by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The extended economic boom in greater Los Angeles during the 1920s included the migration of hundreds of thousands of people to the region and one of the biggest consequences of that phenomenon was the building of houses, commercial structures, schools, roads, bridges, and other general elements of infrastructure.
For these first few decades of the 20th century, moreover, professionalization of the building trades was particularly pronounced, as urban planning, industry standards, government oversight, engineering principles and other components played parts in the process.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact is one representation of the significant growth of the area as well as in the professionalizing of construction. The 1 March 1928 issue of California Constructor, a trade journal published in Los Angeles since the early Twenties by the Southern California Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, is chock full of interesting, if sometimes very technical, articles illustrating these aspects.
The chapter had its motto emblazoned on the front cover: Skill, Integrity, Responsibility. The industry obviously wanted to demonstrate not just competence in the building trade, but also a strong sense of ethical and moral behavior, falling in line with general Progressive-era concepts prior to the 1920s.
The issue was called the “Road Show Number,” because of the five-day “Western Road and Equipment Exposition,” held in the Central Manufacturing District in Vernon, a new industrial area southeast of Los Angeles along the Los Angeles River. The show was billed as including “the largest and most complete display of road building and general construction equipment ever assembled in the United States.” Obviously, with greater Los Angeles becoming the epitome of a car-centric region, road building in particular took on greater significance, as highlighted by City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County traffic planning projects.
The exposition was anticipated to draw 16,000 visitors, some from other countries, with a “Big Top” tent to display machinery and 20 out of 35 acres devoted to the event dedicated a “demonstration field” with earth-movers and other large equipment in operation. Contractors were encouraged to bring their supervisors, foremen and operators to the event because, it was averred, “only the men actually operating or working with the equipment, know exactly what a particular piece of equipment can accomplish . . .”
Arthur S. Bent of Los Angeles, who was president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, penned an article titled “Construction of the West,” and identified a particular “Spirit of the West” in what he referred to as its “astonishing and probably unprecedented development.”
For Bent, it was the “pioneer type” who “have seized these opportunities with an enthusiasm not inspired by older and more restricted communities, men who joy in the opportunity to be part of a great creative program—Builders of the West.” It was in construction that these ideas of building community were best realized and Bent noted that in 1928, the industry was involved in projects with estimated construction costs of some $7 billion, some 30% of the country’s wealth.
The four branches of construction: buildings, public works, railroads and highways, employed just under a quarter of America’s labor force. He added that two other pillars of the nation’s economy, agriculture and automobile manufacturing, were depressed in 1927, but construction remained stable. Bent quoted from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose perceived success in promoting prosperity through business growth led to his election as president later in 1928, in saying that it was construction that “constituted a powerful factor in maintaining general business activity and prosperity.”
An editorial page reprint of an article by George Cortelyou complemented Bent’s praise of construction as a mainstay of the national economy by pointing out what the role of government should be: to stay out of business and confine itself to defense, public order, and the preservation of the liberties of the individual.
For Cortelyou, “having government invade the field of private business in competition with its own citizens” through, say, government ownership of industry “would close the door to opportunity by taking away the main incentive to human progress, reward for individual effort.”
He wrote very vaguely of “a small but vociferous minority who advocated for government ownership of industry, but did not identify who these people were or how they envisioned this happening. Nonetheless, he painted a clear binary viewpoint by declaring that “there is no middle ground. Either we must keep the government out of business entirely or be prepared to see it eventually take over all business.”
Two years later, the United States and much of the world was fast in the grip of the Great Depression and these sentiments were definitely to be seen in a different light, partially because of the gross excesses of the laissez-faire approach to government regulation of business in a Republican Party-dominated political climate during the entirety of the Twenties.
Still, despite the New Deal programs that were a mixed bag, government ownership and operation of large segments of business were not seriously contemplated by most political leaders, though the Roosevelt Administration and its supporters were painted as threats to traditional private business. Cortelyou concluded his essay by asserting:
We believe in our government. We think it is the best in the world. We want it to remain so. The path of safety lies in keeping it out of activities that are alien to its fundamental purpose, who ultimate fruits are either anarchy or despotism.
