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 Theatre District tour will travel down Broadway and back up Hill Street (the Financial District tour covers Spring and Main streets). Broadway began filling with theaters built as vaudeville stages in 1911 which gave way to glittering movie palaces during the 1920s and 1930s. Broadway’s Golden Age was brief - there was a movie-going shift to Hollywood Boulevard and then a mass population exodus to the suburbs. Some of the great movie houses were torn down, others struggled on as grindhouses showing exploitation films, and others just sat vacant. Today the Broadway Theater District contains the thickest concentration of pre-World War II movie palaces in America, although less than a handful still exhibit movies.
These movie palaces were famous for their breathtaking interiors awash in exotic themes and appropriately we will begin our tour at one of the District’s oldest buildings most famous for its elaborately crafted interior at Broadway and 3rd Street...
304 South Broadway at southeast corner of 3rd Street
Lewis L. Bradbury made his money in Mexican mines in the 19th century and spent it on Southern California real estate. Approaching his 70th birthday in 1892, Bradbury planned his greatest building but his chosen architect, Sumner Hunt, was not producing plans to match his grandiose vision. Bradbury sacked Hunt and hired one of his draftsman, George Wyman, to design his building. Wyman delivered an Italian Renaissance five-story creation in brown brick, sandstone and terra cotta panels. But the Bradbury Building’s true glory was revealed once inside and the full-height center court - dressed in marble, polished wood and ornamental ironwork - was experienced. Bradbury started with a $150,000 budget but wound up spending over $500,000 because of his insistence on using only the finest building materials. Alas, Bradbury never saw the finished product; he died shortly before the opening in 1893. If you watch any movies or television at all you have seen the fabled five-story atrium. A partial list of the Bradbury’s screen credits include D.O.A., I the Jury, Blade Runner, Chinatown, Blade Runner and 500 Days of Summer. Heart, Janet Jackson, Earth Wind and Fire and Genesis all used the Bradbury Building in music videos.
WALK SOUTH ON BROADWAY (THE BRADBURY WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT).
Million Dollar Theater
307 South Broadway at southwest corner of 3rd Street
Sidney Patrick Grauman was born into a theatrical family in 1879. His father David took him to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s hoping to strike it rich. Instead the pair organized entertainment events for the prospectors, launching Grauman on a lengthy career as a showman. The pair landed next in San Francisco and by 1918 they were in Los Angeles with their first Southern California movie palace, the Million Dollar Theatre. The Spanish Rococo exterior is graced by works from Uruguayan-born American artist Joseph Jacinto Mora, whose talents as a writer, photographer, illustrator and sculptor earned him the moniker the “Renaissance Man of the West.” It was one of America’s first movie palaces constructed specifically for motion pictures. Grauman sold his interests in his downtown theaters to develop the iconic Hollywood houses - the Egyptian Theatre and Chinese Theatre. Several owners later the Million Dollar Theatre entered the 1950s as a film and stage venue exclusively for Spanish-speaking audiences. The historic theater was shuttered in 1993 and leased by a church but has since been refurbished.
Homer Laughlin Building/Grand Central Market
317 South Broadway
Homer Laughlin was a Union Army veteran of the Civil War who returned to his hometown of East Liverpool, Ohio after hostilities ended and began peddling the local yellow ware pottery. Sales were slow as he found Americans preferred their china imported from Europe so he started selling those wares. With his brother, Shakespeare, Homer opened his own pottery in 1874 and aggressively set out to sell America on the quality of “Ohio Valley Pottery.” He created a logo showing the American eagle subduing the British lion and won gold medals for his pottery at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 in Philadelphia. The Homer Laughlin China Company would become the largest pottery plant in the world and today the company claims to have sold one-third of all the dinnerware ever bought in the United States. By the 1890s Laughlin was investing in far-off Los Angeles real estate and in 1897 he saluted good-bye to dinner dishes and set off for California. Greeting him was this six-story Beaux Arts structure, raised a year earlier by English-born architect and recent Seattle transplant John B. Parkinson. It was the first steel-frame fireproof building in the City. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright kept an office here for awhile but the most famous tenant is the Grand Central Market that has occupied the ground floor since 1917, through a series of sometimes drastic renovations. It is the largest and oldest open air market in Los Angeles.
