Through the Viewfinder: Spring Street North from Fourth Street, Los Angeles, ca. 1902

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After a difficult decade of depression and drought, the first years of the 20th century brought a new economic and population boom in greater Los Angeles, following the Boom of the 1880s and the smaller growth spurt in the decade after the Civil War.

Today’s “Through the Viewfinder” highlights a snapshot photograph from the Homestead’s collection that was taken from a key area of downtown Los Angeles development in that early part of the 1900s.

Taken, probably about 1902, from Spring Street and its intersection with Fourth Street, the photo was snapped from an area that was becoming the financial center of the growing city.  It looks northward toward areas on Spring that were part of the business district of the earlier booms.

For example, the Temple Block was built with Spring on its west, Main Street on the east and Temple Street to the north, and three structures were built to that block by F.P.F. Temple between 1868 and 1871 that were complements to buildings constructed by his half-brother, Jonathan, in the late 1850s.  Jonathan, in fact, had his home and store from the late 1820s at where Spring and Main intersected at Temple—all of this was rerouted in the development of the civic center in the 1920s.  During the Boom of the Eighties, the construction of business buildings moved south along Spring along the first numbered streets, meaning First, Second and Third.

Photo Los Angeles Street 2009.86.1.1
This snapshot photograph from the Homestead collection and dating to about 1902 shows Spring Street, north of Fourth Street, in a growing commercial section of downtown Los Angeles.

After the largely moribund conditions of the 1890s, activity picked up again with development centered around where this photo was taken and examples are clearly noted at the right of the snapshot.  The unidentified photographer stood on Spring just south of the intersection with Fourth and piles of dirt, some construction materials, and a temporary power pole are at the lower right.

This marks the building of the Braly Building, a twelve-story commercial structure known now as the Continental Building and with an address of 408 S. Spring.  The edifice, built by banker and developer John H. Braly, had the distinction of being the tallest structure in Los Angeles, save one, for decades, because, shortly after its completion in 1904, after two years of work, the city enacted a height limit of eleven stories.  That sole exception, by the way, was the city hall, finished in spring 1928, and exempted by voter approval from the height limit ordinance.  Incidentally, it was long thought the ordinance was imposed because of earthquake concerns, but it was actually for aesthetic reasons as Los Angeles’ leaders were concerned that downtown would look like its darkened compatriots in the east.

Designed by prominent architect John Parkinson, whose office was up Spring Street, between Second and Third, and whose first major project after arriving in Los Angeles in 1894 was the Homer Laughlin Building, the city’s first class A steel-frame structure, a few years later, the Braly Building was in the vanguard of so-called fireproof structures and its steam heating and vacuum systems were innovations for the place and time.

Los Angeles Times, 27 August 1902.

More prominent in the view, however, is the large steel-frame structure, with some stone blocks on pillars at street level, of the Herman W. Hellman Building.  The seven-story structure, the ground floor of which had very high ceilings, was built for the prominent merchant and banker, whose brother Isaias, was a titan of banking and other industries.  The brothers were long-time directors of Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles, created in 1871 after Isaias dissolved his banking partnership with William Workman and F.P.F. Temple.  The structure’s architect, Alfred Rosenheim, one of the few Jewish practitioners in Los Angeles at the time, was well-known for his designs for the Hamburger Department Store, later May Company; Clune’s Broadway Theatre, later the Cameo; and the North Broadway bridge—all of which still stand.

The Beaux Arts Hellman building was noted for its extensive use of fine marble and a gorgeous stained glass dome using light from a central shaft.  The Homestead has a commemorative pamphlet published for the building’s completion and that will be the subject of its own future post on this blog.

Los Angeles Times, 15 November 1901.

Up Spring on the left, or west, side is the five-story structure housing the George J. Birkel Company, a major dealer in musical instruments, such as Steinway pianos, as the painted advertisement on the south side of the building indicates.  Originally located at Broadway and Fourth and then situated two blocks north of that, Birkel moved to the Spring Street location about a year before the photo was taken.

Other advertisements visible are for the Hotel Ramona, which appears to have opened during the Boom of the 1880s and took its timely name from the massive popularity of the title character from Helen Hunt Jackson’s famed novel; and for a nickel plating company at 334 S. Spring.

Incidentally, across the street at 333 S. Spring and located behind the Bradbury Building, an iconic Los Angeles historic structure on the Broadway side of the block, is Biddy Mason Memorial Park, which commemorates Bridget “Biddy” Mason, born in 1818, probably in Georgia.

Biddy Mason
A photo of Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891), from’s “7 Amazing Rags to Riches Stories” by Evan Andrews in its “History Stories” series.

Brought to greater Los Angeles by a slave owner who seemed ignorant of California’s laws against slaves, Mason was freed in 1856 by order of the local district court and settled in town.  She came to acquire property of significant value, including that parcel on the west side of Spring between Third and Fourth purchased in 1866 for $250.  She settled into a frame house at 311 S. Spring and, by the time of her death a quarter century later, she was worth an estimated $300,000.

Spring Street continued to be a major commercial corridor in the city and, in the early 1920s, Walter P. Temple, following the lead of his uncle and father, worked with a syndicate of investors to build two business buildings, the Great Republic Life and National City Bank structures, at Spring and Eighth streets.  So, there is a strong connection, spanning about a century, of Temple and Workman family involvement in Spring Street commerce.

The links in this post are to excellent web pages for the Braly and Hellman buildings by the Los Angeles Conservancy and CurbedLA and to a post on Biddy Mason on the latter site by Hadley Meares, with whom the Homestead has worked in the past.