The Many Faces of 123 South Figueroa

After the DWP and Dorothy Chandler went up, postcard photographers said whoopee! something to shoot besides City Hall and the Chinese. So they cruised up to the bluff on Huntley, trained their lenses across Second and Beaudry toward First and Flower and fired away. The day view is a Plastichrome by Colourpicture, the night view by Western Publishing & Novelty, both circa 1965.

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Dig the Union station in all its 76 ball glory (the SoCal station with its backlit chevron seems to be of an earlier vintage; they’re both gone now). Printers shops and giant spools line Beaudry. Were it not for the necessity of capturing Becket and Martin’s latest accomplishments, would we have any record of these? Not likely.

Across the Pasadena Freeway, on Bunker Hill proper, on the west side of Figueroa between First and Second, that big white structure? That’s 123 South Figueroa, built in 1925. Whatever the most photographed buildings on Bunker Hill were—the Castle, the Brousseau, the Dome?—if there’s another image of this structure, I’d love to see it.
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123 was erected as an office building, but in 1934 is turned into “one of the largest and most modern” government relief centers in the West. The Federal Transient Service converted the building into its Southern California headquarters, i.e., a shelter for non-resident jobless men, outfitting it with an enormous cafeteria and dormitories that slept 500. It became a veritable city in itself: showers, lockers, hospital, educational and recreational facilities were installed, as were a laundry, shoe repair and tailor shop. It was also a warehouse for materials and supplies used in the camps. Yes, the camps. Itinerant men had forty-eight hours to stay at Figueroa, max, before being assigned out of the city to transient work camps in forest and mountain areas.

Families, bands of “wild boys,” vagabonds on freight cars…in 1935 32,000 new transients came to California each month, 12,000 of those to Los Angeles. July of 1935 alone saw a load of 20,000 paupers arrive in LA seeking State and Federal aid. (And, one supposes, oranges that grew on palm trees.) 1,200 boys were sent to forestry camps, 4,000 men to the Federal aid camp near San Diego, but many of LA’s transients—12% of the national and 60% of the State’s burden—after being processed here at 123 South Fig, ended up in squatter’s villages and squalid encampments. Many went to homes and camps, were absorbed to into County Welfare healthily, found employ in the works relief programs or went back from whence they came, but either way, it does show and say something about the class shift of the Hill that such a major locus of poverty and despair should be located within its confines.

123 is converted to the police department’s traffic division headquarters building in 1942. The City Council gave the Police Commission $78,000 for the building and another $47,000 for the alterations.

deadicationAt the dedication, during a luncheon given on the third floor, attended by Mayor Bowron, Chief of Police Horral, and numerous high ranking police officers, Deputy Police Chief Caldwell announced that Los Angeles led the nation in the decrease in auto fatalities—which occurred through “strict, scientific enforcement of driving regulations.” (Reports from 123 show that pedestrian fatalities in the first half of the 40s skyrocketed—dimouts for the war effort, don’t ya know.)

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The biggest piece of drama attached to the building came when in 1950 Parry Cottam, 27, a maintenance man at the police garage in the building, was moving a police motorcycle and it went out of control. It plunged him through a large plate-glass window on the building’s street level, and he was found unconscious on the sidewalk.

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In March of 1964, the Board of Supervisors authorized sale of the county building to the CRA. The CRA said they intended to develop the site into a motel. The garage equipment goes up for auction in April 1971 and the 123 is presumably demolished failry soon thereafterward. While the CRA didn’t build a motel after clearing the site, the Promenade Towers have at least been described as a “roach motel.”

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It’s a $60million dollar complex, the first mixed-use apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles and the area’s first privately owned residential rental complex. It has its formal opening June 16, 1986, the name Promenade intending to connote the era of pedestrian-oriented urbanism this project will usher in.

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The Promenade becomes a favorite of Union Bank; they keep sixteen apartments there for visiting businessmen. Tommy Lasorda himself keeps a pad in the Prom. They’re all drawn by the health club and gymnasium, market, pharmacy, dentist, café/restaurant, the 24-hour reception and valet and garage attendants and so forth.

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It remains to be seen whether the 123 regains its Reagan-era splendor, or if its residents, with their dry cleaner and little shop of sundries, doesn’t harken back to its forgotten days as a haven for homeless men and law enforcement.

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The Ems — 321 South Olive

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In what will surely go down as the smarmiest piece of journalism in history, the Times recounts the travails of Toy Lane, dancer at the Chinese Junk, 733 North Main. She made her way over to the Junk from her pad at The Ems to shimmy for shekels on September 25, 1946. When she gets into the nightclub dressing room to “dress” for her act (the Times’s flippant application of quotation marks, not mine) she discovers her wardrobe has been stolen: G-string No. 1 (black and orange, beaded,) $35; G-string No. 2 (silver metallic cloth,) $23; beaded shaker, $20; rhinestone brassiere $20; an anklet and armband set, $25.

