Tearing down the Grand Central Hotel, 320 North Main St.
San Francisco, California is famous for its ornate Victorian houses, but not many people know that Los Angeles was once a very Victorian city too. To describe it generally, I would say that it was a cross between New York City and Havana. Recently I discovered these amazing slides from the Palmer Conner collection of the Huntington (CA) Library. So we’ve got fascinating lost architecture and scenery, some old cars mixed in, and Kodachrome’s vivid range of color that’s so satisfying to look at. I think I’ve struck gold in California!
Kodachrome slides are a thing, by the way. The now-extinct format provides a color richness and depth that everybody loves–and is instantly recognizable as “Kodachrome”. Curbside Classic has run many posts featuring these unique images. Enter “Kodachrome” in the SEARCH bar to see them all!
Conner photo of the northeast corner of Main and Market Streets, 202 North Main Street. Building, circa 1887, was demolished in 1958. Noted San Francisco architect A. C. Lutgens was its designer.
Same view, taken about 20 years before.
The Online Archive of California provides a rather dryly-written biography of Edmund Palmer Conner (1900-1975) who took these pictures between 1954 and 1972. Little information is given as to who Palmer Conner was as a person–why he did what he did. Why he cared so deeply. He did what none of his fellow Angelinos had neither the time nor the inclination to do–capturing urban scenes of haunting beauty; preserving for all time buildings of notable distinction that would otherwise be totally forgotten.
So here’s my pick of the collection. I have provided addresses, if known. Many photo captions are copied directly from the Huntington Library website.
Hotel Westminster, Main & 4th Streets, by Palmer Conner.
Same view today. If there’s an address, you can look it up on Google street views, if you’re so inclined. I decided to do the first one for you.
Hotel Westminster, in earlier times.
Not Vienna, but California. Hotel Westminster on left. The Phillips Block is visible in the distant right.
The Phillips Block, erected in 1887 was one of the most exuberant commercial buildings of all time. It was demolished in the mid 1920s before Conner was able to photograph it.
Here’s another shot of the neighborhood, Spring Street from 1st Street, in 1885.
Same view today, taken from Google street views. The contrast is so great it reminds me of . . .
. . . the opening and closing street scenes in the famous Warner Bros. cartoon “One Froggy Evening”. A construction worker finds a singing frog in the cornerstone of an 1892 building that was being demolished. Above: 1955. Below: same street, 2056.
Back to the Conner photos . . .
North Spring Street
Same building; another view. The Nayarit Restaurant was at 615 North Spring Street at Bellevue Avenue. Across the street was the Sentous Block.
Sentous Block in 1920 (North Main Street side)
East side of 600 block North Main Street.
617 North Main Street, view toward downtown. Sentous Block being demolished.
Scene on Bunker Hill Avenue
“The Castle”, 325 Bunker Hill Avenue, prior to being moved.
Stepping back . . .
Another house on Bunker Hill being destroyed.
Finest house on Bunker Hill, the Bradbury Mansion, demolished 1929.
Looking south at the 400 block of North Main Street. Left to right: Pico House, Merced Theater, Masonic Hall. In the distance, the gas tanks at Commercial & Vignes Streets
330 North Main Street. The 300 block (even numbers, included the famed Baker Block) of North Main Street, is now the site of the Bowron Mall and Triforium.
Baker Block in its full glory.
The 1887 Hale House at 4425 Pasadena Avenue, now Figueroa Street. This house was donated to the Cultural Heritage Foundation of Southern California in 1970 and moved to Heritage Square.
Walter S. Newhall built 21 Chester Place between St. James Park and Judge Charles Silent’s land to the east, soon to become Chester Place. This was the house that was used as the Addams Family house in the TV series in the opening credits; a third floor was added by matte painters. It was bought by the Los Angeles Unified School District and demolished for Lanterman High School.
