by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was an era of exuberance and excess and the Roaring Twenties in greater Los Angeles got off to a torrid start when it came to growth and development. Another in a series of development booms dating back several decades included a torrent of speculators looking to make their fortunes in real estate development (one local who tried to do so was Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1917 to 1932, using revenues mainly derived from royalties on oil extracted from his Montebello-area property leased to Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron.)
In March 1924, a group of prominent capitalists formed the Greater Los Angeles Association (GLAA), which had an idea of creating a $50 million fund for encouraging industrial and business development in the region under the slogan of “Keep the White Spot White.” A post last year covered the establishment of the organization and highlighted the inaugural issue of its Weekly Bulletin, with a promise that a follow-up post would feature the third number of the publication and some more details about the entity. So, here we are.
The feature article in the bulletin of 5 May 1924 was by the association’s president, Harry H. Merrick. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1873, where his father Ambrose was an attorney, Merrick spent part of his youth in St. Louis before returning to the Twin Cities. He attended the University of Minnesota where, in the mid-Nineties, he graduated with a law degree and followed his father into the legal profesion.
He spent most of the first two decades of the 20th century in Chicago, where he was a credit manager for the powerful Armour meatpacking company, but also was involved in industrial development, railroad projects and other endeavors. Among his last enterprises in the Windy City was as vice-president of the Central Trust Company.
In 1922, Merrick, his wife and their son migrated to Los Angeles, where he became a real estate developer on his own, though, by fall, he had two partners, including George Sunday, who was established in this area, and former Armour executive Robert L. Ruddick. Shortly afterward, Merrick and Ruddick were associated with each other and among the products developed in these early years was the Hollywood Hills Country Club tract, which comprised land on the north slope of the Santa Monica Mountains in the San Fernando Valley that was not being used by the existing golf course.
At its upper elevation, Merrick and Ruddick were instrumental in the development of what became one of the signature thoroughfare in the city: Mullholland Highway. With a quickly developed track record of some success, Merrick became a prominent figure in Angel City real estate circles, which led to his becoming president of the GLAA.
His article began with a series of highlighted goals for “Building Greater Los Angeles,” including “underwrite the continued prosperity and future greatness of Southern California;” helping to grow industries “NOW HERE;” assisting in developing new industries for more payrolls; developing both domestic and foreign trade in the region; expanding “splendid transportation facilities” with railroads and the Port of Los Angeles; “make more homes for the hundreds of thousands over the nation who are casting longing eyes this way;” and use local capital “for building up Southern California industrially” as it was claimed that industrial securitiees would be seen by investors “as the equal of any in the matter of safety and earning power.”
Merrick asserted that the region could have an industrial element “that will equal and perhaps ultimately surpass New York and Chicago,” though he added, “perhaps it takes greater vision than the average man posesses to see so marvelous a transformation before it is accomplished.” Consequently,
it is one of the missions of the Greater Los Angeles Association to conduct so extensive a campaign of information that every man and woman in the Greater Los Angeles area may know why and how this is to become a world manufacturing district and how, with this substantial industrial foundation beneath it, a mighty community—the home of millions of prosperous, happy people who may enjoy all that is best and most pleasant in life—shall be built.
Merrick concluded by proclaiming that, with the region having “astonished the world in the past five years with its phenomenal growth in population, in homes and in its magnificent new business and public buildings,” the region “will in the next five years amaze the world with its industrial growth.” This would, he prophesied, “be the most stable and important development that Southern California has had.”
The other front-page piece “Developing Trade Markets of Southern California” which averred that the region had tremendous potential for foreign trade and this was increasingly recognized by local business figures. It stated that “our markets in the Orient, in South America and in Mexico and other countries bordering the Pacific are expanding rapidly,” while inland trade in the United States was also developing, including in the west.
This latter would provide raw materials for local manufacturers as well as demand for products coming from these businesses. An anecdote was provided whereby a Portland retailer was so impressed with women’s clothing made in Los Angeles that large orders quickly followed and the article ended with the prediction that “the aggregate of instances of this kind makes for a vast increase in our factory sales.”
The second page included a note that six hundred regional realtors attended a luncheon at the Biltmore Hotel at the end of April and heard from W.L. Brent, head of the realty board, about “the necesity for a concerted movement to finance industries in Greater Los Angeles” while reviewing the mission of the GLAA and its plans for the $50 million industrial finance corporation.
Merrick followed and “also spoke forcefully on this subject,” with several others adding remarks including major developers like Sidney H. Woodruff of Hollywoodland (the world-famous “Hollywood” sign actually had the “land” attached to it to market this high-end tract), Edwin Janss, and W.H. Daum.
