Burn Melrose Burn

incendiaryFebruary 27, 1911. It’s 9:30am, and Melrose Hotel manager Mark C. Bentz—nephew of M. W. Connor, owner—was in the office when stifling fumes and a dense cloud of smoke began to rise from the floor. He dashed down the stairs and into the basement where, in smoke so dense he nearly suffocated, managed at great length to extinguish the conflagration. Bentz discovered newspapers wadded up between the beams, blackened and scorched.

Bentz and Connor went searching through the house, cellar to garret, for some sign of a stranger, and were about to give up when the office again filled with smoke. Again there was a dash to the basement…nothing. This time the smokey cloud was emerging from the elevator shaft. San Bernardino papers (aha!) were extracted, smoldering, from between wooden beams therein. This time Bentz and Connor summoned the authorites.

Good thing, too, for as Sgt. Hartmeyer approached the Melrose, he saw smoke billowing from the structure…two alarms were sent to the fire department, a door and several windows were broken open, and a large clothes basket, filled with paper, blazing furiously, was doused.

No-one ever found out who the immolator of South Grand was, or what it was they were after. (Whether burning the Melrose inspired Kimberly to firebomb Melrose Place at the end of Season Three is a question, alas, for Darren Star.)
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The original Melrose Hotel, 130 South Grand, was a thirty-room, five-story structure built by Marc W. Connor (on what was then called Charity Street) in the summer of 1889. Its architect was Joseph Cather Newsom.  It was a center of fashionable goings-on, and society spectacle, and place of repose for honorable peoples.

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(The house in the foreground, 142 S. Grand, is the Robert Larkins residence, which became the Richelieu Hotel ca.1890.)

In early 1902 Connor erected the far more box-like Melrose Hotel, its architect Thomas J. McCarthy, at 120 just to the west of his cupola’d wonder, which became its annex, connected to the hotel proper by an arcade.
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The dual Melroses persevered, all ornate of railing and careful of mitering, through the decline of, well, just about everything. By 1957, time had run out for the Melrose (one could say that Melrose place had been, if you will, canceled).

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There wasn’t anything left now but for little old ladies to amble by and mutter “oh, dear” and reminisce “I remember as if it were yesterday—the time President McKinley came to Los Angeles. We all came down and crowded around on the sidewalk—right here, right on this very spot—and listened while he made a speech from the front porch…”

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Here, Mrs. Mary Connor Rasche, whose father Marc W. built the Melrose, poses before her father’s legacy some weeks before its demolition. (What’s that lurking in the background? With those clean modern lines, nary a gable or dormer to be seen? Why, it’s Paul Williams‘ LA County Municipal Court; here‘s an image from the great you-are-here website.)

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And so, it being 1957, the Melrose had to go.

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“One of the wrecking crew workmen observed that it took more than a
year to build but only eight hours of giant claw and four-ton sphere
hammering to lay the once proud building to the ground.”

Ah, the March of Progress. One can hear it goosestepping along, even now.

In any event, should you wish to visit the site of the former Melrose, please patronize this parking structure.

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Melrose ca. 1895 courtesy California Historical Society, University of Southern California Doheny Memorial Library

Melrose 1957 courtesy Los Angeles Examiner Negatives Collection, University of Southern California Doheny Memorial Library

Other images Los Angeles Times and you-are-here.com; postcard, author’s collection

Stotts Landing

AEAmong rank and file Depression-era Bunker Hill down & outers, Mr. A. E. Stotts was positive royalty among the sorry character contingent. Granted, he had the lovely Mrs. Stotts, and his apartment in the Alto Hotel at 253 South Grand, and his job over at Barraclough’s Globe Dairy Lunch, but he’s also tubercular as all get out.

Go ahead, tell him how romantic it is to be a consumptive, and he’ll tellthemissus you a different story about swollen glands and night sweats and bloody sputum. Not to mention how the wife keeps sending him out to that sanatorium way the hell and gone in Daggett, you know, for his health, which finally cost him the aforementioned job at the Dairy Lunch, and though his wife has become the breadwinner as a waitress down there at his old place of employ, she sure has been getting chummy with that oft-lunching Herman Siemers fellow.

Mr. A E. and wife had met Herman J. Siemers at the restaurant, where Herman had lunched daily, and they’d befriended him, she more than he apparently. Not that Herman’s offer to Mrs. Stotts of a moonlight horseback ride wasn’t innocent; unfortunately, it’s about the only thing in the world more romantic than consumption. This apparently riled A. E.

It’s the Friday afternoon of November 11, 1932, and Mrs. Stotts has gussied herself up in full riding gear for a gallop in Rustic Canyon—Herman Siemers was a member of the Uplifter’s Club, hoo ha! Siemers bounded up the stairs of the Stott’s Alto Hotel, with all the good health of a man not wasting away from the inside, knocked on the door, and Mrs. Stotts opened. The two were not aware of the firearm-equipped white-plague addled Mr. Stotts lurking in the dark shadows.
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Mr. A. E. lept from the depths and fired one shot into her heart. He turned on Siemers but elected not to keep to his chest shot MO: though at very close range, one bullet went through the crown of Siemers’s hat, another grazed his left temple as it tore through the hat brim, another burned a path across his right temple on taking out the hat brim’s other side. A fourth bullet struck Siemers in his right leg.

