by Paul R. Spitzzeri
An article (click here) in today’s Los Angeles Times points out that construction in downtown Los Angeles is at its greatest pace since the 1920s. The piece notes that, in the last six years, over 40 major projects, including the adaptive reuse of existing structures, of 50,000 or more square feet have been built and nearly that many are at work now. The last major period of growth was in the 1980s, when over five dozen projects were finished. As reporter Andrew Khouri observes
To find a time of greater construction one would have to go back to the Roaring ’20s, when many of downtown’s most famous historic buildings were erected, including majestic movie palaces, the Biltmore Hotel, and City Hall. In all, 155 projects of at least 50,000 square beet were constructed from 1920 to 1929.
One of the many real estate developers active in Los Angeles during that decade was Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1917 to 1932. Using the revenue generated from oil pumped by Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron) from the Montebello area lease owned by Temple, he embarked on real estate development in 1919, starting with the purchase of property in downtown Alhambra where he and his family lived. Later, Temple was active in San Gabriel, El Monte and other areas, as well, in the San Gabriel Valley.
In downtown Los Angeles, Temple joined syndicates that built two eleven-story commercial structures, designed by the noted firm of Walker and Eisen, at 8th, Main and Spring streets, which was a booming area in the early to mid 1920s.
The first was the Great Republic Life Building, completed in 1923 on the north side of 8th between Main and Spring. The Central Finance Building Company was formed to develop the property. The president of both the building company and the namesake life insurance firm was A. Otis Birch, who grew up in Orange County and made his fortune in oil wells in Brea Canyon. Birch later owned a major furniture company in downtown Los Angeles and had many other ventures.
Another investor was Albert R. Walker, the business-minded partner with Percy Eisen, who did most of the design work, of Walker and Eisen, which also worked on many of Temple’s other real estate projects and drew plans for his home, La Casa Nueva, at the Homestead. Temple, his business manager Milton Kauffman, and his attorney George H. Woodruff were partners in the project, as was Temple’s longtime friends, Sylvester Dupuy, an Alhambra sheep rancher, whose new “Pyrenees Castle” atop a hill in that city became notorious decades later as the home where its owner, record producing legend Phil Spector killed a woman, for which crime Spector is serving time in prison.
In 1924, the second project, the National City Bank Building, was completed on the south side of 8th Street from the Great Republic Life Building. Its anchor tenant, National City Bank of Los Angeles, had Woodruff among its directors and it was likely he that recruited Temple to join the group, the National City Holding Company, building that structure.
Both properties were built with investment bonds issued by S.W. Straus and Company, a Chicago firm that had a hand in many Los Angeles projects as well as others throughout major American cities. For the Great Republic Life structure, $700,000 in investment bonds were issued and, for the National City Bank Building, $1,375,000 were issued, both at a 6 1/2% rate of return on par values of $100, $500, and $1000.
When the Great Republic Life Insurance building opened its doors in 1923, Walter Temple moved the headquarters of his Walter P. Temple Oil Company and Temple Townsite Company, which had just started developing the new Town of Temple, to the new structure, taking up quarters on the seventh floor.
Those offices remained there for four years until Temple’s last major real estate project, the four-story Edison Building, constructed by his Temple Estate Company, was finished in spring 1927 and they relocated there.
By the early 1930s, however, Temple’s financial situation was ruined due to so much expenditure of capital in projects in which bonds were taken out requiring interest payments he could no longer make. His investments in the Los Angeles commercial buildings were among those that fizzled by the time the Great Depression ensued.
He was hardly the only figure in Los Angeles and elsewhere to get in over his head during the excitement of the economic boom of 1920s America and this blog will cover more of his rise and fall in greater Los Angeles oil and real estate during that period.
As for the National City Bank and Great Republic Life buildings, they still stand and are among the many historic commercial structures in Los Angeles that have been adaptively reused as lofts and commercial properties. Click here for information on the Great Republic Lofts and here for the National City Tower Lofts projects.