On the north side of Sunset Boulevard between Figueroa Street and Bunker Hill Avenue. 841 Sunset Boulevard on the left and 835 Sunset Boulevard on the right.
Farther down . . .
Stimson Building, 3rd & Spring Streets.
The Lankershim Building was at the southeast corner of 3rd and Spring Streets. The Stimson Block, demolished in 1963, is seen to the left.
These were wholesale houses, 219-227 North Los Angeles Street. Currently the location of the Fletcher Bowron Square and Los Angeles Mall (1973-74 Stanton and Stockwell).
1st & Los Angeles Streets.
Butchery in progress–old building being cut down to one story at 3rd & Main.
Left to right: new Hall of Administration, new Hall of Records, old Hall of Records. Parking lot space between the two Paul Williams buildings, Courthouse and Hall of Administration, has yet to become the Esplanade Mall.
Oriental Hotel, 518 North Alameda Street, being demolished.
St. Joseph’s Church at 12th & Los Angeles Streets has vanished. (Not part of the collection)
Three of the four buildings that comprise the Rosslyn Hotels. The first Hotel Rosslyn at right, six-story former Hotel Lexington in the middle, and the 12-story New Hotel Rosslyn with roof top sign at left. The 1914 New Hotel Rosslyn is at the northwest corner of Main and 5th Streets. Businesses occupy the ground level spaces.
Close-up of the B. F. Coulter Building, 213-223 South Broadway.
Looking north on Grand Avenue toward Temple Street. Located at 237 North Grand Avenue and built in 1887.
I’m halfway through the collection, so we’ll stop here. You get the feeling that the city, the commercial interests, the federal government, and the general population decided that anything old, ornate, and Victorian had to go. The city may now be “shiny and newer”, but I think it has a lot less charm, and a lot of beauty was sacrificed to make that happen.
This is the former Los Angeles County Courthouse. It was demolished in the 1930s.
And this is the old Hall of Records, seen in a previous photograph, also gone.
This was the Post Office . . .
. . . and this was City Hall. Unbelievable!
Do you live in Los Angeles? I don’t but have been there several times and the climate can’t be beat. But you are right, they have torn down a lot of beautiful old buildings. I’m glad that Union Station and the Bradberry are still there.
Nice article and fascinating pictures! Hard to believe that was the Post Office!
There are still a few old Victorian houses, along with houses in many other architectural styles from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, south of downtown and north or northwest of the University of Southern California, known generally as the West Adams district.
The destruction of Bunker Hill was a tragedy. From my recollection, the razing of large parts of downtown had much to do with the buildings being largely constructed of unreinforced brick. The Long Beach Earthquake of 1933 was a wakeup call for SoCal. It was a sad time as the history of the city was erased and rewritten without any sense of cohesion, something from which the city still suffers.
My great-grandfather worked in LA at the time and filled the bed of his ’59 El Camino with a load of used bricks, once or twice a week, and distributed them to friends and family for patios, walkways, walls, and so forth.
That reminds me of this video about Alfred Street in Detroit once known as Millionaire’s Row.
Fascinating pics, Stephen! Thanks for digging them up.
A split screen film comparing the streets of Los Angeles n the 1940s to the same views today was released by the New Yorker a few years back. It’s kind of shocking.
Maybe I copied the wrong link.
Argh. I shoulda stood in bed. Maybe this is it.
That’s a lot of Tartarian architecture, no wonder they tore it all down.
So much “blight” that only needed a good power wash. What sticks out is the multi-story building being taken down to one level, the opposite of the densification people are fighting for now that sprawl has reached its’ practical limit in SoCal.
I’ve come across pictures occasionally of early 20th century downtown Los Angeles, but never realized the extent of that old downtown. Impressive amount of Victorian and Second Empire architecture — looking at those photos, I’d never guess that the city was Los Angeles.
Such a shame that so much has been lost and replaced with blandness. Looking at these old pictures of the new squeezing out the old reminds me of the old “Herbie The Love Bug” movie where Helen Hayes is trying to save her home, a beloved old Victorian firehouse against a ruthless developer. Spoiler alert, Herbie saves the day!
