotel and the Rossyln Annex teamed to form a gateway to the City, announced by rooftop neon signs. Underground, a marble tunnel linked the two buildings and legend has it that the tunnel featured a secret exit that could be used during Prohibition. As Main Street’s importance waned after World War II so to did the Rossyln and in the 1970s the two hotels were acquired by different owners.
WALK SOUTH ON MAIN STREET (THE ROSSLYN WILL BE ON YOUR RIGHT).
William G. Kerckhoff Building
560 South Main Street at northeast corner of 6th Street
Indiana-born William George Kerckhoff started his working life in his father’s saddlery and hardware business but left for California in 1878 when he was 22. He landed in Los Angeles and organized the firm of Jackson, Kerckhoff & Cuzner which morphed into the Kerckhoff-Cuzner Mill and Lumber Company. Their fleet of vessels shipping timber from the Northwest fueled one of the Pacific Coast’s largest enterprises. Kerckhoff expanded into electric and water power, becoming president of the Pacific Light and Power Company. This was their headquarters, designed in 1907 by busy Los Angeles architects Octavius Walls and John Morgan. William Kerckhoff died in 1929 and the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad moved in. The office tower was officially renamed the Santa Fe Building in 1933.
Pacific Electric Lofts
610 South Main Street at southeast corner of 6th Street
Of the “Big Four” managers of the Central Pacific Railroad that built half of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 Collis P. Huntington was the true railroad man. Using the Central Pacific as his base, Huntington built other monumental lines such as the Southern Pacific and the Chesapeake & Ohio, bringing his nephew, Henry Edwards Huntington into the business along the way. In 1898 Henry purchased the narrow gauge Los Angeles Railway that was known familiarly as the Yellow Car system for the golden-painted railroad cars that scurried around the city. In 1901 Huntington formed the sprawling interurban, standard gauge Pacific Electric Railway, known as the Red Car system, which put him in friendly competition with his uncle’s Southern Pacific for passengers. How friendly? When Collis Huntington died Henry took over a chunk of the business and later married his uncle’s widow, sending shock waves through polite San Francisco society. In 1905 Huntington commissioned this building to be both an office building and a terminal for his streetcar line that was running over 1,000 miles of track in Southern California. Designed by architect Thornton Fitzhugh, the Pacific Electric Building which was converted to lofts after a hundred years, has racked up over 450 movie and television credits.
640 South Main Street
The 700-room Cecil Hotel is a 1924 creation of Loy Lester Smith. In the beginning it was a linchpin in the hospitality empire of the Hanner family who helped develop Palm Springs. In recent years it has served as a low-cost hostel and been renovated as a European-style hotel.
656 South Main Street at northeast corner of 7th Street
Craby Joe’s - it was supposedly going to by “Crazy Joe’s” until a mix-up at the sign manufacturer - served its first drink right after the repeal of the Volstead Act that repealed Prohibition in 1933. The bar continued as the neighborhood declined and became iconic in 1987 when U2 filmed a music video of “Where The Streets Have No Name” from the rooftop. The bar has closed but its historic blue and pink neon sign was saved and has been on display in the Museum of Neon Art.
Board of Trade Building
111 West 7th Street at northwest corner of Main Street
Completed in 1929 on plans drawn by Claud Beelman and Alexander Curlett, this Renaissance Revival building was home to the newly organized California Stock Exchange that formed in the wake of the collapse of the New York Stock market a few months earlier. The trading floor took its stylistic cures from the New York Stock Exchange with trading posts, a visitor’s gallery, private rooms and locker facilities. It was the first building on the West Coast constructed with automated elevators that no longer required an operator in the car.
752 South Main at northeast corner of 8th Street
Although this four-story corner hotel has a long history of being one of the City’s most troubled properties it sports a first-class pedigree. The esteemed firm of Morgan, Walls and Morgan provided the classically-tinged design in 1913.
