by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this date last year, we highlighted an aerial photograph by Robert Earl Spence of an expansive view of downtown Los Angeles, taken on 10 February 1925 from 12th and Santee streets and looking northwest. Tonight, we look at a second Spence shot from four blocks northeast, at 8th and San Julian, and looking more to the west.
The view is also from a significantly lower altitude, so the area encompassed is, of course, smaller, though we are able to get a better sense of detail. A third view, even closer to the city scape, and taken over 7th Street and Broadway, will have to wait until next year and it is, naturally, substantially easier to make out such details as rooftop and wall signs on some of the structures.
What these trio of photos, along with other four that came with them when acquired several years ago, is provide us an excellent sense of just how much downtown Los Angeles grew, particularly vertically, during the boom that burst forth in the city and region, especially during the first half of the Roaring Twenties. We can also get, albeit from a distance, a sense of the sprawling metropolis to the west with last year’s featured shot as well as tonight’s.
Moreover, with the museum’s collection including images going back about 1870, though aerials like this were fairly new when this image was taken, we can also get a decent documentation of the transformation of the Angel City over roughly six decades, as it morphed from a town to a major American metropolis. The “From the Viewfinder” series on this blog is a great way to see that remarkable change.
As for this view, it was taken above what is now the Los Angeles Flower District, but a look at the photo, including a couple of the details shown in the post, indicates that much of the lower portion was still residential, with single-family houses and multi-family units, such as apartment buildings, predominating. There are, however , some taller structures that may have been for commercial uses, such as a pair at the lower center, on the southeast corner of 8th and Wall streets and which appear to still be standing.
Regarding the orientation of streets, going up from the bottom of the photo are 7th through 9th streets, going right to left. It is obviously easier to make out north-south streets going across the image because of the smaller structures, with San Julian; Wall; Maple (there is a narrow Cecilia Street between Wall and Maple, where there are tows of cars and then, to the left, a taller white walled structure); Santee, which ends abruptly just north of 8th; and Los Angeles (intersections at 8th and 9th can be made out, which the latter’s northeast corner having a 11-story height-limit building with a blurry sign at the top of its easter elevation) streets all visible.
The further west we go and, as the numbered streets tend to angle a bit southerly after crossing Main, the north-south thoroughfares are harder to discern. Where 9th crossed Main, though, at the left center there is a wider whiter structure with sets of double windows on the southwest corner and a narrower one with single sets of windows at the northeast corner. Moving toward the center, there is a similar, though distinctively different, situation in that the building on the south side of 8th but between Main and Spring (which angles in to intersect with Main before 9th), has a space between its two towers. This is the National City Bank Building, now the National City lofts.
Across 8th, on its north side, is another narrow building with three sets of windows on each floor and a bit of a color change in the terra cotta for the two upper floors, these being lighter than the rest of the structure. This the Great Republic Life Building (of course, also lofts now). Those two buildings were constructed by a syndicate including Walter P. Temple, his business manager Milton Kauffman, Temple’s lawyer George H. Woodfuff, the architects of both structures Percy Eisen and Albert H. Walker, and Orange County oilman A. Otis Birch. Both buildings were finished in 1924, not quite a year before this photo was taken.
Another structure that can be identified as its sign is readable is toward the center right and it is the Hotel Cecil, on the east side of Main, north of 7th. The building was quite new, having opened just before Christmas 1924, and the multi-million dollar establishment boasted fine architectural and decorative details. In subsequent decades, as the area became known as Skid Row, the Cecil slid into a long, slow decline. It has been refurbished and is now known as the “Stay on Main,” though it also is the subject of a new Netflix four-part crime series called Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.
Above the Hotel Cecil is a dark green patch that is Pershing Square and just above that the distinctive three towers of the Biltmore Hotel, opened a couple of years prior but which, unlike the Cecil, has retained its glamor and prestige. Just to the right is the Philharmonic Auditorium, the long-time home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, launched by its wealthy patron William Andrews Clark, Jr., in 1919. A block the south is Seventh Street, which was the central corridor of the downtown shopping district, including Bullock’s, the Ville de Paris and other stores along with landmark structures and institutions like the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
Just behind, or to the west, of the Biltmore was the site that, for several decades was the Los Angeles Normal School for teacher education, a graduate of which was Mary Julia Workman, daughter of mayor (1887-1888) and city treasurer (1901-1907) William Henry Workman, and who taught kindergarten and later became well known for her work with settlement houses, Catholic charities and other causes. The year after this photo was taken, the Los Angeles Central Public Library was completed and will, in a few years, be celebrating its centennial.
The commercial core of the city did not extend much further west and the outlying areas include, towards the upper left, Westlake (now MacArthur) Park and its adjacent Westlake South neighborhood. To the upper center are the communities of Westlake North, East Hollywood and South neighborhoods as, at the top right, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and then Griffith Park where the dark folds of the Hollywood Hills portion of the Santa Monica Mountains terminates. At the top left corner and below that is Hollywood with Cahuenga Pass leading into the San Fernando Valley just to the right (east).
It appears that at the very top of the photo, a bit left, or west, of the center, atop Mount Lee, is what we know as the famous Hollywood sign, though, when the image was taken, it had four extra letter because of its use as a promotional tool for Tract 6450, otherwise known as “Hollywoodland.” Once the project, which was established in 1923, was built out, those last letters were removed and many people assume the sign was always about promoting the film industry instead of a housing development.
On the reverse is a stamp from “Spence Airplane Photos” and providing the negative number of “F-307,” the date, and the address of 725 Marsh-Strong Building. This is broader white building pointed out above on the southwest corner of Main and 9th and which was finished in 1913. It is now known as the Apparel Mart Building. Inscribed in ink below the stamp is “8th & San Julian St., lkg. [looking] West / Hollywood Hills in distance.” The building across 9th is still standing, as well, and was completed in 1924 by William May Garland, an enormously powerful developer in downtown and the chair of the committee that planned the 1932 Olympic Games in the Angel City.
This great aerial view, along with its siblings, provides excellent documentation of the downtown business district of Los Angeles, especially areas that were experiencing, such as Spring and Main below 6th, new construction, including Walter Temple’s participation in the Great Republic Life and National City Bank structures, as well as the Garland building. We’ll share more of these remarkable Spence views in future posts, so look for those.