Broadway Department Store
southwest corner of Broadway and 4th Street
Arthur Letts was born in England in 1862 but emigrated to Canada and began working in a large dry goods store. He made his way to Seattle and then Los Angeles, finding retail work along the way. In 1896 he finagled a $5000 bank loan and took over the bankrupt J.A. Williams & Co. Dry Goods Store that had operated here. He renamed the emporium The Broadway and it became the foundation for one of Southern California’s greatest fortunes (Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion was built for Letts’ son in 1927). The Broadway gobbled up competitors and lasted for 100 years until it was absorbed in 1996 by Macy’s.
449 South Broadway at northwest corner of 5th Street
This lively Beaux Arts commercial structure was designed by influential early Los Angles architects John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom. Like many of its neighbors, the Metropolitan Building was built in 1913 to provide street-level retail storefronts for multiple businesses with the upper levels left as open lofts to allow maximum flexibility for prospective tenants as well as space for storage or warehousing. The most familiar tenant was the J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store. John Josiah Newberry opened his first store in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains in 1911 and the family business was overseeing 475 stores when he died in 1954. Newberry’s was here for over 50 years beginning in 1939.
Chester Williams Building
215 West Fifth Street at northeast corner of Broadway
This Beaux Arts structure sprung from the pen of Aleck Curlett and Claud Beelman in 1926. The price tag was $1,500,000; recently $15 million was poured into a re-adaptive makeover. The building receives it most attention now when it is used as a stopover for flocks of Vaux’s Swifts migrating from Alaska. The small cigar-shaped swifts, named for the American scientist William Sansom Vaux, fly into the chimney to spend the night every early fall.
Jewelry Trades Building/Title Guarantee Block
500 South Broadway at southeast corner of 5th Street
Octavius Morgan, Sr., John A. Walls, and Ocatvius Morgan, Jr. designed some of the town’s most elegant buildings and here they created a retail Renaissance Revival palace for upscale retailers in 1913. Lavish interiors were designed around wide corridors on each floor to resemble a street and were finished in Italian marble and polished oak. Large plate glass windows inside enabled tenants to create alluring window displays for shoppers.
518 South Broadway
The Roxie was the last major theater built in downtown Los Angeles, designed in an eye-catching Art Deco style by John M. Cooper in 1932. Gus A. Metzger and Harry Srere raised the Roxie on the rubble of J.A. Quinn’s Superba that raised its curtain in 1914. The Superba was known for its exciting 75-foot by 35-foot electric sign on the roof and the fanciful lobby crafted entirely of onyx.
528 South Broadway
William “Billy” Clune hailed from Hannibal, Missouri and was working a pushcart on Main Street in Los Angeles in 1887 when he was 25. He built one of the town’s first nickelodeons and eventually constructed his own soundstage, producing the very first short film to bear the imprint “Made in Los Angeles.” Alfred F. Rosenheim, a leading Los Angeles architect, who became the first president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, designed Clune’s Broadway here in 1910. Lauded as “one of the finest motion picture houses on the Pacific coast,” Clune’s became the Cameo in 1924. The billboard on the roof is original and once displayed large 24-sheet movie posters.
534 South Broadway
Born on the Greek island of Andros, Alexander Pantages spent his twenties digging the Panama Canal, boxing in San Francisco and prospecting for gold in the Yukon Territory. He began his career as a show business exhibitor in Dawson City, Yukon as a partner to saloon and brothel-keeper “Klondike Kate” Rockwell, operating a small, but highly successful vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum. In 1902, at the age of 27, he was in Seattle opening the Crystal Theater and launching a chain of theaters across the West in Canada and the United States. When Pantages came to Los Angeles in 1910 his decision to establish his first vaudeville stage here went a long way in establishing the Broadway theater district. This was an early work of Octavius Morgan and John A. Walls, who would be responsible for many Los Angeles landmarks. Originally designed to look like an English music hall, the building has endured significant remodelings over the past century but you can still look up and see “Pantages” carved into the concrete.
540 South Broadway
This was the Mercantile Arcade Building when it opened in 1924 with nearly 200,000 square feet stretching back from Broadway all the way to Spring Street. 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).