CONTINUE WALKING ON MAIN STREET. ON YOUR LEFT, ACROSS THE PARKING LOT, IS...
Harris Newmark Building/New Mart
127 East 9th Street at southwest corner of Spring Street
At twelve stories tall and 160 feet high, this was the first high rise to be built in this part of Los Angeles when it was completed in 1926. The money men were sons of Los Angeles pioneer Harris Newmark, whose memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California: 1853-1913, has been cited as the single greatest window into life in 19th century southern California. Newmark spent his early years in town as a grocer and dry goods merchant but was busy buying and selling properties by the 1880s. He was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Public Library, was a charter member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and was one of the organizers of the Board of Trade, which helped bring railroad service to California. Alexander Curlett and Claud Beelman, who gave Los Angeles some of its most elegant buildings, contributed the design. Manufacturers Bank was founded at this location to service the local apparel manufacturers and Sam’s Deli was a popular eatery and watering hole for decades, with patrons lining up on the street to wait for a table. In the 1980s the space was transformed into fashion showrooms.
CONTINUE TO 9TH STREET WHERE MAIN STREET AND SPRING STREET JOIN.
112 West 9th Street at southeast corner of Spring Street
Developer Frank R. Strong shepherded this splendid office building to completion in 1912. Frederick Rice Dorn, an architect who made his reputation mostly with residences, provided the Italian Renaissance design. It was one of the largest mixed use structures combining ground floor storefronts and offices above in the City. Strong himself kept an office here. Today the space is occupied by small textile companies and known as the Apparel Mart Building.
William May Garland Building
117 West 9th Street at southwest corner of Spring Street
William May Garland was born in Maine in 1866 and was working in Boston by the time he was 16. In 1890, he moved to Los Angeles and got a job as auditor of the Pacific Cable Railway Company. In 1894 he formed his real estate business, the W. M. Garland Company, that was to do much to shape downtown Los Angeles for the first part of the 20th century. This 1923 tower was created for Garland in 1923 by Alexander Curlett and Claud Beelman.
TURN RIGHT ON SPRING STREET AND WALK NORTH.
City Club Building
833-837 South Spring Street
The City Club of Los Angeles was organized in 1907 by citizens who “were interested in seeing something done for the city by men who had no particular axe to grind, men who wished above everything to get all the light possible on public questions.” After a peripatetic early existence, gathering in local hotels, the Club rented the 12th and 13th floors of the Chapman Building that were outfitted with a dormitory, private baths, dining rooms, card rooms, a library and a ladies parlor. When the lease expired in 1924, Loy L. Smith was retained to design this clubhouse.
Gans Brothers Building/Tomahawk Lofts
814 South Spring Street
The Gans Brothers, purveyors of electric household appliances and washing and wringing machines, constructed this eight-story building in 1914; George F. Barber was the architect on the project. At the time it was one of the first modern buildings in this area known as Flatiron Park and helped ignite a building boomlet that extended the Financial District south on Spring Street. Before becoming residential space this was traditionally home to financial institutions. The tomahawk sculpture piercing the facade is a 1980s creation of artist Gary Lloyd, said to conceal a battery-powered transmitter of his pirate radio station. Lloyd called his work “4D-KAXE” for his radio call letters and slathered the steel frame with Japanese, Mexican and American coins as a nod to the neighborhood’s ethnic make-up at the time.
Lane Mortgage Building
208 West 8th Street at southwest corner of South Spring Street
The Lane Mortgage Company spent a reported $1,000,000 on this 12-story corner tower in 1922, constructed on plans by architect Loy Lester Smith. Shortly after it was raised the tower was scaled by Bill Strother, “the Human Fly,” to help promote Harold Lloyd’s first full-length film, Safety Last!.
National City Bank Building
810 South Spring Street at southeast corner of 8th Street
Malcolm Crowe started in the banking industry in 1903 as a messenger boy. In 1923 when the National City Bank was organized, Crowe stood at its head. Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, considered local master-architects, were retained to provide a suitably impressive banking house for the new institution. Walker and Eisen filled the block with a 12-story Beaux Arts banking temple with grand proportions to convey the desired safety and stability.
