The Argyle: Wayward Youth, Beatings and the Slit Throat That Wasn’t

When we last visited the Argyle, it was the a first rate Bunker Hill rooming house, artists’ salon, and night spot besieged by troubled management and unpredictable closings.  This week, we turn to the Argyle’s tenants, and their various encounters with local law enforcement.

urchinsAt first, the hotel attracted the sort of person who perhaps wished for a bit more intrigue and drama than life at the Argyle provided.  And being artistic types, they were perhaps prone to overactive imaginations.

On December 22, 1887, police were summoned to the Argyle at 2:30 in the morning, and greeted at the door by a hysterical landlady who claimed that the house was full of burglars, and "one of them is standing in a guest’s room with his throat cut!"

When we last visited the Argyle, it was the a first rate Bunker Hill rooming house, artists’ salon, and night spot besieged by troubled management and unpredictable closings.  This week, we turn to the Argyle’s tenants, and their various encounters with local law enforcement.

urchinsAt first, the hotel attracted the sort of person who perhaps wished for a bit more intrigue and drama than life at the Argyle provided.  And being artistic types, they were perhaps prone to overactive imaginations.

On December 22, 1887, police were summoned to the Argyle at 2:30 in the morning, and greeted at the door by a hysterical landlady who claimed that the house was full of burglars, and "one of them is standing in a guest’s room with his throat cut!"

A small army of police officer, reporters, and curious tenants rushed down the hall, storming into the room where the fiend had been sighted.  Behind the door, however, they found a startled-looking, 100-pound man mopping up a bloody nose.  And the kicker?  He lived there.

Another early morning disturbance drew police on September 15, 1892.  When they arrived at the scene, they found another crowd gathered around a door, listening to the anguished moans of a woman.  After some heated debate, they decided to break down the door, and police were about to do just that when a man’s voice shouted, "Don’t kick that door open.  She is alright."

As the Argyle residents exchanged scandalized whispers, a half-naked man flung the door open and attempted an escape, but succeeded only in running into the arms of police officers.  Though both parties remained unnamed, the shirtless gentleman was a prominent local artist, and the woman a handsome widow "too far gone under the influence of ‘cold tea.’" 

After a few incidents like this, the Argyle residents needed to step up their game, and how better than to take a page from Dickens?  On June 29, 1901, Charles B. Howe was arrested and charged with enlisting two of the Argyle’s youngest residents to steal for him.  Howe approached Raymond and Harry Neismonger, 11 and 9, respectively, with a proposition that they steal from local department stores, and he would purchase the fenced goods at bargain prices.  Raymond was intrigued, and promptly took a job as a cash boy at the Broadway Department Store where he had easy access to all manner of tempting items.  Not to be outdone, the younger boy took to lifting watches from Tufts-Lyon.  Howe was caught red-handed with several watches, a bathing suit, and an assortment of leather goods in his possession.

Though our tale has run long, there’s room for one more Argyle crime, a sad, though routine tale of domestic violence immortalized in perhaps the purplest headline ever penned by a Times writer: 


Charles Gregory stumbled into the Argyle drunk and proceeded to beat his wife.  Police were summoned, and Gregory was locked up for disturbing the peace, though not for assaulting his wife.

Don’t know that the story lives up to the headline, but somehow, it fits the spirit of the Argyle Hotel perfectly.  

Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The Argyle: A Slow, Steady Decline, Part 1


Situated at the corner of Olive and Second, the Argyle House was built in the 1880s by a Scottish gentleman, and quickly became as respectable a salon (and saloon) as could be found on Bunker Hill. Parties, weddings, and cotillions were frequently held here, and as a rooming house, it tended to attract musical types who frequently advertised their services as voice and piano instructors in the pages of the Times.

In October 1887, the Argyle House opened its doors under new management, advertising for roomers. Almost immediately after, however, it closed them, citing a need for renovations. The hotel reopened in June 1888, boasting 61 "large and sunny" rooms, but it was an auspicious beginning for the Argyle, and not the last time it would close abruptly.

With its adjoining restaurant and parlor, the Argyle was a lively and welcome addition to Bunker Hill. The Times wrote, "A good many pleasant people stop at this establishment and they go in for a good time socially," and "The Argyle people are convivial, if anything."