One of these buildings (captioned “farther down”) is prominently featured in the fine, fine Disney movie “Return From Witch Mountain.” My fellow GenXers might recognize it.
“Progress” has destroyed as much American history as WWII bombers did to Europe. Sadly, LA’s paved-over, hollowed-out downtown is a reflection of small and mid-sized cities across the country.
Wonderful photographs! I will copy them and send them to my cousin who is 90 years old. He will remember many of these areas. He does not use a computer. I will send the URL’s of the three videos to his daughter so that she can show him and her Mom that which they knew. Thanks.
I hate to say it, but a lot of this can be blamed on the car, as post WW2 LA (and Southern California) was essentially re-imagined as a totally car-centric megapolis. The prior version depended on dense mass transit, which was highly developed there at one point.
On another note, as much as I can appreciate the basic traditional structure of the downtown areas, I am not actually a fan of the “styling” of much of what was built in LA at that time. It’s not really attractive, to my eyes. Much of it is overdone, overbearing, and a bit depressing in its heavy-handed details. And of course it was all unreinforced masonry, just waiting for a big earthquake to create a nightmare.
That’s not to say much of what replaced was good; the planning was terrible. I hap[en to be a big fan of mid-century modern design, but the planning aspect and the relationship to people on the streets (or utter lack of them) is a key aspect.
I agree. Those old building would have killed dozens or more during an earthquake. For public safety, they needed to come down.
The car can’t take all the blame, Pacific Electric facilitated much of the sprawl out of the central downtown area itself as Henry Huntington had real estate interests scattered throughout the region and the PE lines branched to each one of them and development inevitably filled in between. The car simply untethered residents from this system, but the distances traveled were the same.
Bunker hill was much more of a victim of this than anything, the decline of the neighborhood began as far back as the 20s, and by the 50s-60s when car culture really took hold the blight wasn’t exaggerated, these were old houses converted into flophouses that weren’t well maintained and the whole area was largely poor and dangerous. It’s a shame it got razed regardless given its historical significance to the city nonetheless, but I think the greater tragedy is how much the geography was altered, it used to really be a hill! You can barely see any evidence of that now as it got graded significantly in the 60s, that element can be blamed on the car since the 101 plowed right through one of the bigger hills
Not looking for a debate, but before WW2, the PE lines connected numerous existing towns, but there was still gobs of rural and semi-rural land in between. These towns and cities were all typical pre-war, meaning dense, except for the rural areas. Folks didn’t drive everywhere. And these towns weren’t so much suburbs, in the “bedroom” sense, as they typically had their own local sources of employment, to one degree or another.
The post WW2 was very different: huge swathes of land were redeveloped into giant suburban housing tracts, and utterly dependent on cars. And these folks typically worked in the big cities, so they had to drive. And these big cities needed to accommodate this huge influx of cars, hence all the vast parking lots in downtown LA.
None of this would have happened like it did without a car-centric commuting society that came into full bloom after the war.
I agree with that, note that I said cars can’t take ALL the blame, the impact from their advent was significant but they’re not solely responsible. Los Angeles and those existing towns weren’t ever as tightly packed as New York city style tenement cities either, these cities/towns were younger and were built along right side the railroad and latest interurban transit systems that allowed homes and businesses to be more spread out than typical cities had been up to that point. Many of the new developments that filled in in between began earlier than WWII, the rise of the automobile exploded that and filled every last gap of land, but Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway most definitely set the stage for it.
Bunker Hill declined between World War I and World War II, Post war is when the city began looking into redevelopment possibilities. Now planning around the automobile was unquestionably responsible for what the area turned into, but the automobile wasn’t responsible for why the area deteriorated in the first place, the residents who had those ornate mansions built had since moved to newer fresher enclaves like Beverly Hills and Pasadena, places the PE and LARY lines served.