Great Republic Life Insurance Building
756 South Spring Street at northeast corner of 8th Street
Walker and Eisen were also at work on the opposite corner, designing this elegant Beaux Arts tower for the Great Republic Life Insurance company. It has now been subdivided into condominiums. Silent film buffs familiar with the dramatic stunts of Harold Lloyd may recognize the Great Republic Building from the final scene of Feet First.
Financial Center Building
704 South Spring Street at southeast corner of 7th Street
In the early days of skyscraper construction architects adhered to the principle that tall buildings should resemble a classical column with a defined base (the ground floors) a shaft (the relatively unadorned center stories) and a capital (an ornate cornice). Samuel Tilden Norton and Frederick H. Wallis still adhered to the principle in 1924 when they designed this Beaux Arts office tower with contrasting stories of terra cotta and pressed brick, decorated with metal detailing. Norton kept an office in this building.
Van Nuys Building
210 West 7th Street at southeast corner of Spring Street
This architectural gem was the most expensive office building in the City when it was raised for $1.25 million in 1911; a century later it would receive a $42 million facelift. This was one of the final projects in the career of Isaac Newton Van Nuys, whose name resonates across Southern California. Van Nuys was a New York farmer who came to California at the age of 30 in 1865 and soon opened a country store. He later moved to Los Angeles and took up management of the 60,000 acre corporation put together by Isaac Lankershim, the San Fernando Homestead Association. Van Nuys shipped the first grain cargo out of Los Angeles Harbor and the first grain ever shipped to Europe from the United States. He would shift into banking and real estate development before his death in 1912. Architects Octavius Morgan and John Walls generously lavished the Italian Renaissance-inspired 11-story building with terra cotta decorations on the facade. The Van Nuys Building did duty as a bank and financial center for the better part of 70 years before being converted into a 299-unit residential complex for low-income seniors. The four-story, classically-flavored structure hugging the Van Nuys Building along the Spring Street elevation was actually constructed as a parking garage annex in 1929. Architects Morgan & Walls attempted to match the original’s dentil block cornice and Corinthian capitals but also snuck in some trendy Art Deco flourishes such as the quartet of eagles and porthole windows.
Union Oil Building/A.G. Bartlett Building
215 West 7th Street at northwest corner of Spring Street
In reaction to the steamrolling of the 19th century oil industry by John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, three Southern California oil companies - Sespe Oil Company, the Hardison and Stewart Oil Company, and the Mission Transfer Company - banded together in 1890 to form Union Oil in Santa Paula. In 1911 the company moved into this handsome Beaux Arts composition rendered in terra cotta by John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom. In the early 1920s the property was purchased by Albert Bartlett who had started the Bartlett Sheet Music Company in Los Angeles in 1882. The lower stories of the building received a dramatic Art Deco overhaul in 1937, dressed in a wide limestone belt and embellished with a frieze saluting American industry, agriculture and transportation. The building moves into its second hundred years as a condominium complex. Fans of film noir may recognize the lobby as a key location in the1951 classic, D.O.A.
Hellman Commercial Trust + Savings
650 South Spring Street at northeast corner of 7th Street
Marco and Irving Hellman, nephews of banking colossus Isaias Hellman and sons of Herman Hellman who controlled the Merchants National Bank, built up the Hellman Commercial Trust and Savings Bank with some 26 branches. In 1925 New York architects Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver, best known for their work on luxury hotels, were given a blank check on the finest materials and amenities for this headquarters. With over two million dollars Schultze and Weaver created a Spanish Revival banking house that the Hellmans enjoyed for only a few years before cashing out in a sale to the Bank of America.