556 South Broadway at northeast corner of 6th Street
Thomas L. Tally was one of the top players in exhibiting moving pictures; his Tally’s Theatre was located here. It later became the Garnett and folded in 1913. At that time the business it shared the building with, Silverwood’s, expanded into the space. F.B. Silverwood emigrated from Canada to start his clothing store for men and boys. Specializing in conservative suits, Silverwood’s expanded into a chain of 18 stores that lasted until 1991. Los Angeles architects Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen provided the exuberant Beaux Arts design, which can still be viewed above ground level, in 1920.
Sun Drug Company Building
555 South Broadway at northwest corner of 6th Street
Henry G. Chilson and Charles Wolfe organized the Sun Drug Company in the 1890s. They had no stores until 1901 but quickly bought up property to erect buildings, typically with a retail store on ground level, across Los Angeles, although much of the expansion took place without Chilson who was killed by a windblown billboard in San Francisco in 1915. This building came along in 1920 from the firm of Francis Davis, Walter Davis and Henry Withey. Look up above the awnings and altered storefronts of street level to see the textured facade. In 1925, Swelldom’s, a popular purveyor of women’s fashions, moved into the space.
Walter P. Story Building
610 South Broadway at southeast corner of 6th Street
The nationwide Panic of 1893 slammed the brakes on the growth of young Los Angeles and sent even the wiliest of land barons in search of buyers. One of the sharpest, J.B. Lankershim, was grateful to unload this parcel to a Montana man, Nelson Story, in the depths of the downturn in 1894 for $48,000. Lankershim figured he had discarded worthless property on the unsuspecting rube from out of town. Lankershim himself concluded the deal with a cablegram from Paris, France. By the time the next economic depression rolled around in the 1930s the corner was worth about $2.5 million. Nelson Story gave the property to his 14-year old son, Walter, two years later so maybe he didn’t know what he had, either. In 1904 he tried to get the property back and the matter ended up in the courts. Father and son owned the property but it was Walter’s building that Octavius Morgan, Sr., and John A. Walls designed in 1910. The ground floor of the Renaissance Revival structure boasted the largest plate glass windows west of Chicago - a dozen panes costing $1,000 a pop. William Mullen and Andrew Bluett, sellers of clothing to “men of distinction,” set up shop behind those windows and they would remain for over six decades. The rooftop penthouse with a retaining wall and shrubbery served as a part-time residence for the Walter Story family. Story had a long military career, founding the original home of the California National Guard in San Luis Obispo and rising to the rank of Major General.
601 South Broadway at southwest corner of 6th Street
This building began life as a two-story structure for John H. Norton in 1906. Norton was a Massachusetts man who traveled west and worked as a shopkeeper and then traded cattle. In Arizona, at the time a lawless and virtually roadless territory, Norton organized a remarkable stage system for freighting supplies that made him mule trains of money. Norton arrived in Los Angeles in 1893 and threw himself into banking, real estate and public affairs. This building was his base until his death in 1911 at the age of 67. The Norton Block received a 1918 facelift from esteemed architect John Parkinson and a 1930s Art Deco update. The most famous tenants were the Owl Drug Company that manned the corner for nearly a half-century and Benjamin Zukor’s apparel store.
Desmond’s Department Store
612 South Broadway
Look up above the commercial ground floor to see the festive Spanish Baroque facade for Desmond’s Department store, which has been little altered since 1933. Albert C. Martin designed the building in 1923. The store traces its roots back to the Desmond clothing store on Olvera Street in 1862; the emporium was purchased from the family by Ralph R. Huesman in 1921. Huesman expanded to Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevard and the store lasted until 1985.
Los Angeles Theater
615 South Broadway
H.L. Gumbiner, an exhibitor from Chicago, sunk $1.5 million into constructing this movie palace in 1930. S. Charles Lee transported movie-goers to 17th century France with one of the town’s most imaginative interiors. The baronial French Baroque movie house is often cited as the City’s finest. Eager for the Los Angeles Theater to be ready for the world premiere of his upcoming City Lights in January of 1931, Charlie Chaplin provided an infusion of cash and the entire theater was constructed off-site and fitted into the center of the block between existing buildings. The Los Angeles showed its last features in 1994 and the oft-time vacant space today appears more in films than exhibiting them.