But after a few years of good times, the Argyle closed suddenly in 1893, and nobody knew why until news of a lawsuit leaked out. In November of that year, the owner, W.A. Nimock, sued D.E. Barton, who held the lease on the property. Nimock sought to recover possession of the Argyle, plus $3000 in damages.

And then, there were the assault charges.

It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Nimocks had leased the property to the Abbott family, parents of renowned opera singer Emma Abbott (who had died in 1891, shortly after her 40th birthday). When the Abbotts had to return East suddenly, they transferred their lease to Barton who promptly commandeered the place and began extensive renovations without the Nimocks’ approval. He shuttered the windows, kicked out the tenants, and ripped out the carpets.

The Nimocks wanted the Abbotts running the Argyle, but when they returned from the East, Barton refused to leave. What’s more, he told Mrs. Nimock (who handled most of the day-to-day on the property) that she could not enter the building, and locked himself in.

Thus thwarted, Mrs. Nimock did the only reasonable thing, and broke in through a window, tearing off a screen in the process. Mr. Barton was inside at the time, and proceeded to throw Mrs Nimock out the window through which she’d entered.

Hence, the assault charge.

But, as neither Mrs. Nimock nor her counsel appeared in court, the charges were dismissed. Barton said he would stay until his lease expired, which he apparently did. However, by early 1894, the Abbotts were once again running the Argyle as a rooming house, throwing fabulous parties, and holding court.

Over the next five years, the Argyle would change hands three times, finally ending up the property of Chicago native John Woelke in 1899. Like those before him, Woelke said he planned to remodel it into a "first class hotel," then lease it to a "responsible tenant." Easier said than done.

By 1936, the Times was lamenting the fallen state of the building, which once had been lovely and frequented by the best sorts. Regrettably, its best features, the porches and front wing, had been taken off when the road was widened for the Second Street Tunnel, and like most Bunker Hill establishments, its residents were no longer so glittering and well-connected.

Next week: crimes and misdemeanors at the Argyle, including beatings, wayward urchins, and the slit throat that wasn’t. Stay tuned!

Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Downtown L.A. and the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933

Having spent the earthquake today underground on the Wilshire/Vermont subway platform, I, for one, am grateful for the building codes and seismic retrofits of today.

unshakenAnd the downtown Los Angeles of today came through the quake swimmingly, with the most significant damage being sustained by the Literature & Fiction Department at Central Library, which was briefly closed this afternoon after many of its books were flung from the shelves by tremors.

However, everyone knows that Southern California hasn’t always escaped these quakes quite so unscathed. For today’s Bunker Hill time travel, let’s step back to the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933.

Centered on the Newport-Inglewood Fault, the 6.4 quake hit Southern California in the early evening on March 10, 1933. Rubble filled the streets, fires broke out, and approximately 120 people were killed in the quake, with hundreds more injured filling the Southland’s hospitals. The cities of Long Beach, Compton, Watts, Huntington Park, and Huntington Beach were particularly hard hit.

Though downtown and the Bunker Hill area fared better, there were more than a few close shaves.

At 130 S. Broadway, 19-year-old Morgan Gordon was sitting in his car when two 3-foot square blocks plummeted from the cornice of the building. One crashed through the car’s hood, the other through its roof, fortunately, landing in the empty passenger seat.

crushed carsNearby, witnesses watched in horror as the tops of the Federal Building, the Hall of Justice, and City Hall swayed visibly, and the screams of prisoners being held on the top three floors of the Hall of Justice could be heard from the street below: "We want out! We want out!"

Paint was literally knocked off of all four exterior walls of the Hall of Records, broken glass filled the streets, and people were struck and injured by falling bricks and debris (though no downtown fatalities were reported).

Dramatic as the scene downtown was, the long-term damage was limited. Most of the debris was cleared over the weekend, and of all the large buildings in the area, only three were deemed potentially unsafe: the Detwiler Building at 412 W. Sixth, the Edison Building at Broadway and Third, and the Great Republic Life Buildling at 756 S. Spring. In all, the damage to downtown buildings was estimated at a relatively modest $250,000 ($4.2 million USD 2007).

Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The Pensioner Showgirls of Melrose

By 1952, most of the lovely Melrose Hotel’s 200 occupants were elderly pensioners — elderly pensioners with exciting, glamorous, Auntie Mame-esque pasts.

