by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the 20th century dawned (in 1901, not 1900, right?), Los Angeles entered into another of the many boom periods that have marked its remarkable growth and development. The first one of significance was in the late 1860s and early 1870s and in which F.P.F. Temple and William Workman were major players. The second was the much-larger Boom of the Eighties, which largely took place during the mayoral term of Workman’s namesake nephew, William Henry, during 1887-1888.
In the early 1900s, the city’s growth also featured dramatic changes in the size, design and construction of buildings, especially in the expanding downtown district, and was characterized, as well, by transformations in general building standards and specifications and city ordinances.
So, today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are a group of eleven specification documents from one of the most important downtown structures of the era: the Hotel Alexandria. Still located at the southwest corner of Spring and Fifth streets, the building was considered the most modern and up-to-date of the time and the hostelry, which operated in its first incarnation into the Great Depression years, was generally acclaimed as the finest on the Pacific Coast.
Known during the planning stages as the Bilicke-Rowan Hotel, it was the product of Albert C. Bilicke and Robert A. Rowan, who were both well-known figures in their respective industries. Bilicke was born in 1861 in Coquille, Oregon, a town near the coast in the southwest part of that state. His parents were from Prussia and his father Carl Gustave was a carpenter, but the family moved to Idaho when Bilicke was an infant. In short order, Gustave made a handsome sum and moved the family to San Francisco.
Gustave invested much of his money in the Bank of California, which was heavily involved in stock speculation in silver mines at Virginia City, Nevada, and, when the bubble burst, largely due to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin’s hurried sale of his stock, in summer 1875, the bank failed and its president, William C. Ralston, was found dead in San Francisco Bay. Gustave’s nest egg was wiped out (the Temple and Workman bank was also a casualty–its president, F.P. F. Temple was called “the Ralston of Los Angeles”).
The Bilickes then went to Arizona, where Gustave opened a store and got into hotel management, a trade his son Albert followed at the notorious mining boomtown of Tombstone. The family then migrated to Los Angeles, where Albert and Gustave became managers of the Hollenbeck Hotel, owned by John E. Hollenbeck, a Boyle Heights capitalist whose interests were maintained, after his death in 1885, by his wife Elizabeth.
Albert Bilicke was also very involved in the real estate market in Los Angeles, an occupation practiced by his partner, Robert A. Rowan. While born in Chicago, Rowan came to Los Angeles with his family when just a year old in 1876, the year of the Temple and Workman bank failure and as the City of Angels was at the beginning of a decade-long economic malaise.
His father, George, opened a grocery store, which he sold after several years to Hans Jevne, a major figure in the retail industry in the city for decades, but George also got involved in real estate, acquiring some choice downtown properties. Robert began working with his father while still in his teens, leaving school to do so, and remained in that line until George Rowan died in 1901.
Robert, by that time, opened his own real estate business and was associated briefly with William May Garland, who became one of the city’s best-known real estate developers. R.A. Rowan and Company emerged as a key player in downtown commercial real estate and built a number of important structures in a relatively short time.
The Bilicke-Rowan project quickly garnered attention after it was announced in 1904 and the selection of John Parkinson as architect. A native of England, Parkinson was an apprentice in the construction industry while he studies engineering and drafting at night school. He worked in the Bay Area and Seattle before settling in Los Angeles in 1894 and among his early projects were the Homer Laughlin Building (1897) and the Braly Block (1902).
With the Bilicke-Rowan project, Parkinson was working in the era of the fireproof building, an obvious necessity in the development of commercial structures because of disastrous fires that not only destroyed individual structures, but often spread rapidly to ravage city blocks. As the hotel building progressed with construction, it was heavily advertised that fireproofing was a core element.
The specification documents include those developed for electrical wiring; concrete work; iron and steel construction; plastering; carpentry; stair and ornamental iron work; tile; marble; plumbing; and other elements like skylights, vents and ventilators, gutters and more. There is also a set for fireproofing various aspects such as floors, rough forms, ceiling supports, furring, and partitions.
While the contents of these documents are necessarily very technical, it is noteworthy that these kinds of specifications were relatively new and a great deal of progress had been made in recent years to the standards utilized in buildings of this type. It was only a quarter of a century or so before that Los Angeles’ tallest structure was half the height of the project, with fired bricks as the material and iron limited to building fronts or facades. Obviously, the concept of fireproofing was quite new.
The level of professionalism, the oversight of city inspectors, the presence of codes and ordinances to govern construction quality, and other components were also of recent vintage, so the Bilicke-Rowan project definitely represented the vanguard of modern commercial design and construction.
Most of the specification documents in this lot lack any dates, though one of them bears the date of 31 October 1904. A little over a month later, a “Building Notes” article in the Los Angeles Times reported that the contract for the steel framing was awarded by Parkinson to the well-known firm of Baker Iron Works for just north of $70,000. The National Fireproofing Company was hired to do the preparation for that essential element of the project at just under $84,000. The plumbing and gas fixtures were to be installed by Thomas Haverty for not far south of $30,000 and Thomas Foulkes was awarded the electrical contract for $12,500.
On the first day of 1905, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Bilicke and Rowan intended the structure to be eight stories and built for a quarter million dollars, but just announced their goal of adding four more stories, matching the Braly Block in height and bringing the projected cost to $450,000. This included a planned annex of eight stories immediately to the west.
While construction was just underway, starting about 4 October 1904, problems came along quickly with a heavy winter storm at the end of December, during which the massive basement walls for the structure gave way. Not only did building material in place collapse, but so did a water main, joining rainwater in flooding the basement area.
