by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We’re three days away from the Ticket to the Twenties festival this weekend and today’s post follows on the heels of the last two concerning the development of infrastructure for a rapidly-expanding greater Los Angeles. Yesterday’s post discussed traffic planning for the region’s streets and highways and Monday’s talked about the need to bring water and hydroelectric power to the area.
Today we look at the creation of an “industrial suburb” called the Metropolitan Warehouse and Industrial District, which launched in early 1925. It is no accident that the importation (to a lot of folks in the Owens Valley, that would be theft) of water through the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the power generated from it were vital to the expansion of industry in the city and nearby areas.
In fact, an industrial period in Los Angeles developed from about 1915 and continued through the 1920s that included areas near downtown, on the east side of the Los Angeles River, in Vernon, and what became the City of Commerce among others. As noted in posts here before, the City of Industry, where the Homestead is located, was another generation or removed from these precursors and developments in Orange County, Ontario and the Inland Empire and other more remote locations represent another iteration.
The Metropolitan Warehouse and Industrial District was developed on 80 acres between First and Seventh streets on the eastern fringe of the Los Angeles River in the “Flats” of the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, founded by William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman) in the mid-1870s. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, this area was largely dominated by railroad lines, yards, stations and associated uses, including by the Union Pacific, the Los Angeles station of which was razed for the new development, and the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake lines.
As railroad development changed in the city, the Union Pacific decided it was time to subdivide the acreage for industrial uses and profit from the transition. The district was set up with the collaboration of the Austin Company of California, a branch of a Cleveland firm that had international reach in its industrial design and construction business.
The highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection in this post is a softcover scrapbook or photo album from the opening of the district in late January 1925 and shortly afterward. It consists of fourteen 8×10 inch photographs and a couple pages of news clippings about the inauguration of the project with a sample of the photos shown here.
One photo shows some of the industrial buildings in the new district, including the Pillsbury Flour Mills Company, best known to us for its Pillsbury Doughboy (technically, his name is “Poppin’ Fresh”!) character, which first appeared in television commercials in late 1965. The view shows a railroad track passing behind the structure and across an empty field in the foreground, while a few other buildings and some cars are also in view.
Other photos show dignitaries hauling an old plow through the dirt of one portion of a tract, one man giving a speech to some of the attendees, and a photo of a septet of men involved in the development of the district.
A key figure in all four of the images, and at the center of the group of seven, is Carl R. Gray, president of the Union Pacific. Gray was born in 1867 in Little Rock, Arkansas to parents well into their thirties who were natives of Maine and who were teachers. His father Oliver taught at a college and then he and Carl’s mother, Virginia, were instructors at the Arkansas Industrial Institute in Fayetteville. Gray started his career in the railroad industry with the St Louis and San Francisco, called the “Frisco Lines,” working his way up from commercial agent to senior vice-president by 1910.
In 1911, he accepted the presidency of the Great Northern Railway, founded by rail titan James J. Hill, and was the first head of the company who was not a member of the Hill clan. After nearly a decade with that major company, he became the head of the Union Pacific in 1920 and remained in that position for seventeen years until he retired. Gray died two years later in 1939.
Another railroad figure in the septet photo is Marius de Brabant, who was born in Belgium and emigrated with his father and sister to New York, where he was naturalized in the mid-1890s. Brabant got into the railroad business as an agent and later worked for the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake and the Union Pacific, rising to positions in upper management.
Brabant secretly married Mary Clark Kling, the divorced daughter of William Andrews Clark, the Montana copper king, U.S. Senator, builder of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake (the line of which was built in the first years of the 1900s just south of the Homestead and passed to the Union Pacific when it bought the Salt Lake company), and philanthropist at U.C.L.A. and elsewhere. The nuptial took place the last day of February, just two days before William Andrews Clark died at age 86. It was said Mary gave Marius a wedding gift of a half million dollars, but, within a few years the couple was living apart and he died in 1936 followed three years later by his wife.