First there’s the Melrose Hotel’s parttime switchboard operator, Anna Pearce, a former singer on the Considine vaudeville circuit around the turn of the century.

The hotel is also home to Juliet de Grazi, a Swahili-speaking Austrian-born soprano who toured with a Belgian opera company through the cities of East Africa. In 1952, de Grazi was simply passing
through the Melrose. She had recently won a large settlement in an automobile accident, and was planning to return to East Africa where her husband was buried.

And Beulah Monroe was a fixture on the local theatre scene, making her debut in Oscar Wilde’s The Ideal Husband in 1919, opposite Edward Everett Horton. She appeared frequently at the Little Theatre at Figueroa and Pico, and also acted with Florence Roberts, Wallace Beery, and Neely Edwards during her career.

For more on the Melrose and its exciting inhabitants, take a look at what Joan and Nathan have had to say about mysterious fires, rowdy teen girls, and the tragic march of progress.

You Know, For Kids! – The Bunker Hill Playground and Recreation Center

On May 27, 1947, Proposition B, a $12 million bond issue passed, allowing the city to sink some serious dough into its woefully inadequate parks, playgrounds, and municipal pools. One of the first neighborhoods slated to get a new playground and community recreation center was Bunker Hill, with a site at the corner of 2nd and Hope, just over half an acre, selected and purchased by the City. After a November 14, 1949 groundbreaking, the $121,646 modern recreation facility was dedicated on August 21, 1950.


In addition to grounds with a wading pool, basketball courts, and playground equipment, the nearly 9000-square foot recreation hall featured a stage for movie screenings and theatrical productions, classrooms, a kitchen, showers, and handball courts (on the roof, no less). Sure, it’s a little institutional-looking, and sure, it could do with a little less concrete, some foliage that doesn’t look so spindly and diseased, and maybe some wood chips under the monkey bars to protect tender young heads, but still, it’s a pretty spiffing playground.

And a long time coming, too. Residents of Bunker Hill had been clamoring for a neighborhood recreation area for over 25 years, lamenting the fact that children in the neighborhood lived in cramped quarters and had no place to play safely. A playground, residents said, would help alleviate the truancy, delinquency, and other youth problems in the neighborhood.

But the thing was, until 1923, Bunker Hill had a very fine recreation area for children… until the City tore it down to make way for the new Central Library.

After the Normal Hill School area was razed, Mrs. Harry White wrote to the City Council, pleading for a playground for the neighborhood’s children:

"They are not permitted to play in the streets, and as most of them live in rented houses without grounds there is no provision for any sort of recreation, or for the care of these children. Many of the parents are working people and the children are alone all day."

In the 25 years without a recreation area, kind-hearted Bunker Hill residents did their best to fill in the gaps. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Abbott of 220 S. Bunker Hill Avenue organized beach outings, holiday parties and free movies for hundreds of children in the neighborhood, while Mrs. Pearl Alcantara founded the Children’s Community Garden in a vacant lot at California and Grand, after her son was killed by a car while playing in the street. About 50 boys and girls helped her to clear the lot of trash and rocks (although some adult neighbors who weren’t keen on the idea would scatter more trash and rocks at night).

playgroundsoldDuring the 12 years that the Bunker Hill Playground served the neighborhood, its facilities were tremendously popular, and its programs well-attended. However, it wouldn’t last long. In 1962, the Department of Parks and Recreation recommended sale of the playground and recreation center to the CRA for $325,000. Within a year, the City Council would approve the sale, cash the check, and soon, the playground was just another Bunker Hill ghost.

Image from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

A Stone Whodunit

February 28, 1954
205 South Figueroa

James Saul Pauge, a 60-year-old newspaper vendor and retired railroad conductor, was murdered in his apartment today under exceptionally puzzling circumstances.  Help couldn’t have arrived any sooner, but it was still too late.

Pauge’s neighbor Louis Jaralillo, a former boxer, heard a shot fired and ran upstairs to Pauge’s apartment to investigate.  Pauge stood in front of his open front door, swaying and gesturing towards his back, unable to speak.  Almost immediately, he fell over dead of a gunshot wound.  The can of soup Pauge was preparing for his dinner was still simmering on the stove.