Miss Lane, it was reported, was mortified—she had to dance with her clothes on!

In a final piece of facetiousness, the Times noted “the police were searching for the burglars and the large van they must have used to carry away the loot.”

The Chinese Junk Café:

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Which was up in China City, a 1935 Chinesque development that predated New Chinatown, and had been the baby of wealthy socialite and “Mother of Olvera Street” Christine Sterling. China City was mostly burned out, literally and figuratively, by the early 50s.

And of Ms. Toy’s home, the Ems?

Remember the Palace/Casa Alta post, which was long on storytelling but short on pretty pictures? I even chided you for looking at a structure that was not our hotel-in-question, by tossing über-comely Bunker Hill lass The Ems smack dab into the mix.
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I even promised I’d talk about the Ems “next week,” but by next week it was President’s Day, and somebody had to make you mindful of your nation, despite all the patriotic work you were doing watching Obama informercials.

Well, now it’s the week after next, and it’s time for the Ems, which is replete with pretty pictures but sadly short on storytelling. Here’s what we know.

Charles Clayton Emswiler came to LA in the boom eighties and went into the apartment-house building game. In August of 1905 he pulled permits to build his eponymous Mission-style Ems, designed by none other than Joesph Cather Newsom.  Emswiler died in 1922, age 69, in the apartment house at 321 that bore his name.

It contains 110 rooms, divided into twenty-six apartments according to the 1939 census, sixty-five apartments according to the 1950 Sanborn map.  Here it is before its birth, from the 1896 Sanborn map (321, bottom), and postnatal from the 1906:

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Our earliest known shot, above. Pre-1908, because the Kellogg has yet to be built to the north. Notice the three round-arch traceried windows along the street, and the turreted house to the south.

We know that it had a large ballroom, for in 1909 the papers announced that sixty couples participated in the dancing at the inaugural ball honoring President Taft.

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The Ems were apartments-of-choice for a collection of colorful characters.

1914. “Mohawk Half-Breed” Daniel T. La Rae, alias Daniel T. Ray, was an Ems resident (Emsident?) with Miss Emma Ewalt—they stayed there together, but were (!) unmarried. Daniel spent a lot of time promising to marry Miss Ewalt, even going so far as to travel to Shelby, Ohio, to visit her father. Mostly what Daniel did, though, is borrow money—he needed these sums to purchase marble on bond to build post offices and such. Of course he could be trusted; he was a Federal Officer, after all.

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He had shown Emma a badge emblazoned “U. S. Marshal,” but never paid back the money nor made good on his promise of marriage. Of course his badge was a phony as his promises. Turns out his real job was for the Southern Pacific RR, guarding Chinese as they were ferried from San Francisco across the Mexican border line. Chinese actually go home to Mexico. Little known fact.

likkerseezed1924. Emsians Jack Hart and James Whitmore were no mere bathtub gin fanciers, nor busted-at-the-speak spuds; the Feds seized Hart & Whitmore’s forty cases of champagne, seventy-five cases of Scotch, and seventy-three cases of gin, crème de menthe and grain alcohol down at their warehouse, 1840 Lebanon. The liquor was valued at $40,000. In addition to the liquor, the drys seized a large truck, three touring cars and several rifles.

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Above, the Ems in 1912 and a William Reagh image ca. 1960.  Notice the rounded tripartite fenestration, which worked so well with the rest of the façade, has been changed to a single remaining arched window, a square window, and a doorway.  This is due to owner William Fisher’s February 1927 alteration—he hires architect B. N. Rickard, of whom you have never heard, and rightfully so, since this is pretty clunky work, to convert the lobby into two bedrooms and turn the ball room into a new lobby.  (Note too that the neighboring house—built in 1887-88 by Howard W. Mills, of real estate firm Mills, Crawford, Pauly & Clapp—at 327 South Olive has been reduced to a concrete pit, demolished for a parking lot in the summer of 1948. )

jaccuse1930. An employment agency sent Emsite Erma Gogleu, 16, to 903 West Twenty-First St. to fill a position as a mother’s helper. As soon as she got the job, she was attacked by mother’s son James D. Anderson. Erma wasn’t the first to have met with the fate of an Anderson Employee—one Marguerite Cooper, 23, also testified with Erma in Municipal Court about a similar sitch, and the Judge ordered Anderson held on $10,000 bail.

vroom1934. Emsman Joe Shaw, 26, was roaring along on his motorcycle on a Friday night down at 30th and Broadway, when he fatally struck Mrs. Marianna Valenzuela, 58. Hey, I warned you that the Ems lacked gripping and protracted tales. But look at those pretty pictures.