630 South Broadway
The Palace began life in 1911 as the Los Angeles home of the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, replacing the troupe’s original theater that had operated since the1880s. A second Orpheum burned down. San Francisco-based architect Gustave Albert Lansbaugh, who designed over 50 theaters in a long career, created this theater in the image of a Florentine Renaissance palazzo but dressed the interior in the style of a lavish French opera house. The façade includes four panels depicting the muses of Song, Dance, Music and Drama sculpted by Domingo Mora. For all its elegance, Orpheum III had a fatal flaw - an undersized lobby that didn’t allow for crowds of over 2,000 patrons to socialize after the performance. A fourth Orpheum was constructed in 1926 and this theater was renamed the Palace but it is the oldest remaining Orpheum theater in the United States.
Frank L. Forrester Building
640 South Broadway
Charles F. Whittlesey designed this mid-block structure with a Beaux Arts facade in 1907. The earliest tenant of note was the J.B. Brown Music Company which gave way in 1914 for the short-lived Palace of Pictures. In 1916 the space was leased to the Innes Shoe Company. The marquee is a souvenir from Bond Clothing Stores Inc. of New York that moved here in 1939. The unfortunate paneled apron was an addition by Pavo Real Jewelry.
United Building/Loew’s State Theatre
703 South Broadway at southeast corner of 7th Street
Charles Peter Weeks and William Peyton Day, one of San Francisco’s most esteemed architectural partnerships, created this building, reputed to be the largest building in Los Angeles to be dressed in brick, in 1921. With seating for 2,404, this was the flagship theater for Metro Pictures helmed by Marcus Lowe which would in a few years be part of the merger that created MGM. Beginning in the 1960s the State became a Spanish-speaking movie house and in 1998 the theater went dark and the space was leased to the Universal Church.
744 South Broadway
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. The architectural firm of Octavius Morgan, Sr., John A. Walls, and Ocatvius Morgan, Jr. designed this building for Garland in 1912 which housed the Morosco Theatre. Utah-born Oliver Morosco got his start as a child acrobat and evolved into a theatrical producer and director. His theater here was Los Angeles’ first dramatic playhouse. Morosco, one of early Hollywood’s most flamboyant showmen, filed for bankruptcy in 1926 and the theater underwent a series of transformations and name changes - the last of which was the Globe Theatre, marked by the little world orb.
757 South Broadway at northwest corner of 8th Street
Hulett Clinton Merritt was born into the founding family of Duluth, Minnesota in 1872. He graduated from college at the age of 16 and began working with his father and uncles as a full partner on the Duluth Mesabi & Northern Railroad, hauling ore from the continent’s richest iron mines. At the age of 21, Merritt negotiated leases with the Carnegie Steel Company that would ultimately make him one of the largest stockholders in U.S. Steel before the age of 30 and he set out for Southern California. He soon controlled about 10,000 acres of the most valuable agricultural land in California, plus large chunks of downtown. It was reported that Merritt was president or board chairman of 138 different companies. On this corner in 1915, Merritt butted head’s with the City’s height restriction, desiring to build a 23-story skyscraper but he was rebuffed by City Council. Instead he ended up with a much-reduced building that housed retail stores on the ground floor and offices above up to the top floor that was reserved for Merritt himself. Brothers James William and Merritt James Reid, Canadian-born architects who managed a busy San Francisco practice in the early years of the 20th century and designed a wide array of Bay Area landmarks, provided the Neoclassical design with a phalanx of fluted Ionic columns. The lower floors were compromised by an insensitive remodeling in the 1950s for the Home Savings & Loan Association.
TURN RIGHT ON 8TH STREET AND WALK A FEW STEPS TO THE BUILDING NEXT TO THE MERRITT BUILDING...
313 West 8th Street
This modest 600-seat room opened in 1927 as the Bard’s Eighth Street Theatre. Lou Bard ran a string of Los Angeles theaters and this was to be his last; he hired architect Lewis A. Smith to convert an existing restaurant into a movie house. The name was changed in 1932 in recognition of Los Angeles hosting the Olympic Games that year. The current facade of the Olympic, which closed in 1986, dates to a 1942 make-over by Charles O. Matcham.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO THE INTERSECTION OF BROADWAY.