Banks, Huntley & Co. Building
634 South Spring Street
Stock and bond traders Banks, Huntley & Co. moved into this headquarters shortly after the crash of Wall Street in 1929. Father-and-son architects John and Donald B. Parkinson used the newly popular Art Deco style for the building which they faced in Indiana limestone and accented with terra cotta.
Mortgage Guarantee Building/Sassony Building
626 South Spring Street
William Curlett was one of San Francisco’s foremost Victorian-era architects. He successfully made the transition to the classically inspired styles at the turn of the 20th century as evidenced by this well-proportioned office building from near the end of his career in 1912. The facade is framed by full height, fluted Corinthian pilasters and sheltered by an elaborate cornice. Like many of its neighbors, it approaches its second century as residential lofts.
Pacific Coast Stock Exchange
618 South Spring Street
This land was originally owned by Ozra W. Childs, given by the City in exchange for his digging an irrigation ditch in the 1860s. San Diego natives Frank Strong and G.W. Dickinson, who specialized in subdividing large properties, controlled a six-story commercial block here in the early 1900s. When property holders on the block heard the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, organized in 1899 to trade oil leases, was casting about for a new home in the 1920s, $300,000 was collected to entice the now-broadened exchange to this Spring Street location. Directors initially wanted a stately classical building like New York’s iconic stock exchange but architect Samuel E. Lunden convinced them it was yesterday’s look and instead gave the Exchange an eleven-story Art Moderne-style structure fronted by a 53-foot limestone and granite vault. Three days after ground was broken in 1929, the ground collapsed under that stately New York Stock Market and when the Los Angeles Stock Exchange opened its doors here in 1931, the Great Depression was at its depths. Look up to see bas relief panels representing the elements of capitalism, carved into the granite by Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta. The Exchange, merged with the San Francisco Stock Exchange in the 1950s to form the Pacific Stock exchange, stayed here until 1986 after which the massive 90’ x 74’ balconied trading floor with a forty-foot ceiling was converted into a night club.
The California Canadian Bank Building/Premier Towers
625 South Spring Street
This Neoclassical tower clad in terra cotta ornamentation was one of the first creations of celebrated architect Claud Beelman after he relocated from Indiana to Los Angeles in the early 1920s. In the 1980s this tower and the adjoining E.F. Hutton Building were the first office towers in the City to be rejuvenated as residential space. Like many pioneering efforts, it did not go well financially but subsequent remodeling projects have helped breathe new life into the Financial District.
E.F. Hutton Building
621 South Spring Street
While on his honeymoon on the West Coast in 1902 financial salesman Edward Hutton realized that San Francisco and Los Angeles possessed no direct communication link to Wall Street. Western Union went only as far as Salt Lake City and financial information arrived slowly via a patchwork of telegraph feeds with stock quotes. His sleepy bond house had no interest in his plans to set up a coast-to-coast financial network so E.F. Hutton & Company was started on October 12, 1903. Western Union, however, was also in no hurry to stretch its operations from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hutton proposed to shoulder half the price of construction and maintenance of a line from Utah to San Francisco, up to $50,000. When it was completed Hutton had the only private transcontinental wire in the country and the biggest players in San Francisco finance were soon E.F. Hutton clients. For years many investors on the West Coast thought E.F. Hutton was the Stock Exchange. This 12-story Los Angeles headquarters for E.F. Hutton was designed in a Zig-Zag Moderne style by architects John and Donald B. Parkinson.
601 South Spring Street at southwest corner of 6th Street
Ralphs is the oldest supermarket chain west of the Mississippi River and this is where George Albert Ralphs and his brother Walter opened their first grocery store in 1874. Ralphs was a bricklayer when a hunting accident shattered his left arm at the age of 22 and forced him to find work in a small grocery store. Two years later Ralph Bros. Grocers opened here in a 112-foot by 65-foot building and stayed until 1901. Ralphs sold the property to clear the way for the Hotel Hayward. Completed in 1906 on plans from Charles F. Whittlesey, the Hayward was one of the City’s early high-rises and one of the first major buildings to use reinforced concrete in its construction. The hotel did brisk business and a one-story addition was put on top in 1916. A seven-story annex came along facing Spring Street and a fourteen-story tower was added in 1926. None resemble the original building so they are easy to pick out.