It’s easy to blame “progress” and the general American attitude that anything old is bad, but (giving a little bit of slack to LA) I wonder if earthquake safety concerns/regulations or even actual damage contributed to the demolition of the larger commercial masonry buildings. My town of Santa Cruz 350 miles to the north has a lot of wooden Victorian homes, two and three story, some quite palatial. Before moving here I never really noticed them, distracted by the beach or redwoods. I do remember quite a few majestic masonry buildings in our small downtown, but many were severely damaged in the 1989 quake, and replaced by less attractive modern structures. In particular, all over California older schools were torn down and rebuilt in the ‘80’s to 2000’s for earthquake safety. Many of those were 1950’s cinder block of questionable aesthetic interest, though perhaps now considered mid-century modern.
Fun pictures, especially as a Southern Californian (San Diego, but a lot of the same thing happened here.)
Kodachrome was great, saturated colors but still sharp and almost luminous. I still take a lot of film photos (and I am guessing I am not the only CC reader who does) and I miss Kodachrome a lot.
Kodachrome is also much more archival than any other color film. Other color technologies have the dyes in the film, and the light makes it so the developer can wash away the unneeded dye. Kodachrome is basically black and white film, and light makes the film attract the dyes which are in the developer. Any leftover developer makes other films fade, but makes Kodachrome get brighter.
Thanks for posting these Stephen. Kodachromes, street scenes, One Froggy Evening…what’s not to enjoy? 🙂
The “One Froggy Evening” stills are interesting. In 1955, the brand new 40 story office building gleams and looks so modern as it towers above everything else . . .
. . . but by 2056, it’s an ugly green now; a ruin–shot though by laser beam demolition guns. The skyscraper of 1955 is now dwarfed by its futuristic surroundings. All other buildings from the previous century have vanished. Will things actually look like this in 2056? Or maybe 3056?
I don’t know…maybe we’re all living in the future right now (to steal from John Prine)…it looks like Chuck Jones thought we’d have to wait until 2056 to see the Carvana vending machine.
One Froggy Evening is one of the best animated shorts of all time.
Loved the photos, but those old buildings were built over even older buildings.
Also – that architecture isn’t as beautiful as you imagine. Those Victorian pimp palaces were made possible by wealth and mass produced industrial housing materials. There was a very real and artistic reason why these were torn down. Frank Lloyd Wright took one of those Victorian eyesores in Springfield Illinois and turned it into the Dana-Thompson house – stripping it of the excesses and focusing on a simplier and more beautiful line. Those houses are novelties, but also completely ridiculous.
The 20th century designs were not mistakes. They were reactions to the Victorian and recognized the need to do better.
I would never have pegged these scenes as being from LA. As some have noted, the Victorian era was noted for excess. I don’t think I would like being surrounded by it, but some of it is really cool – sort of like seeing an occasional 59 Chevy on the street now.
The buildings that went in place of the court house and hall of records look like giant air conditioning units rather than architecture. I imagine earthquake resilience probably doomed them but does replacement always have to be so god damn boring? (Why yes I feel this way about cars too)
I will say don’t really care quite as much about the Victorian tinderboxes disappearing as I do the absolute pancaking of the land. The few remnants of bunker “hill” today are the second and third street tunnels hidden under the mostly lookalike skyscrapers, but before that there were tunnels on hill and broadway too, as well as tunnels for the various Pacific Electric right of ways. All of which existed because the area was so hilly. When I look at old images of Los Angeles I get why downtown was located where it was, the geography was stunning, seeing it through my eyes as it was by the time I saw it, after the area had long since changed decades earlier, I never could grasp why it was situated where it was compared to any other downtown in the world. It’s the second biggest city in the US but unlike New York or Chicago downtown LA is the last place you’d bother to visit there.