Hamburger’s Department Store
801 South Broadway at southwest corner of 8th Street
Asher Hamburger was born in Bavaria in 1821 and apprenticed as a rope maker. But at the age of 18 he set out for America with his brother, speaking o English and crossing the Atlantic in steerage. He found factory work in New York City making tassels and saved up enough money to enter the mercantile trade in Pennsylvania. When word of the California gold strikes reached Hamburger in 1848 he convinced his brother to head West and by 1850 they had a wholesale house in Sacramento. In 1881, his sons Moses and David, infected with the same wanderlust, convinced their father to come to Los Angeles. In short order A. Hamburger & Sons and their People’s Store was the largest in town, catering to the value-minded shopper. In 1908 Alfred F. Rosenheim designed this Beaux Arts, block-filling retail palace that purported to be the biggest store west of Chicago with the “largest aisle in the West” and open display floors. The Arrow Theatre was located on the fifth floor. In 1923 the St. Louis-based May Company bought Hamburger’s and the historic building entered its second century as the Broadway Trade Center.
802 South Broadway at southeast corner of 8th Street
The Tower opened in 1927 and was the first movie palace in Los Angeles to be wired for the new “talkies.” Al Jolson’ revolutionary The Jazz Singer premiered here. Before he died at the age of 90 S. Charles Lee would design over 400 theaters in California and Mexico and this was his first major effort, commissioned by H.L. Gumbiner. Lee blended Spanish, Roman and Moorish elements in terra cotta into the Tower and its execution in a small space made his career. The prominent corner tower was once even grander; its top was removed after an earthquake. Los Angeles movie-goers could also enjoy the town’s first theater air conditioning here.
CONTINUE WALKING SOUTH ON BROADWAY, PAST HAMBURGER’S AND THE TOWER THEATRE.
842 South Broadway at northeast corner of 9th Street
The fate of Broadway’s grand movie palaces in recent decades has not been pretty. Many were demolished, others survived as unused shells. The Orpheum was a vaudeville stage first, the fourth for the chain that had been started by Gustav Walter in San Francisco in 1886. The Beaux Arts flagship opened in 1926 on plans from G. Albert Lansbaugh; two years later a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that could mimic the instruments of an entire orchestra was installed. The Orpheum received a multi-million dollar facelift beginning in 1989 and is one of about 15 Orpheum theaters still in operation today. Its pipe organ is one of three remaining in Southern California.
Eastern Columbia Building
849 South Broadway at northwest corner of 9th Street
Los Angeles came of age in the 1920s and 1930s when American taste in architecture was shifting from the somber dignity of grand Renaissance Revival structures to the stripped-down classicism of Art Deco. Many of the town’s Art Deco creations survive but few are as boldly hued as Claud Beelman’s creation for the Eastern Outfitting Company and the Columbia Outfitting Company, furniture and clothing stores. The vertical emphasis common in Art Deco designs helped mask one of the biggest buildings constructed in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Beelman clad the high-rise in glossy turquoise terra cotta trimmed with a darker blue and gold trim. The façade is decorated with a wealth of motifs―sunburst patterns, geometric shapes, zigzags, chevrons and stylized animal and plant forms. The entire confection is capped with a four-side clock tower emblazoned with the name “Eastern” in neon and crowned with a central smokestack surrounded by four stylized flying buttresses. Beelman completed his canvas with sidewalks laid in a dynamic pattern of zigzags and chevrons. If you haven’t guessed by now, many consider the Eastern Columbia Building to be the most beautiful of all downtown Los Angeles structures.
Texaco Building/United Artists Theatre
933 South Broadway
At 242 feet, this was the tallest building in Los Angeles for a year after it was topped off in 1927. On that top was a 50-foot sign on stilts. Albert R. Walker and Percy A. Eisen, who created some of the town’s most admired big buildings, teamed with noted Detroit architect C. Howard Crane on the Spanish-flavored Neo-Gothic design which was highlighted by 600 tons of polychromed terra cotta, more colored tile than found on any other structure in the city. On columns the terra cotta capitals were fashioned with show business-themed grotesques. Construction crews hustled around the clock, working in three shifts, to have the concrete walls in place by a Thanksgiving Day deadline but missed. But only by a week. The California Petroleum Corporation signed a rental contract leasing all offices in the building for 30 years at $3 million but the most famous tenant, occupying half the space, was United Artists. Four of the biggest players in the movie industry - Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith - formed the studio in 1919 and the 2214-seat showplace became its flagship screening room. Like many of the old movie palaces this one has done church duty in recent years.
Howard Huntington’s Railway Building
1060 South Broadway at northeast corner of 11th 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. This ten-story building was constructed in 1925 as the main headquarters for the Los Angeles Railway.