United California Bank Tower
600 South Spring Street at southeast corner of 6th Street
For the better part of 40 years architect Claud Beelman labored under the City’s 13-story height limitation until he was able to design this headquarters for the United California Bank that was completed in 1961 as the first skyscraper in Los Angeles to conform to new earthquake codes and to surpass the mandated height restriction in effect since 1911. Not that Beelman went crazy - the tower rose 18 stories. Less than two decades later when the Financial District shifted west to Flower and Figueroa streets and the United California Bank had become First Interstate Bank, their new home was 62 stories high.
Merchants National Bank Building
548 South Spring Street at northeast corner of 6th Street
William Curlett was born in Ireland in 1845 and studied architecture in Dublin before making his way to San Francisco in 1871 where he went on to become one of California’s most important architects. This stylish Beaux Arts bank building was one of his last projects, completed in 1913, a year before he died. His son, Alexander, carried on the practice. The building lives on as residential lofts.
Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank
561 South Spring Street at northwest corner of 6th Street
Architects John Parkinson and George Edwin Bergstrom designed many of the major office buildings around Los Angeles before World War I and this elegant Beaux Arts skyscraper was one of the finest. Completed in 1910, the tower is clad in white terra cotta and the lower stories are dominated by full-height Corinthian pilasters and a floor of pedimented windows. Like some of its neighbors in the Financial District, classically inspired busts of women are included on the frieze, comprising part of the “Spring Street Ladies.”
Broadway-Spring Street Arcade
539 Spring Street
This was the Mercantile Arcade Building when it opened in 1924 with nearly 200,000 square feet stretching back from Spring Street all the way to Broadway. Architects Kenneth MacDonald and Maurice Couchot, modeled the complex on the Burlington Arcade in London that resulted in an acclaimed three-level interior space. The tower on top of the building once supported the antenna of the radio station KRKD (“RKD” = Arcade).
Security National Bank/Los Angeles Theater Center
514 South Spring Street
Architect John Parkinson designed this Greek Revival bank vault in 1915 for Security Trust & Savings. Depositors passed through a phalanx of twinned Ionic columns and entered an expansive lobby under a stained glass window. Why do banks need lobbies over 30 yards wide like this one? One explanation is that if there was ever a run on the bank, the line of customers would not extend out the door and scare customers in the street. The building was converted into a home for the Los Angeles Theater Center in the 1980s.
Security Savings Building
510 South Spring at southeast corner of Fifth Street
Englishman John B. Parkinson apprenticed for six years as a contractor/builder before coming to North America as a lark when he was 21 in 1883. He built fences in Winnipeg and learned stair-building in Minneapolis. He returned to England but was not encouraged about his prospects on the native island. He sailed back to America and came all the way to the Napa Valley in California where he again took up stair-buildings and picked up the odd architectural job every now and then. In 1889 he set out for Seattle to be a draftsman but could not get hired. Instead he opened his own architectural firm and began winning design competitions and commissions but the work dried up during the Panic of 1893. Faced with no projects, nor prospects for work in Seattle, Parkinson moved to Los Angeles in 1894 and hung out his shingle on Spring Street. In 1905 he teamed with G. Edwin Bergstrom to form what we be the City’s dominant architectural firm until its dissolution ten years later. This 11-story, steel-framed high-rise with an Italianate flavor was one of their first projects.
