by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many essential elements of the transformation of greater Los Angeles during the Homestead’s interpretive time period of 1830 to 1930 none are more important than the economic environment that made the region the predominant one on the American West Coast.
The City of Angels was not necessarily predestined for that prospect given that it was a remote outpost of the “Siberia of Mexico” and remained a small town for the first twenty years or so of the American era. The region’s remarkably fertile soil and unparalleled climate, however, was predictive of much of its economic potential.
By the end of the 19th century, a direct transcontinental railroad link to the area from the east brought about the famed Boom of the 1880s, which to a significant influx of new residents to the city and county and an expansion of its business activities, centered largely on agriculture.
The biggest product of the region’s agricultural industry was the orange and the reach of this was greatly enhanced by the introduction, just after the boom faded by 1890, of the refrigerated box car. That technology, of course, was used for a wide variety of products and the massive gap between greater Los Angeles and the rest of the country was reduced by such innovations.
The 1890s also brought about the era of growing federal appropriations to improve the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington, soon to be known as the Port of Los Angeles, which was anything but a natural harbor until federal money began to flow. This started modestly in the early 1870s, but ramped up dramatically within a couple of decades and was heightened subsequently. While imports grew, too, the region’s growing exports, agricultural and industrial, exploded.
By 1915, the completion of the Panama Canal was another boost to greater Los Angeles and its mounting economic might. It is also no accident that industrial development in the area multiplied dramatically and it wasn’t long before the area became a major manufacturing center for all kinds of durable goods, including automobiles, tires, airplanes and many other items.
In addition, the discovery of major oil fields, with the earliest work taking place in the late 1860s and early 1870s and followed by the discovery of the Los Angeles oil field in the early 1890s, was a huge factor in the area’s development. From 1909, the motion picture industry became another prize product of the region’s economy.
With this backdrop, it is not surprising that the relatively small-scale and haphazard industrial center in Los Angeles, located along the Los Angeles River east of downtown was insufficient by the 1910s. Progressive-era emphases on ordered planning, building codes, the use of bonds to finance large-scale projects, and other components brought about a new innovation in industrial development.
The Union Terminal concept, led by bankers, real estate promoters and others in positions of wealth and influence, involved the redevelopment of a 32-acre tract between Central Avenue and Alameda Street and from 7th to 8th streets into a well-coordinated and meticulously planned industrial center.
The basic concept was to take the hodge-podge of wholesale produce, flower and other markets and other commercial endeavors and strip away the houses and other unrelated structures from a site that included the shops and rail yards of the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar company and build mammoth warehouses with individual units for commercial and wholesale use.
Rail lines into the industrial section of Los Angeles were to be better organized and laid out in the project area while the skyrocketing growth of motor vehicles, mainly trucks, would also be accommodated more efficiently within the tract. There was a direct tie between the harbor and the terminal, as well, so that the facilitation of exports from the city to the port was better planned and executed.
Not surprisingly, given its very visible pro-business stance, the Los Angeles Times fully embraced the idea and enthusiastically endorsed it in its pages during the early years of the project’s development. In early 1916, as plans were announced, lengthy articles with renderings of the proposed warehouses and images of the site were published.
In its 5 February edition, the Times extensively explained the $10 million project stating that “no project of equal size or of more importance to the city and surrounding country has been broached here.” As noted above, the various public markets were to be gathered there.
Benjamin Johnson, who headed the Los Angeles Public Markets consortium, was credited with the concept “as a means of eliminating the costly haul between railroad and steamship terminals, and warehouse and markets.” He secured the obvious interest of Paul Shoup, the president of the Pacific Electric Railway, which “recently contracted to serve all municipal tracks at the harbor.”
The Times gave special credit to Shoup, who “gave both time and energy in heroic measure,” which then allowed for “the active support and financial aid of the prominent capitalists of Los Angeles and San Francisco identified with the project.
Among these, who became directors of the terminal company, were Herbert Fleishhacker, a San Francisco banker; Stoddard Jess of the First National Bank of Los Angeles; George Cochran of the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company; Isadore Dockweiler, an attorney and son of an early Los Angeles saloon owner; and other major banking and business figures.
To get the project moving on a healthy fiscal footing, $6,500,000 was to be raised through a combination of bond issues and stock sales. This would fund six massive structures, each of them 1,250 feet in length and fronting on Seventh Street. Four of them were to be six stories and the others, in which the Los Angeles Public Market would operate, were to be two levels. All were to have basements.
The four six-story buildings totaled some 4.5 million square feet and two of them were to initiated immediately in conjunction with the market structures. Reinforced concrete was the material and there was to be a significant amount of window space, as well. Each building was to have an 80-foot wide private road on one side and railroad tracks on the other, so that arrivals could be expedited with the latter and shipments facilitated through the former.