Still, by April, it was time to begin placing the brick work and Bilicke’s son, Albert, Jr., who launched construction the prior fall by digging the first little shovelful of earth for the basement and foundation, did the honors by setting a brick on a concrete wall and using a trowel to smooth it out. It was pointed out that the three-year old was likely to follow his father’s footsteps and be the hotel’s manager and owner someday.
There were occasional missteps and accidents along the way, as would be expected in any project of this scale and scope. For example, in mid-April 1905, an ironworker was guiding a column into place, but got caught in a loop of cable and was slammed into the girder. Despite a severe foot injury, the worker refused to leave his position and maintained hold of a guiding rope until his colleagues could move to safety.
In the summer, Bilicke was arrested along with contractor J.A. Hill for violating the city’s building ordinance by not having a sidewalk built around the construction site. Though it was reported that the two would go to trial, nothing could be found about such a proceeding, so perhaps something was settled with the city out of court.
In late December 1905, as the project neared completion, a marble worker was doing some finishing work on the exterior and lost his balance on a ladder and fell to the sidewalk. It was assumed he had died and police were called under that assumption, but the worker came to and, though severely wounded, was expected to survive.
Then, as the building was readied for opening in February 1906, a worker was installing steam pipes in the basement and fell from a ladder with part of his body making contact with hot oil used for insulating the pipes. He suffered severe burns on his face, arm and foot and was sent to the hospital for treatment. These incidents reveal just how dangerous construction work was, especially with large commercial structures.
A laudatory piece in the Times from mid-November 1905 gushed that “aristocratic elegance is conveyed in the mere name” of “Alexandria” and that Parkinson’s designs measured up to the finest hotels of any in the east. While the previously announced height of twelve stories was later reduced to ten, the final product was the original eight stories from the earliest planning.
Many details were given in the piece, including the beauty of the lobby and the nearly 5,000 square foot dining room, this latter being in the western annex. The decorative marble and stucco were also highlighted. As for fireproofing, the initial idea of having reinforced concrete walls gave way to hollow fired clay bricks, with plaster applied directly to these. The bricks, in turn, encased the steel frame.
It was added that “the most interesting feature of construction is the floors” which were “all made in great twenty-foot arches of hollow tile supported only at the ends.” The spans were placed under large loads of bricks, iron and cement. Notably, the annex was built without steel framing and relied entirely on hollow tile walls and floors. The hollow tile was made at the Corona plant of the Pacific Clay Manufacturing Company.
As noted above, advertisements promoted the fireproofing elements of the building, while also noting that the Alexandria “will offer the traveler the highest type of service—the maximum of reposeful comfort” and “elegance that is satisfying, but does not pall.” One of them called the structure “A Gem Set in Steel and Marble.”
After announcements of opening by the first of January 1906 and then a month later, there was a third delay to 12 February. Two days prior, there was a soft opening and the Herald reported that 5,000 people showed up to tour the new hotel. The building was “ablaze from top to bottom in electric lights” and the effect was such that it “made one wonder if he was not in fairyland.”
Fresco work in the large lobby, the pink lighting in the dining room, the modern features of the kitchen, and fine furnishings from the local Barker Brothers firm for guest rooms and common areas were given extensive treatment in the piece. The Times, in its coverage, reported that Bilicke and Rowan were given a testimonial dinner, while a banquet for hotel managers throughout California was also held, including representatives from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, the Van Nuys in Los Angeles, and Frank Miller, the impresario of the Glenwood Inn, later the Mission Inn, in Riverside.
Noting that the actual cost of the hotel was said to be around $2 million, a far cry from earlier estimates, the papers added that among the first guests was a large contingent of 400 Elks Club members from Utah and Montana. That group, however, proved to be very disappointed as they fled the snow and cold of their states expecting glorious sunshine, only to be doused with heavy rain on arrival to the Alexandria.
Still, the hotel proved to be immensely popular and was considered the finest of its kind in the city for over 15 years. Then came the Biltmore, the Ambassador and other larger and more luxurious hostelries of the Roaring Twenties.
Bilicke, said to be overworked and seeking peace and quiet, disregarded the advice of friends and associates and took ship to London in spring 1915. Tragically, he and his wife were on board the R.M.S. Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat during the early stages of the First World War. While Mrs. Bilicke was saved and it was first reported that Albert was, as well, it was soon learned that he died, one of nearly 1,200 killed in the sinking.
As for Rowan, he only survived his partner by a few years, though he was fourteen years younger. Rowan, who had the flu was seized by a series strokes and died at his Pasadena home in summer 1918. His namesake son later took over the business and guided it for decades.
The Hotel Alexandria, though, was sold in 1919 after the senior Rowan died to the Chicago bond house of S.W. Straus and Company. After eight years and tough competition from the Biltmore and others, the hotel was sold again, but then the owner went into bankruptcy in 1932 as the Great Depression worsened. Another owner went into receivership and portions of the hotel’s famed decor were sold to satisfy debts.
The hotel was closed for a few years during the depression years, but reopened in 1937 and went through several other owners. Despite a major renovation around 1970, the Alexandria could not sustain sufficient patronage as downtown declined. Recently, however, the building has been renovated into a combination of market rate and subsidized apartments, while the ballrooms are owned separately and used for events and filming. The Palm Court Ballroom is a city historic and cultural landmark, earning that designation in 1971.
The wing on Fifth Street to the west was closed off from the main building in the late 1930s, so that, while the first floor stores were utilized, the remaining floors were essentially unused spaces. In recent years, however, a plan has emerged to convert these 35 hotel rooms to 31 condos as part of what will be known as The Chelsea.