Herald Examiner Building
1111 South Broadway at southwest corner of 11th Street
The Los Angeles Examiner was founded in 1903 by William Randolph Hearst as a companion publication to his San Francisco Examiner and an organ to promote his campaign for the presidential nomination on the Democratic ticket. In its heyday in the 1940s the Examiner was the place to go to read about sensational crimes and Hollywood scandals. Still, it attracted the top newspaper talent of its time and reached a peak circulation of 381,037 in 1960, two years before it merged with the Los Angeles Herald-Express, another Hearst paper that sparkled in tabloid journalism. The striking Mission Revival style building with multi-colored domes was a 1914 creation of Julia Morgan, California’s first registered female architect. Morgan, a San Francisco native, was a long-time friend of the Hearst family (she would design the Hearst castle at San Simeon) and the first woman to graduate with an architecture degree from the famous ?cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. In her long career Julia Morgan designed over 700 buildings and in 2008 she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. The building has been vacant since 1989 and often shows up in movies or on television as a set.
TURN RIGHT ON 11TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON HILL STREET.
1050 South Hill Street
The curtain went up at the Belasco in 1926 with a presentation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. Edward Belasco was one of the moneymen in the project but the actual namesake, like many stages around the country was his famous brother David Belasco, known in the theater community as “the Bishop of Broadway.” That is New York’s Broadway where David Belasco spent his life as a theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright. The architectural firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements designed the Belasco in an exuberant Spanish Baroque style and it was constructed in just ninety days. The Belasco lasted less than twenty years before it went dark for the first time. After that it spent long stretches as a church and was vacant for over 25 years until a recent revival.
1014 SouthHill Street
If you wanted to see what a period 1920s theater looked like, stand in front of the Mayan, designed by Stiles O. Clements in 1927. The goal of exhibitors was to transport patrons on exotic adventures of the mind and the trappings of the venue were calculated to facilitate that experience even before the film or, in this case, the play inside. The Mayan theme is carried throughout the venue, most impressively in the foyer, known as “The Hall of Feathered Serpents.” The screen curtain featured images of Mayan jungles and ancient temples. The Mayan, however, struggled for survival after its short early run as a legitimate theater, hosting, at various times, second-run movies, burlesque shows, art house films, Mexican films and adult films. But the building persists and today operates as a nightclub with much of the exotic Mayan interior still intact.
May Company Parking Garage
southeast corner of 9th and Hill streets
In what could pass for a city hall in many towns, this was actually one of America’s first parking structures. The nine-story Beaux Arts style garage-and retail complex was raised in 1927 on plans by Claude Beelman and William Curlett.
Pacific National Bank Building
855 South Hill Street at northwest corner of 9th Street
In 1926 and 1927 the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls & Clements was busy filling up this lower part of Hill Street with buildings such as the Belasco and the Mayan theaters. Principals Octavius Morgan and John A. Walls at the time were joined by the emerging designer Stiles O. Clement who championed the Spanish Colonial Revival style and here you can see that influence in the conquistador shields carved into the rusticated base of this bank building.
May Company Department Store
820 South Hill Street at southeast corner of 8th Street
In 1911 David May, who had begun peddling goods in the Leadville, Colorado silver boom of 1877, bought the Barr operation and merged it with the 38-year old Famous Clothing Store in St. Louis, which he had acquired a few years earlier. The May Company would continue to acquire retail properties around the country for the rest of the century before merging with Federated Department Stores in 2005, after which all existing stores were re-branded to their flagship property, Macy’s. May’s first acquisition was in 1923 when he bought Hamburger’s massive downtown Los Angeles store. Additions came in 1924 and 1929; the ten-story tower on Hill Street came from the pen of Aleck Curlett. The first of 37 May Company branches opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1939. The May Company abandoned the historic building in the 1980s.
403 West 8th Street at northwest corner of Hill Street
Claud Beelman crafted this early Art Deco high-rise in 1928, using a million-dollar budget and pushing its twelve stories to the edge of the City’s existing height restrictions at the time. The main entrance is marked by an elaborate wrought iron entrance canopy above and a terrazzo sidewalk below. Floral and grapevine patterns decorate the open grill work above the entrance. The lobby, decked out in bands of black and purple marble and boasting polished nickel fittings, earned designation as an Historic-Cultural Monument in Los Angeles in 1973 - nine years before the entire building was so recognized. Alas, the building has been vacant for over two decades.