A property switch between the Public Markets and the PERY was effected, so that the latter would move to the former’s East Sixth Street parcel. While the streetcar company’s shops were to be relocated to the latter tract, the car storage houses were to be moved to outlying locations in the region, including Covina in the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
In a “What It Means” subsection, the paper enthused that the project meant
that the new wholesale terminal will make every city in Southern California an integral part of Los Angeles from a traffic point of view, and move the Los Angeles harbor directly, if figuratively, into the wholesale district of the city, is the report of traffic men upon what the construction will actually mean to the business men of Southern California—both wholesale and retail.
It was claimed that transportation costs would be halved by the consolidation embodied in the plan, while the seamless coordination of delivery and shipment not only reduced trucking charges but helped “in the saving of time and interest.” Retailers benefited by not having to go from place to place to pick up items but had a centralized location. Finally, it was added, “to the ultimate consumer will come the benefit of lower costs and in the case of the public market produce—fresher products.”
Of course, the big boon was to the Los Angeles Union Terminal Company and the Pacific Electric Railway, which, for the latter, it was observed that the firm needed the financial boost, given that the automobile’s growing use was cutting into its passenger business. While it was claimed that neither the PERY or the Southern Pacific Railroad, the depot of which was nearby, “has one cent invested in the terminal,” the idea was clearly financial reward for the business expected to be generated.
The following day, the paper gushed that the project demonstrated decisively that “Los Angeles is in the big city class among American municipalities” and enthused that “this stupendous enterprise simply eclipses anything of the kind ever attempted [in the city] . . . there is nothing on the Pacific Coast that even approaches it.”
It mocked those from other areas of the country who claimed the the City of Angels was a mere “tourist trap;” “an overgrown village;” and a “real estate dream” and were envious of the population drain from the midwest and east that flocked to this region. Moreover, the industrial powers of the eastern states could now see that the terminal project “is answer enough to the ill-humored criticisms of the eastern newspapers” and reflected “the tremendously important place this city has come to occupy in the world of commerce and industry.”
Not content with that lengthy editorial, the Times did it all over again on the 7th, claiming that the $10 million project guaranteed, even in early February, “that 1916 will be one of the most momentous of all the momentous years of Los Angeles’ modern growth” and that the year would retain that status even if no further development took place during the remaining ten months. It offered that perhaps only the dramatic expansion of the Pacific Electric system, under the direction of Henry E. Huntington in the previous decade, rivaled the scope and scale of the terminal plan.
A week later, on the 12th, another lengthy article discussed the plans being prepared for John Parkinson, whose long career in Los Angeles architecture was unparalleled. From the late 1890s onward, he and his firm, which included his son Donald and others, designed many prominent commercial structures in the city. A large concentration of these were on Spring Street, the financial thoroughfare of early 20th century Los Angeles.
Among the most prominent structures on which Parkinson worked, either through his firm solely or with others, were the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, City Hall, Union Station and Bullock’s Wilshire. He died in 1935 and the firm was operated by Donald Parkinson for a decade and then continued on for years afterward.
Ambitions timetables aside, there was a tremendous amount of work to do in clearing the site of the many houses, small commercial buildings, churches and other structures and then getting permits and approvals for the new buildings. It should be added that the terminal project was credited in spurring other development in that area.
In December 1916, it was reported that the first permit applied for from the terminal project constituted plans that “were the most elaborate and extensive ever delivered at the City Hall.” It was also noted that about half the space in the buildings was already leased and contracts let to the Wurster Construction Company, based in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Work then progressed, though not as quickly as conceived, and the first four of the the structures were started in May 1917 and the entire set were completed over the course of the next several years. There was, however, some political fallout. Los Angeles City Council President Martin Betkouski was accused in spring 1917 with misconduct in office because he had advance notice of the terminal project and used that special information to purchase property on the tract before its announcement and then cashed in when values leapt as the project became known.
Though Betkouski was indicted by a grand jury when a charge was brought by District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine, he managed to evade a trial and potential legal penalty by simply deciding to not seek reelection. Because “Mr. Betkouski’s term of office expired before the cases could be brought to trial,” the Times reported, Woolwine decided to file a motion with the Superior Court and the matter was dropped.
As for the terminal complex, it remains largely intact, but, a century after its conception and creation, it has evolved into ROW DTLA, a collective of office space, restaurants and shops with frequent live music performances and other activities befitting the dramatic transformation of the industrial district and downtown generally. There is still the vital and vibrant produce market operating from the district, but there is hipness to the complex that would have seemed impossible to conceive in 1917!
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is a “progress map” of the Parkinson-designed structures with an original date of 28 April and a revision of 19 September 1917. It shows elevation views of the west side of seven structures (the two-story and six story buildings with their basements and a very long two-story structure without a basement), as well as the wings of the longest of the buildings as seen from the 100′ frontages on Seventh and Eighth streets.
It is interesting to compare this drawing to the view of the tract from Google Maps, from which you can maneuver around the site down Central, Alameda, Seventh and Eighth and see what it all looks like as of March 2019.