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exquisitedeadguy1942. Every hotel has a suicide. And despite Harold’s line to his Uncle Victor—“during wartime the national suicide rate goes down”—on Bunker Hill, there’s still wartime Selbsmord (the Belmont had two in ’42). It’s easy to posit that the suicide rate is a constant, and the papers make a point of reporting ‘em during wartime to detract the populace from all those incoming body bags. If you go for that sort of mass-media-control conspiracy. That notwithstanding, nine months after we got into the war, Joseph Buotha, a 58-year-old former private investigator, ate several bottles of pills in his Ems apartment. He had just written a long telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt, and this note: “Please let me alone. Let fate take its course. Notify John G. Wenk to take care of my belongings. Please don’t hurt the dog. May God forgive you.”

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rupinoida1949. Joe Rupino, 50, was leaning over the railing on the second story balcony, shaking the dust from a rug, when the railing gave way and he fell fifteen feet to the pavement. Rupino received possible fractures of the right wrist, forearm and shoulder, and a trip to Georgia Street and a transfer to General Hospital.

There’s that railing! The railing of DEATH!

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Ok, the railing of death. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Of course we know how the story ends.  The Ems gets its demo permit pulled in July 1965.  By the summer of ’66 it’s just a pile where a truck can pull up, while erstwhile neighbor the Casa Alta is undergoing a similar fate:

After the last few posts—piles of brick, crenellated castles, Neo-Classical noodling—I am happy to say look at all that stucco (stucco that’s supposed to be there, not stucco that was thrown over shingle—although to be honest, it wasn’t thrown over adobe brick, either). The deep arcades, the rounded arches, the low-pitched red tile roofs…Mission Revival sure oozes picturesque. Were the square flat roof to call a California antecedent to mind, you might think of the 1894 Burlingame train station. flatroofThe Ems is “twin tower”, á la the Santa Barbara Mission, and of course there’s the contemporary tri-tower version a couple blocks over, the somewhat less Mission and more Moorish St. Regis.

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emsgoingThe Ems and the Palace, chunks missing from their plaster, give Bunker Hill the appearance of a city pockmarked by battle.

 

When it comes to architecture important to this part of the world, it can be argued that Spanish Colonial/Mission Revival is our own honest, expressive flowering, that’s crowd-pleasing but not childish, sometimes silly but never stupid, hard to notice sometimes and often hard to preserve.

It’s sad to lose Bunker Hill in general; we’re sorry to lose the Ems in particular.

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Early shots, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; later b/w shots, William Reagh and Arnold Hylen Collections, California History Section, California State Library; color shots, Walker Evans, “439 Architectural Views for Time-Life Project ‘Doomed Architecture'”, metmuseum.org

Carelessness, deadly and not

Location: 121 North Flower Street

On December 10, 1925, road crew worker W.A. Conway of this address demonstrated exactly how tough were the inhabitants of Bunker Hill. He began the day getting blasted in the head by a misplaced explosive charge on the Edward Lynch property on North Louise Street in Glendale, resuming work after receiving six stitches. Not long after his return, steam shovel engineer Tom Adams told powder man L.J. Starkey to set off a charge of black powder in the hole. The explosion destroyed the steam shovel, sent rocks and debris raining down, and was dropped souffles all over Glendale. Conway was unhurt by this second blast, but we hope he took the hint and found a more careful crew to work with.
 
On January 3, 1935, A.E. Kelly of this address had the dubious distinction of being the agent of death for Harold Wilburn, aged 60, who stepped in front of Kelly’s automobile at Fifth and Wall Streets.  The accident was explained as caused by the victim being "confused by traffic," but the location of the incident (the corner anchored by the notorious Hard Rock Cafe) suggests Mr. Wilburn may have been lit up like a Christmas tree before stepping out into oblivion.

Gregory Perez survives construction collapse, 1915

Location: Cinnabar Street between First and Second Streets
Date: March 19, 1915

Construction worker Gregory Perez narrowly escaped death when the dirt walls of the apartment house basement he was excavating for contractor Philip Younger collapsed on top of him. Trapped beneath tons of dirt, he was protected by a network of collapsed wooden banks which came to a point above him. His frantic colleagues were able to introduce a sharp stick through the soil, letting sufficient air in that Perez was able to offer encouraging commentary during the struggle to free him, and after four hours he emerged, grateful and uninjured, into the light of day