501 South Spring Street at southwest corner of 5th Street
The Alexandria was the type of luxury guest house where United States Presidents and movie stars signed the register. John Parkinson designed the eight-story, 306-room hotel in 1906 on land owned by Harry L. Alexander. Until the construction of the Biltmore in 1923 the Hotel Alexandria reigned as the town’s premier hotel and its majesty was on full display in the Palm Court that was designated as a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1971 (just the ballroom, not the entire hotel). Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson gave speeches in the Palm Court and the movie industry held its most prestigious balls under the stained-glass Tiffany skylight. Rudolph Valentino was a regular on the dance floor, Charlie Chaplin lived in the hotel and Gloria Swanson got married here. The Alexandria closed in 1934 and although it re-opened, the hotel staggered along afterwards. The gold leaf in the lobby was stripped and sold, boxers trained in the Palm Court and the hotel was gradually transformed into low-income housing. A recent renovation has converted it into an apartment dwelling.
Citizen’s National Bank/Spring Arts Tower
453 South Spring Street at northwest corner of 5th Street
Here is another banking temple from the prolific design partnership of John Parkinson and G. Edwin Bergstrom, created in 1914 for the Commercial Fireproof Building Company and its original anchor tenant, the Citizens National Bank. More than a million dollars was spent on the 10-story tower that pushed up against the City’s height restriction. The Crocker Bank took over the banking floor in 1963 as its Los Angeles headquarters. Now refurbished, the building hosts a nightclub in in the old vault.
131 West 5th Street at northeast corner of Spring Street
Robert A. Rowan founded his real estate firm in Los Angeles in 1904 and pioneered the practice of establishing a separate corporation for each new building venture and transferring title of the property to the new corporate entity in exchange for stock. The company then sold long-term mortgage bonds to pay construction costs. Rowan built a number of buildings on this tour in just that fashion, including this one, the largest office building in the City, in 1910. John Parkinson and G. Edwin Bergstrom drew up plans for the classically-flavored design that was draped over the biggest steel girders and beams ever seen on the West Coast at that time. Rowan would die unexpectedly in 1917 when he was just 43 years old.
Title Insurance Building
433 South Spring Street
John Parkinson began designing buildings in the Victorian era and was still at the drawing board at the dawn of the Art Deco age. Here he applied the Zig Zag/Art Deco Moderne style with his son, John, in 1927 to take advantage of the abundant natural light. The marble-encrusted lobby is graced with a mural by Hugo Ballin, a classically trained artist who directed and produced silent films. When Hollywood began making “talkies” Ballin left movies and went back to art, becoming a prominent muralist at many Southern California landmarks. The building was spruced up and converted into the Design Center of Los Angeles in 1979 and leased as furniture showrooms.
Hotel Stowell/El Dorado Lofts
416 South Spring Street
Frederick Noonan gave this 12-story hotel, originally the Hotel Stowell when it opened in 1913, a brightly colored Gothic-inspired facade of enameled brick and terra cotta. Charlie Chaplin was an early resident, although his enthusiasm for his accommodations was somewhat tempered. He described the Stowell as “a middle-rate place but new and comfortable.” The building lumbered into disuse by 1992 but has been revived by a recent $25 million renovation. Most of the interior’s original tiles from Ernest Batchelder’s Pasadena works survive.
Braly Building/Continental Building
408 South Spring Street at southeast corner of 4th Street
John Hyde Braly and his son, Arthur, were part owners of the Southern California Savings Bank when they successfully lobbied the Board of Directors to build a 12-story, 151-foot steel frame headquarters in 1902. Designed by John Parkinson, the Braly Building is widely considered the City’s first skyscraper. Shortly after its completion, City Council passed a height restriction of 150 feet to insure impending growth would not darken its sidewalks. The square tower, today known as the Continental Building, takes a star turn in the movie 500 Days of Summer when Joseph Gordon-Levitt sits on a bench with Zooey Deschanel at Angels Knoll and waxes rhapsodic about the Braly Building’s highly ornamental Beaux Arts upper floors.
northeast corner of 4th and South Spring streets
Isaias Wolf Hellman left his native Germany when he was just 16 and arrived in Los Angeles on May 14, 1859 to work in his cousins’ dry goods store. Hellman was running his own operation by 1865 and as a favor to his customers often stored their gold and valuables in his safe. In 1868 he went full banker and helped found the town’s second official bank. Hellman would eventually serve as president or director of 17 banks along the Pacific Coast and was widely regarded as the leading financier in the West. The Hellman Building rose in 1902 on the site of his brother’s early one-story cottage, fashioned of brick and concrete and lathered with green terra cotta and classical decor by architect Alfred F. Rosenheim, who moved to Los Angeles to personally oversee its construction. After a century of use the pioneering six-story Financial District structure was retro-fitted as a cornerstone of the Old Bank District loft complex.