The window in Pauge’s apartment overlooked 2nd Street, and had been left open.  Police suspected that a sniper had fired in through the window, and hit Pauge in the back as he stood at the stove.  No motive could be established for the killing, and no suspects were apprehended.

Whole New Meaning to the Term “Hollow Leg”

August 6, 1923
240 South Figueroa

hiddenhoochPolice came to the apartment of William Fisher and Walter J. O’Connell, responding to neighbors’ complaints of a loud party. When they arrived, they found seven men and a woman seated primly around a large round table, and grinning like mad. However, police could not help but notice "the odor of synthetic gin was in the air."

At first, police were stumped. There was no evidence of a party, and no bottles to be seen. But then, one of the detectives noticed a stream of liquid trickling out from the thick center leg of the table, and a sniff revealed it to be contraband booze.

Quickly, the detectives dismantled the table and discovered that its leg had been hollowed out, and a hooch tank and spigot installed. In all the excitement, some careless partygoer had neglected to twist the spigot shut, leading to the telltale leak.

A more thorough search of the apartment turned up two copper tanks, designed to be fitted into an automobile gas tank and used for the illicit transport of bathtub gin. Fisher and O’Connell were booked on charges of violating the Volstead Act.

Know Your Bunker Hill B-Girls

Meet Ruth Winters, 31, of 350 S. Figueroa (site of the Bowman brothers’ asphyxiation by cyanide gas poisoning), an angular blonde with a naughty smile and a way with the fellas. Despite her considerable charms, Ruth is on of the most detested women on Bunker Hill, or at least she is if you judge her by the names bestowed upon her by the Times and the thick stack of hysterical city ordinances set forth to curb her profession.


Yes, Ruth is one of those "harpies of Main Street," a B-girl at Marco’s Cafe at 513 S. Main, and Ruth is one of the best in the business (she’s the one with the world-weary eyes sitting in the front row, above).

When Marco’s makes a new hire, bartender Patsy Figlio always tells the girls to follow the "experienced bust-out girl" Ruth’s lead. Pick your mark, clean out his wallet, and get rid of him fast. And if he leaves with so much as a dime in his pocket, you’d better believe you’ll catch hell from Patsy.

Marco’s owner Louis Lobel told the girls to lay low when the heat was on, and Patsy made sure they worked the crowd hard when it wasn’t, and the whole thing works out just grand provided that the poor sap with the empty wallet is too embarrassed to let on to anyone that he got fleeced.

But then Marine Sergeant William R. Okerman decided to visit Marco’s with $10 in cash, and 6 $20 traveler’s checks in his pocket. Ruth moved in, embracing Okerman as he entered the bar and asking him how long since he’d had a woman. What happened next was all a blur. Ruth teased, Patsy poured champagne cocktails, and in a scant 30 minutes, the pair had taken Okerman for all he had.

The shameless Sgt. Okerman made a complaint to the police, right around the same time that Kathleen Krischenowski, a former Marco’s waitress, went in to apply for a job. She was horrified by what she saw, and connected with the LAPD vice detail. She and two other waitresses turned undercover informant, and told the police what was going on at Marco’s.

Their reports led to the arrests of Figlio, Lobel, Winters, and another b-girl, Beverly Reed. They were charged with violation of 8 municipal laws, including indecent exposure, being lewd and dissolute, and conspiracy to violate the city’s b-girl ordinance, including 44 overt acts too filthy to print.

It was the first time that the District Attorney’s office had sought felony charges in a case involving violation of the b-girl ordinance, which had been in effect since 1939 (and drastically expanded after b-girls moved their trade to soda shops).

In the end, all four entered guilty pleas, though Winters and Reed were allowed to plead to misdemeanor charges. Lobel and Figlio were sentenced to 3 years in Chino, while the women faced 6 months in the city jail.

Death At the Imperial Hotel: 350 South Figueroa

November 16, 1931

imperialhotelbowmansThis morning, Gene Bowman, 15, and his brother Earl, 22, decided to sleep late after their mother departed for work.

In the apartment directly beneath them, R.V. Darby, the Mayor of Inglewood, president of the Federated Church Brotherhoods of Los Angeles, and owner of Kilz Exterminator Company was conducting a routine fumigation for bed bugs.

As always, he had notified the Health Department, and given written and verbal notice to all occupants of the building, asking them to leave their rooms and open the windows.  And as always, he was using cyanide gas.