Third from the left and next to Gray was Richard W. Pridham, who was a box and container manufacturer in Los Angeles, as well as a two-term member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Pridham was present as the president of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
At the far right is Sylvester L. Weaver, born in St. Louis in 1878 and who settled in Los Angeles in 1895. He was a dealer in paint and oils before establishing a highly successful roofing business. He was a very popular speaker and held leadership positions in several business and community organizations, including the local council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Los Angeles Municipal League and was president of the Chamber of Commerce a few years prior to Pridham. Weaver’s namesake son, known as Pat, was in radio and advertising president of NBC during the formative years of television from 1949 to 1955. Pat Weaver’s daughter is the famous actress, Sigourney Weaver.
Third from the right is Frederick R. Feitshans, who was born in 1881 in Springfield, Illinois, where his father was superintendent of schools before his untimely death due to typhoid fever, Feithshans’ mother, a teacher and principal in Illinois, took her children to California. Feitshans became the proprietor of the Los Angeles Desk Company and was also a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, the city’s planning commission, the Los Angeles Board of Trusts Commissioners and of the boards of a bank and a building and loan association.
There is a Hollywood connection with him, as well, as his namesake son married the daughter of silent film actress Ora Carew and was a long-time film editor. Frederick Feitshans III, known as Buzz, started as a film editor with ABC and then was an editor for American International Pictures for a decade. He moved into film production for over twenty years, including such well-known films as “Conan the Barbarian,” “First Blood,” “Tombstone,” “Nixon,” and “Evita.” Frederick Feitshans IV, also called Buzz, works as a cinematographer.
Finally, there are the two men on the far left, including, second from the left, John Harnish, Pacific Coast manager of the Austin Company, developer of the district, and, at the far left, the company’s owner and president, Wilbert J. Austin. The Cleveland-based firm started with Austin’s father, Samuel, a migrant from England who was headed to Chicago to help rebuild the city after the great fire of 1871. Not getting that far, however, Samuel parlayed his carpentry and joinery skills into construction by forming his own firm in 1878. After two decades, and once Wilbert completed an engineering degree at what is now Case Western Reserve University, father and son formed Samuel Austin and Son, which pioneered coupling construction and engineering services in one firm, which specialized in industrial buildings.
In the mid-1910s, Wilbert came up with a concept of standardized factory design, often compared to Henry Ford’s assembly line manufacturing concept for automobiles. Whereas Ford’s technique produced one basic type of car initially, Austin had 10 styles of industrial building design. In 1916, the firm was renamed the Austin Company.
In 1921, the company moved its west coast headquarters from San Francisco to Los Angeles as the region’s industrial expansion was in full burst, but it was also attracted by the “open shop” or lack of unions in the City of Angels. There were seventeen branch firms as the decade came to a close. By the late Twenties, Austin introduced another innovation: electric arc-welding in the first all-welded steel-frame building.
International industrial building took off for the company, as well, and, by the mid-1930s, the firm built 5,000 factories in over twenty countries, including a $60 million pact with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to build the structures for an entire industrial city at Nizhni Novgorod (renamed Gorky in 1932 and then reverted back to its historical name in 1990 as the Soviet Union was collapsing.)
Austin continued to oversee his very successful firm, which included much work with airports and aviation manufacturing plants, when he was one of eight persons killed in a plane crash in Chicago in early 1940. The firm, however, continued and remains in operation today, though it was purchased by a Japanese firm in the mid-2000s.
As for the Metropolitan Warehouse and Industrial District, it was heavily marketed and advertised and quickly brought in a number of prominent industrial customers, including Pillsbury and the famed organ manufacturer, Wurlitzer, among many others. There are many changes in industrial Los Angeles today with artists, lofts, breweries, restaurants and other new uses being introduced in recent years, especially on the west side of the river. There are art galleries and other new businesses making inroads in the Metropolitan district amid concerns of the level of gentrification in Boyle Heights, an issue that has been controversial in other areas near downtown Los Angeles.