Through the Viewfinder: Third Street West from Main, Los Angeles, 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the main purposes for the Homestead’s collection of thousands of historic photographs is to show, through the compelling visual image, the tremendous transformations that took place in greater Los Angeles through our interpretive period, specifically from about 1870, when the earliest images in the collection were taken, to 1930, which is the end of the era we cover.

What the “Through the Viewfinder” series does, generally, is to move in order decade-by decade through that sixty-year period to show how change was manifested, especially in downtown Los Angeles, the hub of the region.  Tonight’s installment is a very interesting view, from what look to be a circa 1930s copy negative of what was used for a real photo postcard two decades earlier, of Third Street west from Main Street and looking toward Bunker Hill.

The first question from this viewer is how the unidentified photographer gained the elevated position from which to snap this image.  Judging by nearby buildings, it appears that this person was about three stories up, somewhere likely between 20 and 30 feet from street level.  In any case, it provides a perspective that gives more depth and detail in the distance than would, naturally, be found if the view was taken on the street.

2511SV Looking East On Third St Los Angeles 2005.389.1.2
This ca. 1875 stereographic view by Henry T. Payne of Third Street from Bunker Hill looking east shows an entire residential area removed from the business district, then centered around the Temple Block at Spring, Main and Temple streets.  The highlighted image below was taken from Main looking back in this direction, about where the two-story building is at the upper left.

The museum’s earliest photo of this area was taken from Bunker Hill looking east about 1875 by Henry Payne and shows a wide dirt thoroughfare, with some weeds growing in portions of it, and this section of the city, somewhat remote from the business area centered around the Temple Block at Main, Spring and Temple streets, was purely residential, with the exception of the corner of Main and Third.  We’ll show that photo here, but highlight it in a future “Through the Viewfinder” entry.

Incidentally, Thomas W. Temple, the eldest child of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, had a fine home on Third just west of Main at that time (well, at least until the 1875-76 collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, where Thomas was a cashier, forced him to sell it and move back out to near his family’s homestead in the Whittier Narrows.)

A decade later came the Boom of the 1880s and a large influx of citizens and an expansion of the commercial district south and west.  So, this part of town began to change by the time the 20th century dawned and, as another boom erupted in its first years, the landscape dramatically changed.  Brick commercial structures rapidly replaced houses and residents likely moved south and west.  An 1890s shot from a little south of the vantage point as Payne’s photo shows a mixture of residences, churches and business buildings as the evolution was underway.

A photo from this series from about 1905 shows the thoroughfare looking in the same direction as tonight’s photo, but from about two blocks closer at Broadway.  The transformation of the street to a commercial one is complete, though some of the structures are two-story ones that would give way, by the time our highlighted image here was taken, to ones at least one story taller with most spanning six or seven stories.

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By about 1905, when this stereoscopic image was taken from about Broadway looking west on Third, the change to an all-commercial area was complete.

In general, the circa 1905 image is reflective of a smaller city, or at least an area of it that was awaiting further development, because tonight’s view gives the impression of a more sophisticated commercial environment.  Just about the time the earlier photo was created, the Third Street tunnel was completed through Bunker Hill reflecting the advancement of the expansion of the central city’s core outward and providing easier connections to the residential areas to the west.

Also present in both views is Angels Flight, the little funicular railway that made the steep ascent up the hill among the south side of Third to Grand Avenue and which still survives, although it was moved slightly to the south as it takes passengers up to California Plaza from Hill Street.

As for this photograph, it includes pretty much all the modes of transportation employed in the 1910s, including pedestrians on the sidewalks, a blurry bicyclist at the center of the street in the foreground, several horse-drawn conveyances (commercial and personal), several streetcars (including one on Spring crossing Third and the rest further down the latter closer to the tunnel), and a number of automobiles.

The growing use of cars meant that, at this time, there was still enough room to accommodate the various vehicles plying downtown streets, but, within about a decade or so, a critical mass was reached.  While the horse-drawn conveyances were gone, probably only a few bicyclists regardless, and streetcar patronage losing market share, the all-mighty automobile took over the streets of downtown Los Angeles.  The situation was so bad that the city had to issue ordinances concerning street parking and the new phenomena of the parking lot and parking garage were being employed.

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A trio of workers on the Third Street tunnel project–the tunnel is visible in both the circa 1905 and the 1910s photos here.

As far as what was in the buildings, it’s possible to make out some of the signage in the buildings in the foreground.  At the left, for example, was Citizens National Bank, and under the awning is a sign reading “POOL,” obviously meaning a billiard parlor.  On the right is A.B. Cohn and Brother, who were money lenders, while there is signage for jewelry, optical goods, and silverware, also part of the business.  There is also a clock outside the business that appears to read about 10:30 a.m., though we can’t know whether it was functioning.

A little further up the north side of Third is a building with a Mission Revival facade and a small neon sign on the second floor level reading “Levy’s,” while at street level is another sign reading “Levy’s Bar.”  In the tall building at the northeast corner with Spring Street, one sign reads “Lumber”.

Across Spring, on the northwest corner, is the name “Desmond” wrapped around the building, this being a department store that began life back in 1862 when Daniel Desmond opened a haberdashery (hat store) in a little place on the historic Plaza.  Several years later, he moved to new quarters in the Temple Block on the Main Street side of that central area of the growing business district.  The location shown in this photo, the Douglas Building, was its sixth, though it moved down Spring at 6th in 1915.

1219066 Negative Third St Los Angeles 2009.313.1.1
A major change in height, appearance and activity is reflected in this 1910s view of Third looking west toward Bunker Hill from Main Street.

Beyond that, it’s pretty much impossible to read any other signs, except for a large one painted on the east side of a building on the right in the distance, at the northeast corner of Hill and Third, and which reads “Exchange Building.”  Again, the Angels Flight funicular is also visible, with its track climbing Bunker Hill to the left of the tunnel and its long-standing observation tower, from which many photos were taken looking back eastward, at the center.

Again, photos like these, especially when we have comparable or similar images from other eras, really help show changes that took place over time, and Third Street’s “extreme makeover” from a quiet residential street in the 1870s to a bustling commercial district some forty years later is a great “illustration.”

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