While Darby worked, unbeknownst to him, deadly gas was seeping up into the Bowman’s apartment through a small hole in the floor around a steam pipe.  Both brothers were asphyxiated while they slept.

Darby’s license was temporarily suspended while a manslaughter complaint was brought before a grand jury to determine whether the Bowmans’ deaths were caused by negligence on Darby’s part.  More than twenty witnesses testified, and on December 1, Darby was exonerated, the jury stating that the deaths were a tragic accident, but that Darby had taken all possible precautions.

No Place for a Child: The Collapse of the Vanderbilt

Location: 334 South Figueroa


It is unlikely that the overcrowded, structurally unsound, 5-story Vanderbilt apartment-hotel at 334 S. Figueroa was a happy home for many of its tenants. However, children living in, or even passing by, the ramshackle building seemed to fare particularly badly. On April 5, 1939, 18-month-old Harvey Fish fell from a fourth story window, landing at the feet of his mother who was standing on the sidewalk below. The child suffered a fractured skull, and died later that day. 6-year-old Anna Lee Norton fell five stories shortly after Christmas in 1952. While playing on the apartment balcony, Anna lost her balance and crashed through a loose board, falling on a paved alleyway. Perhaps this should have been a sign to the Department of
Building and Safety and the CRA that the building was in trouble.

Other incidents at the Vanderbilt could be chalked up to sad or unfortunate chance. In 1949, Robert Lee Gordon, age 6, was killed when he darted out from between two cars parked in front of the building. And in 1955, 1-year-old Gloria Howard was reunited with her family, residents at the Vanderbilt, after a harrowing evening in juvie. Lucille Parker, 33, wandered into a bar with the child, saying Gloria had been "given" to her in another local bar. The child’s wisecarverfather, William Howard, later reported that he’d left a very intoxicated Lucille and his daughter alone in a car while he made a phone call. When he returned, the car was missing, as were Lucille and Gloria.

The most bizarre story of child endangerment at the Vanderbilt brings us to 1945, when Elaine Wisecarver was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after abandoning her 3-year-old daughter with the building manager. It wasn’t the first time Wisecarver earned this charge. The previous year, the 22-year-old woman had eloped to Yuma with a 14-year-old boy, Ellsworth (Sonny) Wisecarver. The marriage was later annulled, and Wisecarver was sentenced to 3 years probation.

However, on the evening of March 3, 1959, the Vanderbilt’s legacy came to an end in dramatic fashion when rotted underpinnings caused the floor joists to slip, and the 48-year-old building to slide off of its foundation, moving 3 feet sideways and dropping 2 feet. The side walls buckled, and plaster rained down on the buildings occupants, most of whom were at home at the time. In all, 200 of the hotel’s residents, 70 of them children, evacuated the building. One man was trapped in his apartment, but miraculously, only three people suffered injuries, all of them minor. In the days leading up to the collapse, several residents had complained to the building manager that they had trouble opening and closing their apartment doors.

The Red Cross immediately set up at the Fremont Grammar School, where approximately 40 adults and 60 children sought shelter.

Though the collapse came as a surprise to the Vanderbilt’s tenants, the building had actually been inspected a few weeks earlier and declared a hazard by the Department of Building and Safety. A hearing was being scheduled where the building’s owners would have to show cause why it should not be demolished.


Following the collapse, the building’s condition was downgraded to "immediate hazard," and demolition was scheduled. In fact, the building was declared so unsafe that no one was initially permitted to enter it, including the wrecking crew.

In the aftermath, the City Council asked Mayor Poulson to "define specifically the CRA’s activities," and to meet with its building and safety commission to discuss CRA procedure. This came as a result of the general manager of the Department and Building and Safety, Gilbert Morris’s report to the Council that the CRA had told his people to "keep out" of Bunker Hill. The Department also reported that the CRA had brought routine inspections of Bunker Hill properties to a standstill, after a "request" that these inspections only be carried out in response to specific complaints.

Councilman Edward Roybal stated, "I would like to put a stop to the dictatorial activities of the CRA."

William H. Claire, a CRA spokesperson, denied allegations that the agency had neglected the health and safety of residents, saying, "We in the Community Redevelopment Agency are very interested in what happens to the people in our project."

Images of the Vanderbilt courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection