Bob The Builder: Robert A. Rowan and Commercial Real Estate in Los Angeles in the Early 20th Century

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

He was known far and wide among the business and social elite of Los Angeles as Bob or R.A. and Robert A. Rowan (1875-1918) used both an inheritance and his own initiative to build his namesake company, R.A. Rowan and Company, into one of the preeminent commercial real estate firms in a booming Angel City during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century.

The Homestead’s artifact collection includes about fifteen objects connected to Rowan and his business, including a set of specifications for the Bilicke-Rowan Building, which became the well-known Alexandria Hotel, that was the subject of a previous post here. While today’s featured artifact is a rather mundane letter to Rowan from another long-time Los Angeles real estate broker, John L. Patterson, and which concerns some offers by the latter to the former on rentals for space in a structure on Grand Avenue, it is one that is representative of Rowan’s significant, if somewhat short-lived career.

Los Angeles Express, 22 June 1877.

He was born to Fannie Arnold and George D. Rowan in Chicago in late August 1875. His father, a grocer who specialized in tea and coffee and spent a year in Japan developing his tea contacts just befor his son’s birth, had tuberculosis, so the Rowans, as did so many “health seekers” in the last few decades of the 19th century, headed west to balmy Los Angeles hoping for improvement for George. He quickly opened a grocery in the Strelitz Block, located on the west side of Spring Street, between Court and First, but found he needed more space, so, in summer 1879, he relocated to the east side of Main Street and the sumptuous Baker Block, former site of pioneer merchant Abel Stearns’ El Palacio adobe house and where U.S. 101 cuts through downtown today.

George, however, sold his business a year later, with Benjamin F. Coulter, a long-time prominent merchant in Los Angeles, taking over the Baker Block space (another prominent merchant for decades, Hans Jevne, took over the Strelitz Block store room in 1882) and moved the family to San Francisco. The stay in the Bay Area, though, was brief, and the Rowans soon returned to the Angel City (though they also lived for years in Altadena and Pasadena) where George took up real estate as his profession.

Los Angeles Herald, 22 March 1887.

This was not long before the famous Boom of the Eighties burst forth and George showed his acumen for his business as he prospered greatly, acquiring some property that later became the basis for much of what Robert was able to do later, including tracts on Main Street, Spring Street, First Street, and the northwest and northeast corners of Fort Street (later renamed Broadway) at Sixth Street. In spring 1887, while the real estate market was red hot, he offered four choice downtown properties for over $350,000, a princely sum at that time, though it is not known if he had any takers.

These latter properties were in a largely residential area near Central Park (changed to Pershing Square after World War I), but they proved to be prescient purchases, as the business district was heading that way by the time George died, after several years of deteriorating health, in September 1901 at just age 58 from continuing problems with his lungs ravaged from TB. Robert, who left school while only about sixteen to work for his father and developed his own loan brokerage, as well, was, though, best known in late 19th century Los Angeles for his athletic prowess, particularly on the tennis court. He was not only a stellar player but an officer of the Southern California Tennis Association, including service as its president.

Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1896.

After his father’s death, though, Rowan, who operated an independent realty business and then was partners with William May Garland, another powerful figure in early 20th century Los Angeles, became more involved in the growing business, buttressed by what was left to the family from George’s years of success in the real estate game, and through his own considerable talents. In 1904, the Rowan family incorporated the enterprise as R.A. Rowan and Company, with the Alexandria Hotel, which became a preeminent hostelry in the city, as a crown jewel project.

The company’s office was in a structure it built at the southwest corner of Spring and Fifth streets and known as the Title Insurance and Trust Building, with the anchor tenant being the firm, formed in 1894 from a merger of two previous companies and now known as TICOR Title. The structure became known as the Rowan Building after TICOR moved to a famous Art Deco high-rise just across and north on Spring. Like so many other historic commercial buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the Rowan is now comprised of lofts.

Times, 13 March 1901.

Directly across from the Rowan is another structure built by the firm, the Citizens National Bank Building, which may be best known to some bookworms as the home of The Last Bookstore and, in the old bank quarters, the Crocker Club. Down Spring at the northeast corner of that thoroughfare and Sixth Street, the company erected the Merchants National Bank Building, which is known to silent film buffs as the location of a famous scene in Harlod Lloyd’s 1923 classic comedy, Safety Last. This structure is now known as SB Lofts and there were other commercial buildings the firm constructed.