Union Bank and Trust
760 South Hill Street at northeast corner of 8th Street
Kaspare Cohn embodied the American Dream possible in the 1800s - born in Prussia in 1839, sailed to New York City at the age of 18 and set off for the California Gold Rush in 1859. He was in Los Angeles in the 1860s partnering in H. Newmark & Co., wholesale grocers that grew enormously. In 1885 Cohn was running his own company with fingers in fabrics and clothing, utilities and real estate. With a part of his fortune in 1902 he founded and financed the Kaspare Cohn Hospital which became the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at the age of 75 in 1914 he established the Kaspare Cohn Commercial and Savings Bank which was renamed the Union Bank & Trust Company of Los Angeles a few years later after Cohn’s death in 1916. Alexander Curlett & Claud Beelman designed this elegant banking house in 1921.
Foreman & Clark Building
404 West 7th Street at southeast corner of Hill Street
This 13-story building of reinforced concrete dressed in limestone was crafted in 1929 for the Foreman & Clark department store. Winfield Amos Foreman and A.J. Clark started in the retail clothing business in 1909 with $310 between them. At the time men’s clothing stores all had convenient ground floor operations. Foreman and Clark couldn’t afford that luxury so started in a rented upstairs room at Third and Main streets. Rather than bemoan their predicament the clothiers emphasized the economy of the upstairs room and the resulting “savings of ten dollars” that became their slogan. The chain would eventually have 90 stores from coast to coast until shuttering after 90 years in 1999. Architects Curlett & Beelman provided the Gothic flavor to this Art Deco structure.
Warner Brothers’ Downtown Theatre
401 West 7th Street at northwest corner of Hill Street
Alexander Pantages helped pioneer the Los Angeles Theater District in 1910 on Broadway but by 1920 he was ready to trade up theaters. His go-to architect was B. Marcus Priteca, a Scot, who designed 22 theaters for Pantages and another 128 for other theater owners. Here Priteca delivered a Renaissance Revival palace highlighted by a dome on the corner. Pantages sold his theater circuit in 1929 and the stage reopened under the Warner Brothers marquee. The theater closed in 1975 and has done duty for over 30 years as the Jewelry Mart, which retains much of the original interior.
Bullock’s Department Store
650 South Hill Street at northeast corner of 7th Street
With the help of his former employer, Arthur Letts at the Broadway Department Store, John G. Bullock opened his own retail emporium in 1907, designed by John Parkinson. In 1923, Bullock and business partner, P.G. Winnett, bought out Letts’ interest after his death. Parkinson would return in 1929 to create the Art Deco landmark for Bullock’s on Wilshire Boulevard in what was then a residential slice of Hollywood. Catering to an upscale movie crowd, Bullock’s helped lead historically downtown businesses out of downtown. The Bullock’s nameplate would endure for 89 years until it was gobbled up by Federated Department Stores and rebranded a Macy’s. Today, with over 700,000 square feet of retail space, the old Bullock’s houses the St. Vincent Jewelry Center, the largest wholesale and retail complex in the Los Angeles Jewelry District. With nearly 5,000 manufacturers, wholesalers and retailer, most small family-run businesses, the District is the second largest jewelry hub in the nation after New York.
Sun Realty Building
629 South Hill Street
Here is another vibrantly colored Art Deco creation of Claud Beelman, using green terra cotta tiles and tapping Egyptian and Mayan themes. The recessed center bay’s decorative terra cotta parapet features highly stylized geometric sunburst, chevron, and floral designs. The office building was raised as the real estate headquarters of the SunDrug Company, a chain of drug stores located throughout Southern California.
William Fox Building
608 South Hill Street
Samuel Tilden Norton and Frederick H. Wallis designed this Art Deco headquarters for William Fox’s movie empire in 1928. Of all the movie moguls of the early 1900s, it is the Fox name that has most widely survived a century later, although his ties to the film industry may have been the most tenuous. Vilmos Fried was born in Hungary in 1879 but his family emigrated to America before he was a year old. He was 21 when he started his own textile company which he sold four years later to purchase his first nickelodeon. He started the Fox Film Corporation but, in fact, William Fox concentrated on acquiring and building theaters rather than producing content to exhibit in them. Fox never saw anything but turbulence for his new corporate castle. He was embroiled in a government anti-trust action over his purchase of Marcus Loew’s MGM theaters, he was nearly killed in an automobile accident in 1929 and then the stock market crashed. Fox lost control of his corporation in 1930 and then spent six months in prison for bribing a judge in the antitrust trial. Fox left the film business and went back to New York City. When he died in 1952 no Hollywood producers appeared at his funeral.
