Temples of Trade: Barker Brothers Building, Los Angeles, 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During the explosive growth that took place in greater Los Angeles, among the most concentrated and notable was the expansion of activity in the commercial core of downtown.  Walter P. Temple and a syndicate of investors participated in this aspect of development by erecting two height-limit (eleven stories–for aesthetic reasons, not, as often supposed, out of concerns for earthquake damage) on Spring Street, between 8th and 9th before the former intersects with Main Street.

Today’s post highlights a few photographs from the Homestead’s collection documenting the construction of another well-known commercial structure in downtown, the Barker Brothers Building, which was constructed during 1925 and opened at the beginning of the following year.

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A series of four photographs (of seven in the Homestead’s collection) showing the construction of the Barkers Brothers Building, starts with this 16 April 1925 view of early work done on the 11-story, $4,000,000 structure.

Designed by the well-known firm of Claude Beelman and Aleck Curlett, the Beaux Arts structure was the fourth location for the prominent furniture store, the roots of which go back to about 1880.  Obadiah J. Barker was born in 1856 in Indiana and his namesake father was a dry goods merchant there and in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the younger Obadiah worked as a clerk, before the family migrated to Los Angeles.

By 1881, the elder Barker set up a furniture store with a partner as Barker and Mueller and his son continued to serve as a clerk.  About 1887, as greater Los Angeles was deep in the famed Boom of the Eighties, the father retired from the business, which, after Mueller sold out, became O.T. Barker and Sons.  The younger Obadiah and his brothers, Charles and William (who attended the U.S. Naval Academy in the early 80s), kept the business name until changing it to Barker Brothers in 1898.  The firm built up a successful business furnishing the many homes that sprung up in greater Los Angeles.

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Note the signage promising the Barkers Brothers building would be opened by early 1926, and it was.  Signs on the corner indicate the contractor, architects and developer, as well.

Barker Brothers started out on North Spring Street, near the Pico House hotel and the Plaza, but soon found its location too far from the expanding downtown to the south and west and moved to the Van Nuys Building, one of the larger and more imposing structures of the 1890s and situated at Spring and 4th streets.  A third location was at Broadway and 7th before the new building went up on Seventh and Figueroa.

By 1905 or so, Obadiah J. Barker was the purchasing agent for the Pacific Purchasing Company and handled, it was stated, more furniture acquisitions than any individual in America.  William was the manager of the firm, while Charles had direct managerial responsibilities for Barker Brothers.  In 1908, the younger Obadiah died suddenly at just age 51, followed two years later by his father.  William then assumed the presidency of Barker Brothers, keeping that role until his death in 1922.  He was succeeded by Charles, who ran the business through the Twenties, including the construction of the new structure, and headed Barker Brothers until his passing in 1932.

Mention of the structure in the 8 March 1925 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

The development of the Barkers Brothers Building was handled by Sun Realty Company and the structure was initially known as the Sun Realty Building.  The $4,000,000 project was one of many designs by Curlett and Beelman, with the latter being better known as the senior partner in the firm.

Alexander “Aleck” Curlett (1881-1942) was the son and a partner of an architect, William Curlett, who practiced in Tucson, Arizona and San Francisco until his death in the mid-1910s, upon which Aleck succeeded him in completing projects, including a large estate for former San Francisco mayor and U.S. Senator James D. Phelan.  In 1919, Aleck came to Los Angeles and joined forces with Beelman, just as another major period of expansion in the city was underway.

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A rendering by architects Curlett and Beelman of the building, Times, 1 January 1925.

Claud Beelman (1884-1963) attended the architecture school at Harvard University and began his career in the East before heading back to the Midwest (he was a native of Ohio), particularly Indiana.  His migration to Los Angeles dovetailed with the formation of the partnership with Curlett and the two quickly became prominent in the commercial building field.

Through the 1920s, Curlett and Beelman were responsible for a number of structures that still stand in downtown Los Angeles, including the Roosevelt Building, the Pershing Square Building, and the Elks Temple, all completed about the same time as the Barker Brothers structure and featuring Beaux Arts or Renaissance Revival styles popular for many years.

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Substantial progress was made on the building by the time this photo was taken on 30 July 1925.

By the end of the decade, however, as tastes changed, the firm adapted, but Beelman also operated solo and his name grew in prominence.  Taking up the new styles of Art Deco and Moderne, he designed such landmarks as the Sun Realty Building (now the Los Angeles Jewelry Center), the Garfield Building, and the amazing Eastern Columbia Building—all done in the late 1920s and very early 1930s.  The latter structure, with its highly distinctive and eye-catching turquoise terra cotta cladding with a rich blue and gold terra cotta trim, is one of the most recognizable structures in downtown.

In the last phase of his remarkable career, Beelman made another striking stylistic reinvention when, after World War II, he embraced very modern and streamlined designs.  Among his better-known later period (roughly 1950 to his death in 1963) works are the Central Plaza trio of structures on Wilshire Boulevard on the Westside; the Occidental Petroleum Building for Armand Hammer, where the Hammer museum is situated; the building that once housed Getty Oil’s headquarters; and what is now the Standard Downtown Hotel, also built as an oil company’s home office.

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The nearly completed structure on 12 November 1925 about two months prior to its opening.

As for the Barker Brothers building, the Homestead has seven original photos of its construction during most of 1925 and just prior to its opening early the following year.  It was finished at a time when the commercial real estate market was starting to cool down after a red-hot first half of the decade.  Notably, Walter P. Temple bought furniture from the firm when furnishing La Casa Nueva not long after the new structure was completed (there is also a small side table in the home that was purchased in the late 1970s and is a Barker Brothers piece.)

The firm, which had a few branches, continued to operate until the early 1990s, but a period of major changes in retailing led to its sale to an equity firm, which promptly closed the stores and cleaned up on building leases that were the motivation for the acquisition.  This Los Angeles Times article from 1992 covered the closure of the last Barker Brothers store in Glendale.





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