TURN RIGHT ON 4TH STREET.
Van Nuys Hotel/Hotel Barclay
103 West 4th Street at northwest corner of Main Street
Isaac Newton Van Nuys commissioned this extravagant hotel in 1896 and architects Octavius Morgan and John Walls tapped the classically inspired Beaux Arts style for the six-story building. Van Nuys hired the top hotelman in the city, Milo Milton Potter, away from the Westminster Hotel across the street to manage his guest house. After Potter fulfilled his five-year contract he moved on to open the celebrated Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara that established that city as a beachside destination. The Van Nuys family sold the property in 1925 and it was renamed the Hotel Barclay. The Barclay is the oldest continually operating hotel in downtown Los Angeles and has taken a star turn in many movies, including As Good As It Gets, 500 Days of Summer, Catch Me If You Can and Armageddon.
Farmers & Merchants National Bank Building
401 South Main Street at southeast corner of 4th Street
The Farmers and Merchants Bank was the first incorporated bank in Los Angeles, founded in 1871 by John G. Downey, the seventh governor of California and Isaias W. Hellman, a successful merchant, real estate speculator and banker, and brother of Hermann W. Hellman. The Irish-born Downey, who became the first governor from southern California from his seat as Lieutenant Governor in 1860, was the first president of the concern. The bank exhibited extremely cautious lending practices and sailed through all the nation’s financial panics and the Great Depression. The tight ship operated from a single downtown branch until 1956 when it was merged out of existence. That banking temple from 1905 was created by architects Octavius Morgan and John Walls and fashioned from Yule marble that is mined, not quarried, from over 9,000 feet up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Its days as a bank ended in the 1980s but the building, highlighted by an entrance embraced with engaged Corinthian columns under a large triangular pediment, survives as a special events facility. Much of the original banking room remains, including light fixtures, a central skylight, and the loggia with its Victorian-style railings.
San Fernando Loft Building
400 South Main Street at southeast corner of 4th Street
When James B. Lankershim set out to build the finest office building in the city in 1906 he knew what to call it - his father, Isaac, was one of the largest landowners in California and controlled most of the San Fernando Valley. Lankershim spent a reported $200,000 on the project and John F. Blee, a Boston transplant who was working on his first major Los Angeles commission, delivered a striking Italian Renaissance composition highlighted by spandrel panels inlaid with flattened diamond patterns. The lobby boasted a 22-foot ceiling and marble tiles. Two additional stories were added in a sympathetic 1911 expansion, although the diamonds were jettisoned. The San Fernando attracted an impressive roster of tenants, lured by such accoutrements as a billiards room, an elegant café, and a Turkish bath in the basement. Physicians formed the city’s first cooperative telephone exchange here to provide 24-hour contact with patients, the California Film Exchange operated from the San Fernando and the Half Century Association had its headquarters here. The association was an attempt to combat age discrimination apparently rampant in 1917. The San Fernando was also a reputed headquarters for illegal lotteries and the police were well acquainted with the numbers games run here.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
448 South Main Street
The first commercial films were screened in Los Angeles on Main Street in 1896 at the Grand Opera House several blocks north. Over the years some 20 theaters, mostly modest affairs, unlike on Broadway to the west, operated on Main Street and this is one of the very few to still look like a movie house. The Regent held on until 2000, sputtering through its last years as an adult theater.
CONTINUE A FEW MORE STEPS TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT 5TH STREET.