Consolidated Realty Building
607 South Hill Street at southwest corner of 6th Street
Pennsylvania-born Harrison Albright migrated from West Virginia in his 30s and established a busy architectural practice in Southern California. This nine-story building from 1908 was the largest commission of his career. The entire ninth floor was leased to the University Cub of Los Angeles. Architect Claud Bellman orchestrated a Decoish makeover for the California Jewelry Mart in 1935 and in 1967 it received another refacing.
bounded by 5th Street to the north, 6th Street to the south, Hill Street to the east, and Olive Street to the west
In 1866 this 5-acre block was dedicated as a public square, known familiarly as “the Lower Plaza,” being located south of the Pueblo de Los Angeles. It was the first of a parade of names that ended in 1918, a week after World War I ended and the space was renamed in honor of General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing. At some point the owner of a nearby beer garden, German immigrant George “Roundhouse” Lehman, planted small native Monterey cypress trees, fruit trees, and flowering shrubs around the park, and maintained them until his death in 1882. The plantings grew sub-tropically lush, and the park became a shady oasis and an outdoor destination for the city. The entire park was demolished and excavated in 1952 to build an underground parking garage and the park above became an eyesore. It was finally closed in 1992 and underwent a major $14.5-million redesign and renovation by landscape architects Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico, and Laurie Olin of the United States. Today’s park is peppered with public artworks including a 10-story bell tower.
Guaranty Trust Building
401 West Fifth Street at northwest corner of Hill Street
Architect John Parkinson was joined by his son, Donald B. Parkinson in 1920 and the firm created some of the town’s finest buildings, City Hall and Union Station among them. Here they applied the Art Deco treatment tinged with Gothic details to this highrise office building in 1930; it is dressed in stone-colored tile. Sharp-eyed fans of television’s Lou Grant, the spinoff for Mary Richard’s irascible newsroom boss from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, will recognize the building as the home for the fictional Los Angeles Tribune.
Pershing Square Building
448 South Hill Street at northeast corner of Fifth Street
Claud Beelman and Alexander Curlett were two of the most stylish architects working in Los Angeles during the go-go days of Los Angeles in the 1920s. Here they constructed this 15-story tower in 1924 with a heavy Italian influence boasting such top-of-the-line accoutrements as Philippine Columbia and St. Genevieve marble, sculptured brass, and balconies. Decorative touches include metal scrollwork, spiral columns, bronzed cherub heads, Rams and Griffins, and a frieze of garlands.
Subway Terminal Building
417 South Hill Street
This luxury apartment complex began life as the downtown terminus for the “Hollywood Subway” branch of the Pacific Electric Railway Interurban rail line. The subway opened in 1925 and reached peak usage in the 1940s, carrying an estimated 65,000 passengers underground every day. The car culture won out in the 1950s, however, and Pacific Electric removed the tracks after the last train, waving a banner reading “To Oblivion,” rolled through the tunnel on June 19, 1955. Twelve years later the tunnel was filled in. Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver came out from New York to design the multi-towered terminal in a distinctive Florentine exterior.
Angel’s Flight Railway
351 South Hill Street to Bunker Hill
In 1901 to conquer the 33% grade to the tony residential neighborhood of Bunker Hill this funicular railroad was designed by the Merceau Bridge & Construction Company. Two orange-and-black railway cars, Olivet and Sinai, ply the 298 feet between Hill and Olive streets on “The Shortest Railway in the World.” The Los Angeles landmark was dismantled in 1969 but was refurbished and reassembled a half-block south of its original route in 1996 to complement California Plaza. The fare is 50 cents and only a quarter if you are holding a Metro Pass.
308 South Hill Street at southeast corner of 3rd Street
Artist Tim Hawkinson transforms everyday materials into radically new forms, both abstract and representational. Here he fashioned a clock tower on the corner of this downtown parking garage. He carries the illusion to the clock dials that run counterclockwise and the Roman numerals are reversed.
TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET AND WALK OVER TO BROADWAY AND THE BEGINNING OF THE TOUR.