Through the Viewfinder: Northwest Corner of Main and First, Los Angeles, 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This entry in the “Through the Viewfinder” series highlights a snapshot, taken on 15 August 1926 by Thomas Ward, of the northwest corner of Main and 1st streets in downtown Los Angeles.  While we don’t know the particular motivation for Ward’s interest in this intersection, his image came at a time when the area was undergoing a significant change.

This was because the city’s new civic center, anchored by a 28-story city hall, the only structure given a variance on an ordinance limiting buildings to 11 stories for aesthetic reasons, was about the begin construction.  Within a short time, the commercial structures shown in the image, dating to the 1870s and not long afterward, were vacated, condemned and razed.  The idea, of course, was to make way for progress, a recurring theme in the city’s history.

Portions of four two-story brick buildings, all sporting the distinctive features of Italianate architecture, including the projecting cornices with prominent brackets and pedimented windows, are the focus of Ward’s attention.  A closer look at the three structures predominantly in the view shows that each had business related to clothing in them.

At the left on 1st Street is the “Natick Tailors and Cleaners” establishment.  The corner building included, on the 1st street side, the oddly named “Chicago Misfit Clothing House,” the sign of which stated “We Buy, Sell, and Exchange,” and perhaps explains the use of “misfit” in the name.  A tailor was also located on that side of the building.  The main tenant in the structure was the corner United Cigars shop.  On the north end of the building on Main was The California Barber Shop.

A Snapshot Of North West Corner Of 1st And Main St Los Angeles 2
This snapshot from the Homestead collection, taken by Thomas Ward and dated 15 August 1926, shows commercial buildings from the last portion of the 19th century at the northwest corner of Main and 1st streets that were soon razed to make way for the new Los Angeles civic center, including city hall.

On the second floor was “U.S. Dentists” with advertisements on both sides of the building (noting that false teeth looked natural and had a patented suction to keep them firmly in place) and a marquee side at the western end along 1st.  A neon side at the corner states that there were “no pain extractions” for 50 cents and the office was open until 7 p.m.

The structure on Main toward the right also featured a men’s clothing store though the signs and awnings are hard to read, while the building only partially in view at the far right has “Army and Navy” on the portion of a sign that is in the image and this was likely a military surplus store.

There are, however, also items of note in front of the buildings and along the two streets.  A trio of cars are stopped along the streets, with a man standing outside the open passenger door at the one at the right.  Behind this is a gentleman sporting a bowler hat who appears to be seated in a wheelchair, so maybe the car was stopping to load him in.

Note that, at the corner, there is a five-fixture street light, to the right of which appears to be an early example of a traffic signal.  Next to that is an unusual sight, a tower with open sides and a cupola roof mounted on a pole so that the tower looks to be about eight or nine feet above street level.  Rungs on the pole allowed access into the tower, which appears to have been used by traffic police officers.  Obviously, this was a busy intersection as the city grappled with issues of congestion, street parking, safety for pedestrians and others, and more, the tower was perhaps an attempt to better regulate activity.

The remaking of a portion of downtown Los Angeles for a civic center was dependent on approval of two propositions by voters and was promoted through this rendering and an article in the 18 April 1926 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Another element of the congested transportation system in downtown Los Angeles was the electric streetcar.  Several sets of tracks, including one turning from Main onto 1st and others going straight on both streets are there along with an intricate web of electric wires over the street.

The Los Angeles Railway was a dominant system within city limits and was purchased in 1898 by the Southern Pacific railroad through the efforts of Henry E. Huntington, assistant to his uncle and company president Collis P. Huntington.  A takeover of the S.P. after the elder Huntington’s death forced his nephew out, but he was allowed to take the Los Angeles Railway with him when he relocated to Los Angeles.  In the decade of 1900-1910, Henry Huntington acquired other lines and then, as he retired, began the process of consolidating his holdings into the Pacific Electric Railway, which was the nation’s largest interurban system in terms of track mileage.

Yet, by the late 1920s, the streetcar, a fixture in Los Angeles for half a century starting with the Spring and Sixth Street Railway (of which F.P.F. Temple was the first treasurer), was in a period of decline.  The automobile and the freedom it represented to its owners supplanted mass transit and cemented Los Angeles’ status as a car-centric city.

As noted above, the supplanting being done soon was the destruction of these structures for the building of City Hall and the civic center, which was completed in spring 1928.  Just a short distance to the right, up Main, from these buildings, was the Temple Block, owned by Jonathan Temple from the late 1820s and then by his half-brother F.P.F. Temple from 1866 to 1876.

More on the push to approve the voter propositions for continued work on the civic center from the Times, 28 April 1926.

A companion photograph to this one shows Jonathan’s 1857 brick commercial structure and two others added by F.P.F. by 1871 and those, too, were being readied for demolition.  That photo will be featured in a future edition of the “Through the Viewfinder” series.

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