A. E., having done all he could do and with but one bullet left, dashed to the fire escape, smashed the window pane with his revolver, stepped out on the landing, placed the muzzle to his right temple and fired.

Siemers ended up in Monte Sano hospital with a broken leg, a powder burned face, and an irreparably damaged hat; Mr. and Mrs. Stotts in the grave, and the Alto with a newly vacant apartment.

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(The turreted building on the NE corner of Third and Grand was the New Grand Hotel; the entrance to the Alto is roughly where the Grand Avenue Tower Apartments’ entrance is today.)

Alto Hotel image courtesy Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library

Newspaper images from the Los Angeles Times

 

The Dome’s Jumping Palomino

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Monday, January 14, 1963

jumperlongBunker Hill’s final days, after its Official Designation as blighted slum, evokes not only decrepit dandified buildings like the Dome, but also its downtrodden denizens, shuffling along, infused with all the despair and longing and hopelessness you’d expect from folks in a blighted slum. It being Official, after all.

Victor Palomino, 29, was one such shuffler. He was another resident of the Dome, who’d actually been fine and dandy until Friday last when he was canned from his gig as a carpenter at the Civic Center project. He brooded over the wintry weekend and at mid-afternoon on a jobless Monday, thought to himself as had another of his carpenter brethren, why hast thou forsaken me? and decided to shuffle from the Dome a couple hundred feet to the northeast to the corner of First and Hope.

There stood the great steel frame of the Department of Water and Power building. Like King Kong, frustrated, recently out of a job, though trading Skyscraper Deco for Corporate Modern, Victor climbed fourteen stories of the skeleton and perched on a narrow I-beam 220 feet above the earth. Would the four children of his pregnant common-law wife Angie, 21, ever see him again? Would the seven children from his previous wife ever see him again? (Why is it residents of the Dome so like to leap?)

For three tense hours he screamed he was going to jump. Angie and his priest screamed back (presumably for him not to, not “Jump! Jump!”) but it was Milt Borik, project manager for Gust K. Newberg, who finally coaxed Victor down with the promise of his job back.

It was a ruse. After Victor came down, he didn’t go back to his home in the Dome, with is bays and spindles, its hands at two minutes to midnight, in direct aesthetic if not moral opposition to LA’s true Mulholland Fountain, no; Victor’s in Central Receiving under psych-ob, and he’ll be there for a little while.
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Domeite Brannon

Date: March 26, 1947

Having described the Dome to you in some detail, we figured it would be in the interest of OBH readers to be kept abreast of the hotel’s tenants. Enter Carl F. Brannon.

Carl called 201 South Grand home. He worked down at the Simon’s Drive-In at 3607 South Figueroa, as manager no less. A man of quality. And bravery, to take on such a dangerous job.

notthesimonsonfigDangerous? Yes! Brannon was held up by two men, robbed of $1,000, and slashed with a razor blade when he courageously resisted.

Detective Sgts. Lambert and Thedens of Univeristy Division quizzed him all about the incident, and that fishy smell, the one that didn’t emanate from Simon’s deep-fryer. Police Forensic Chemist Ray Pinker gave Brannon’s superficial wounds a look-see, and let’s face it, it’s hard to slash yourself.

Turns out Brannon had lost heavily in the Vegas gambling houses (running afoul of the El Rancho, Last Frontier, and Benji Siegel’s newly opened Flamingo, no doubt) and took the money to make good on his losses. $861 was found in a crock in Simon’s storeroom.

Brannon’ll spend a little time in stir before he slinks his sad-slashed self back to the Dome.

Simons Drive-In image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Dome Denizen Smith

July 14, 1949

Grace E. Smith made the Dome her home. From there she made the trek to work down to the Belmont Grill. It’s 1949. She’s a B-girl.

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Vice has been coming down on prosties of late and joints like the Belmont that run B-girl operations are a thorn in the side of decent society. The racket is simple: the gals chat up the fellas, and as a gal mingles with the patrons she induces them to buy more drinks. Her bourbons are colored water or ice tea; she gets a commission of those sales. And if she takes off with her new friend, we’ll call him, oh, John, the tavern owner gets a cut of her earnings. Repeat.

After a while Vice gets tired of dealing with pimp beat downs, or customers given the mick finn, so it’s time to round up the ladies. Grace E. Smith, 28, won’t get to go home to her little room at the Dome tonight, popped as she was at the Belmont for violating the municipal B-girl ordinance. Tomorrow morning she’ll be out on $100 bail.