BTW, this topic needs a link to this thread, great late night can’t fall asleep browsing https://skyscraperpage.com/forum/showthread.php?t=170279
The shot and view of the Hall of Administration reminds me of my first view of the San Fernando Valley when I moved there in June 1966. In one word: Smog. It was several months after moving there that I learned what Santa Ana winds were. I lived at the extreme southwest corner of the Valley at the time and there was nothing past me. Thousand Oaks wasn’t there. The winds cleared the sky and I saw mountains to the north and the far east end of the Valley for the very first time.
I only lived there two years but would have to say the 60s was probably the prime time for Los Angeles for everything except the air. Many times during P.E. we were kept in the gym because the smog was too bad to be outside. Taking a deep breath was excruciating.
I understand the photographer walking around the city taking pictures because I did the same thing in San Diego and San Francisco.I did it “just because” as I knew things never stay the same here in the U.S. versus Europe where older buildings are cherished many times and repurposed rather than demolished after visiting in 1976. This Kodachrome view from the parking garage at 5th and Mission I know doesn’t look the same now 29 years later. I need to go and re-shoot.
A lot of that sort of destruction happened in Australian cities too, where earthquakes aren’t an issue. What a massive change in tastes it represents, from the height of Victoriana to the Bean-counter Bland that often replaced them, in such a short time. My father was of that generation that wanted New and was totally unable to appreciate the beauty in Old.
Also amazing to realize so many of the pictured buildings lasted such a short time. There was a lot of jerry-building here in the late 1880s-1890s, with cheap, poor quality materials; would that be an issue with the buildings in these photos?
I very much agree with what you say about say about earlier generations not appreciating the old. I will just add two things. One is that mid-20th century (and really, going back even earlier in the 20th century) sensibilities were often that new would always be “better”. This supported the urban renewal projects/thinking that my own father was very much involved with (he was an urban planner). But second – and I think that this is even more of a factor – the general population, that is, the people actually living in these cities – back in those times did not feel, and often were simply not, empowered to express an opinion on what they liked and what they didn’t like when it came to their living and built environments.
We still obviously struggle with this, but I do think that we’ve made progress since the days when developers (etc) had free rein to just tear down and rebuild. At least I hope so.
So true, Jeff. Especially in my part of Australia where white settlement only dates back to the 1830s, and old buildings aren’t that old in a global sense. Although architectural historians derided our Victorian-era buildings, they represented the early years of our history, and those built in the wake of the gold rush were things of beauty. Yes, there were unsafe vermin-ridden jerry-built slums that needed to be razed, but so often what replaced them has turned out to be merely a higher-density jerry-built slum.
Things came to a head in Melbourne, Victoria when the militant Builders’ Labourers’ Federation declared a strike and actually refused to tear down the Regent Theatre, back in the era of Vietnam War protests. That was the only way the man in the street could get the attention of those with the money. The union must’ve had quite some fighting fund to do that. And that did a lot to swing public opinion in favour of the union, which had a decidedly negative image up to that point.
That’s not to say senseless destruction hasn’t taken place since then, but at least the destructors are aware, even if only slightly, that they’re quite likely to be going against public opinion. And now if an old building is heritage-listed, their hands are tied. Usually. In the case of the 1858 Corkman’s Irish Hotel it was destroyed overnight, but the governent of the day ordered the developer to rebuild it!
I live in the LA area now and I’m often driving all over the area. I’ve been to, around and past nearly every one of these places. Yet it amazes me how boring and bland LA is overall when it comes to architecture. I’m sure the boxes and boring has something to do with being better fit to withstand earthquakes now, but it leaves me looking for the old classics like in these pictures and also where I come from.
Our head office (AiResearch) was on Sepulveda, right in front of LAX. The head office is long gone, last I checked it was either car rental buildings or parking.
Frank Lloyd Wrights buildings were poorly designed and not made to last. They are icons in architectural history although I think they are ugly and an sin to architecture. Restores have a difficult time restoring them and the restoration will not last as long as a restored Victorian.