R.A. Rowan and Company was also the developer of the 200-acre Windsor Square tract, a high-end enclave between Wilshire and Beverly boulevards on the north and south and Arden Boulevard and Wilton Place from west to east. Today, the neighborhood has about 1,100 residences and some of the well-known figures who have lived there include residential real estate developers the Janss brothers, theater impresario Oliver Morosco, actor John Barrymore, and J. Paul Getty’s son George Getty II, who lived in a home bought by his father and, after his suicide in 1973, the structure was donated to the City of Los Angeles and the Getty House is the official residence of the mayor. The Homestead collection has some tract maps for Windsor Square.

Times, 17 July 1904.

After a great deal of success over nearly fifteen years, Rowan was a multi-millionaire with a fine home just off Orange Grove Avenue (Millionaire’s Row) in Pasadena, a happy marriage to Laura Schwarz and three sons and a daughter. On 24 July 1918, he completed a day at the office, had dinner at the posh California Club, where he was a member, and headed home with a noted realtor, Robert Marsh.

He retired for the evening, but was awakened at 4 a.m. by considerable stomach pain. Without disturbing his wife, Rowan crept to a telephone to call his doctor, but his condition worsened greatly and the household was awakened, but he fell unconscious and died within a half-hour of the call. It was reported that gas pressure against his heart precipitated a stroke, which then caused his death. Rowan was a month shy of his 43rd birthday.

Times, 26 July 1918.

Joseph F. Sartori, a prominent banker, called Rowan “the highest type of business man” and “the sample of man to pattern after,” noting that the developer had “done more than his share in making Los Angeles the city that it is today.” Well-known attorney Henry W. O’Melveny said that his close friend’s “honesty and genial disposition are models for young men to follow” and that “he was one of the most widely-liked men of the great West.”

The Los Angeles Times saluted Rowan in an editorial, observing that “young as he was, he ranked as one of the city’s great builders” and added “he already has a dozen monuments to his sagacity and his helpfulness in the center of Los Angeles.” It continued that “no man will ever go to his last resting place in our community with sincerer flowers of affection laid upon his bier—for he was so radiant of good-fellowship and his nature was so sweet that he made a friend every time he made an acquaintance, and his intimates loved him as they could love few men.” For the paper, Rowan was “a typical son of the Southland” and “it will be a long day ere we shall see another Rob Rowan.”

Express, 26 July 1918.

Titling its paean “Rowan, the Builder,” the Los Angeles Express offered its editorial encomium by calling him “a man whose unfailing optimism and courage, enterprise and energy, wrought greatly for the progress of the city” and stated “few men have played as large a part in the activities of this community.” To the paper, “a list of the stately structures in the planning and building of which he bore a creative part reads like a directory of the larger buildings of the city.” After reviewing some of his best-known structures and praising him for his untiring efforts “for the upbuilding of Greater Los Angeles,” the paper lamented that “Los Angeles can ill spare the vigorous, forceful, optimistic personality that was embodied in Robert A. Rowan.”

Private services were held at Rowan’s Pasadena home and active pallbearers included Southern California Edison’s president John B. Miller, O’Melveny, and Marsh, while the list of honorary pallbearers was in the dozens. Among them were oil tycoon and real estate developer Edwin J. Marshall; former U.S. Senator and Flintridge developer Frank P. Flint; capitalist Edwin T. Earl; DR. W. Jarvis Barlow of the sanitarium which bore his name; banker Henry M. Robinson; Times publisher Harry Chandler; Garland; lawyer and banker Jackson A. Graves; Sartori; banker Marco H. Hellman; oilman S. C. Graham; develope Elden P. Bryan; and many others of prominence in the Angel City.

Times, 27 July 1918.

Rowan’s remains were cremated and interred at the family plot at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery. His widow, Laura, married Prince Domenico Napoleone Orsini, whose family included three popes, nearly three dozen cardinals and a host of powerful political and economic figures in Italy over many centuries. Daughter Lorraine had two spouses with prominent American political pedigrees, with her first being Robert H. McAdoo, son of William Gibbs McAdoo, a United States Senator, Secretary of the Treasury in the Wilson Administration and a major candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1924; and her third being John S. Cooper, a Republican Senator from Kentucky for most of three decades from the mid-1940s through early 1970s.

Despite Rowan’s early death, the company bearing his name continued on in family hands for eighty years after his death, with diversification into agriculture and viticulture, insurance, the breeding of thoroughbred horses, janitorial and emergency services, and property management, with land holdings in the San Joaquin Valley and Arizona. In the 1970s, it moved from its longtime Spring Street headquarters in the Rowan Building to Pasadena. While the firm and its various entities dissolved by the late Eighties, company papers were given to the Special Collections department of the University of Southern California Libaries.

A letter from the Homestead’s holdings from long-time real estate dealer John L. Patterson to R.A. Rowan and Company, 2 May 1913.

Meanwhile, we’ll look to share other Rowan-related objects here in future posts.

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