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Grace’s boss Nathan Bass, owner of the Belmont, has been supbeanoed to testify before the county grand jury in its current vice inquiry into the Brenda Allen police pay-off probe. (Bass had been in the news last month when he, as a pal of LAPD Lieutenant Wellpott, had wiretaps of his phone calls played at the PD/Allen vice hearings.) Bass went on to testify that famously dirty Sgts. Stoker and Jackson would meet in the Belmont.

The next mention of Grace E. Smith—one wonders if it’s she and the same—is in 1953: a Lena S. Reed, 72, was to leave her $8,000 estate ($61,857 USD 2007) to her family but just before her demise opted to bequeath it to Mrs. Edna W. “Mail Fraud” Ballard (aka St. Germain, aka Joan of Arc, aka Lotus Ray King), cofounder of the I AM religious movement. A judge blocked probate when the family filed contest, accusing Mrs. Ballard of “exerting undue influence on Mrs. Reed while she was in ill health and mentally disturbed.” The same accusations were made against the secretary of the organization’s St. Germain Foundation, and executor of the will, one Grace E. Smith.

No mention as to whether this Grace E. Smith lived in the Dome.

The Rise and Fall of the Dome

The Minnewaska, aka The Dome, played host to no small quantity of characters over the course of her life. Over the course of this blog you’ll be introduced to your fair share of them. Here then is a brief introduction to this, their home.

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Our first mention of the Minnewaska comes in the form of this notice regarding building permits, January 11, 1903:
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She is completed within the year and on December 20 described in the Times thusly:

…recently completed by J M Shield on the southwest corner of Grand avenue and Second street…the location, only three blocks from Broadway and Second street, and near the highest point of Olive Heights, is one which is both desirable and commanding.
The house is a four-story combination frame and cement structure with tower.
Its foundation is a heavy brick wall imbedded in solid red gravel. Very heavy dimension timbers were used as the owner contemplated adding two or more stories to the building at some time in the future. The outer walls are covered with heavy diagonals and on this surface is placed steel lath and two coats of cement plaster. The latter is tinted a delicate cream color, which gives the building a very pleasing exterior.
The interior is arranged in flats of two and four rooms each, which are supplied with private baths, marble-topped wash stands, electric bells, steam heat, and such other modern conveniences as are usually found in the best apartment hotels.
The house contains 122 guests’ rooms and thirty-seven bathrooms, besides dining-room, kitchen, storeroom, cold-storage and furnace rooms, office and reception-room. The latter are finished in paneled oak and have decorated ceilings.
The apartments are finished in white cedar, and are so arranged that each room can be entered from a hall. The building could therefore be easily converted into a regular commercial hotel.
Its main hall is arranged as an open court, and its roof garden affords a view of the surrounding country that extends from the mountains to the sea.
The building cost about $65,000. The lot on which it stands extends westward to Bunker Hill avenue and affords space for an extension to the present building that would give it a frontage of about 400 feet on the three streets and a total of 200 guests’ rooms.

Sold in 1905, the Minnewaska remains so named in the city directories until 1907, when she becomes, simply and more descriptively, the Dome.

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And sure, you’re to read here about all manner of shady and shifty character who occupied 201 South Grand during the Dome’s heyday, but I’ll delight most in telling you of Frank Babcock, one of the Dome’s owners, the man who through the late 1950s took on the Community Redevelopment Agency in lawsuit after lawsuit pointing out, and correctly, that the CRA had no right to condemn the Hill’s habitable property and certainly not to use public money to do so (Babcock’s theory that oil bigwig/CRA chairman William T. Sesnon Jr. was after Bunker Hill for its oil reserves is a bit fanciful, but is, in fact, backed up by the area’s hydrocarbon geology—but all things in due time).

On the morning of July 25, 1964, the Dome burst into flame, and as mentioned by Richard here, there’s been some question as to just how and why the Dome, most prominent and distantly visible of the Bunker Hill structures, burned. While there had been some land purchases and building demolitions, despite the CRA’s inception in 1948, they had by 1964 accomplished very little. Was the burning of the Dome a "push" in the "right direction"? (After Mayor Yorty called for an audit of the agency’s redevelopment techniques, it was determined in 1966 that the CRA used shoddy business practices to achieve limited progress, despite simple goals that, according to a report four months in the making, myopically favored bulldozers over rehabilitation and conservation.)
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Conspiracies aside, she burns, her cremains removed and scattered to the four winds:
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“…will give way to a parking lot until the renewal project gets under way.” She’s been a parking lot since October 1964:
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The Disney Hall and Colburn School (right and bottom) are new additions; on the left is the 1989 Grand Promenade Apartments, which, judging by the reviews, certainly indicates the CRA did a great job.

Forty-four years as a parking lot but not, perhaps, forever, given this hint from the planning department regarding the tract:
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…and so on.

Photograph courtesy the Arnold Hylen Collection, California History Section, California State Library

Newspaper images and quote from the Los Angeles Times