The magazine had detailed articles about several notable large-scale building projects in the region. For example, the Pacoima Dam, in the San Gabriel Mountains near San Fernando, was approaching completion as one of many flood-control and water-storage projects that reflected a tremendous transformation in these areas in recent years.
The Los Angeles County Sanitation District, another recent creation, was embarking on a major outfall sewage project in the South Bay region near the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington, and this was another indication of great advances in sewage control in a very rapidly growing region.
Road building and related works with bridges and viaducts were also highlighted, with the former including discussion of major improvements to a 3.57 mile segment in Lynwood (with another section nearly four miles long further south to start soon) of Long Beach Boulevard, a main north-south arterial roadway connecting Los Angeles to the quickly growing city to the south and the latter including the Glendale-Hyperion Viaduct, part of four separate projects in the area linking Los Angeles to another fast rising city in Glendale in crossing the Los Angeles River.
As with any magazine, paid advertisements defrayed the costs of publishing and printing and it is always interesting to see these. Being very industry-specific, California Constructor includes a wealth of ads from firms linked directly to building.
So, California Materials Company, with a headquarters on Workman Mill Road near Whittier because of its early plant at the edge of the Puente Hills, announced its new Irwindale facility, built at a cost of over $1 million. It was noted that “the plant has been constructed on an extensive deposit of granite boulders of the San Gabriel Wash,” really the San Gabriel River, which over the millennia had enormous amounts of rock wash down to the areas below the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon. Declaring that it could operate “at full capacity for more than a half century,” CalMat promoted advancements in the science of its work to deliver “the highest quality rock products—thoroughly cleaned—carefully graded.”
There were two smaller advertisements from Gladding, McBean and Company, a major firm for many years in the region and Pacific Coast, which touted its work in a “north outfall sewer from the City of Los Angeles” involving a huge amount of “Vitrified Lining Blocks” to carry sewage through the system and for its general offering of clay building materials, including tile, brick and terracotta of many types.
Several ads were placed by cement companies, with the most dramatic being a full-page one from the Riverside Portland Cement Company, showing “The Sower,” a gargantuan and heavily muscled shirtless figure striding a city and sowing cement products for its buildings, streets and other infrastructure. The company, averring “no little pride” in its work, proclaimed that “Portland cement is the seed from which great cities rise” through “variety and beauty expressed in permanent forms.” Of course, “permanent” is an arguable term at best!
Finally, one other advertisement, among the many included beyond those cited above, is on the inside back cover. Simons Brick Company, established in Los Angeles in 1886, promoted its Sorrento roof tile by citing its use at the “Walter P. Temple Homestead, Puente, Calif.” specifically in the recently completed La Casa Nueva.
An excellent photograph, taken perhaps from the top of the nearby Water Tower and looking to the northwest, shows the distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival mansion with its original rooftop decks on the wings, surrounding Mission Walkway, and the tall palm tree replanted from its original site at San Gabriel across the mission, among other details.
In the distance is a very rural and agricultural San Gabriel Valley with the tall peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. The names of architect Roy Seldon Price, who completed the house at great cost and with many removals of earlier work and additions of his own, and the roofing contractor J.H. Bain and Son, are included.
Curiously, though, the ad was written as if the building wasn’t new at all:
The restoration of old California landmarks calls for both reverence and skill on the part of the architect and the builder. The modern touch must not compromise the beauty of the old . . . old roofs must be replaced, but they must not be modified. In modernizing the historic buildings at the Temple homestead, the builders selected Simons Sorrento Tile because it is faithful to the early designs . . .
This is one of the very few advertisements or even public mentions of La Casa Nueva so far located and it is of great interest for the remarkable photo and the fanciful description! So, too, is this issue of California Constructor an instructive document about the building industry in greater Los Angeles at the end of another major boom period.