It was reported that “this meeting . . . crystallized sentiment of the real estate men overwhelmingly in support of this movement” and a few days later a committee was established to push forward a drive for membership. A letter from Charles O. Middleton sending in a check for ten memberships (each was $25) and stating that when money was being sought for the industrial finance corporation, “you may count on me for the same amount pro rate of this fund” which he understood would be put towards bonds or other means “of indebtedness of new industries.”
With respect to a pronounced educational campaign underfoot, it was mention that “reaching the busines men has been accomplishd through newspaper publicity and through the various civic and commercial organizations,” with the latter reached through talks at meeting, for example.
But, a deal was struck with retailers, such as The Broadway, Bullock’s, Robinson’s and others to stock pamphlets “in every package going out of their delivery departments.” Additionally, oil companies, like Standard, Union Oil and Richfield (now ARCO) “are now distributing ‘Keep the White Spot White’ windshield stickers, so that “thousands of cars have been decorated and are helping spread the gospel of industrial expansion that is to make Greater Los Angeles’s name of world-wide significance.”
A lengthy reprint of a piece from the Los Angeles Examiner called “Southern California Needs Industries; Industries Need Southern California” noted that the GLAA’s formation was “at just the right time, psychologically, to carry out the great work that it has undertaken.” It quoted John Spoor of the Central Manufacturing District of Chicago and of the allied Los Angeles organization after he’d surveyed local conditions.
He observed that eastern companies were keeping a close eye on the situation in the Angel City as there was a “decentralization movement started by industry in the east” and which included “large companies . . . establishing branch factories on the West Coast.” The $50 million financing plan of the GLAA would be needed by industries wanting to come to the area and it was asserted the organization “will weld into one mighty and united effort the more or less disconnected work that has been done in the past by public and civic organizations and private enterprises along this line, besides furnishing a tremendous new stimulus.” It was added that
the result should be the balancing of the community’s prosperity by developing industry to its proper place in the scheme of the great world community that Southern California is destined to become.
What were needed were substantial answers to questions from maufacturers concerning transportation; raw material supplies and cost; labor quality and expense; the conditions of markets and distribution; the condition of banks; the cost and supply of utilities; levels of cooperation between business and government; and this interesting one: “has your community a future for our business home? An eminent past and a pleasing present alone will not suffice.”
Spoor noted that greater Los Angeles had all that was needed in reply to these queries, though the sole problem was not having “adequate financing of new industrial enterprises” as manufacturers had been able to obtain in the east. If a revolving fund was viable and could meet the needs of industry, “the result will inevtiable be the development of Los Angeles as the great industrial city of Western America.” The piece concluded by stating that San Fernando, Glendale, Alhambra, Whittier, Fullerton and other local cities “all have the same conditions, same problems, same solution,” so regional cooperation was crucial.
The last portion of the publication concerned the creation of local GLAA committees, which “are now busy complting their rolls of membership” as part of “this great movement for industrial expansion.” The names of chairs, secretaries and members of committees were listed in places like Anaheim, Burbank, Claremont, Hollywood, Glendale, Norwal, Redondo Beach and Watts, along with others.
A sepatate broadside including endorsements from the Los Angeles City Council and the Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County, with the former noting that “it has been apparent for a long time that the unprecedented growth and building activity of our city cannot continue indefinitely without a more substantial foundation than is at the present time existing in our city” while having more industry “is vitally necessary to the welfare and growth of this city.”
The supervisors observed that the GLAA “directed by able and influential men, will probably produce greater practical, substantial and permanent beneficial results than any organization ever established in this community” and who “are eminently qualified to finance and manage such an association so as to secure the greatest and most permanent beneficial results.
For all the aggressive marketing, grand plans and asserted confidence in what the GLAA could and would accomplish, it did not take long before the industrial finance concept floundered and the organization failed. There was a General Los Angeles Corporation established, but with only 20% of the anticipated funds, and after some regular reporting and boosting from local newspapers, especially the Los Angeles Record and the Los Angeles Times, the Association faded fairly quickly.
As for Merrick, he and Ruddick parted company in spring 1925 and Merrick and his only child, Marlowe, formed Harry H. Merrick and Company, which the Times reported would be “specializing in the development and management of high-grade subdivisions and in the wholesaling of real estate.” One man was quoted by the paper as prognosticating that “in the next year or two, when homes line up row on row in the Hollywood foothills and the San Fernando Valley, all of us will make a sweeping gesture and say, ‘there stands a vast monument to Harry Merrick.”
The best known of Merrick’s work towards the latter part of the Twenties was through his firm’s role as one of the managing sales directors for the Central Motion Picture District, Inc. and its Studio City project. He also, however, began to wield some significant political influence, but, as the decade came to an end, so did his career. In late 1929 it was revealed that Merrick was paid a commission of $35,000 by the contractors building the San Gabriel Dam in the canyon of that name above Azusa as part of a $5 million surety bond for the large-scale project.
The main problem is that any commission, written into the contact, was to go to charity because no substantial work was to come out of arranging for the surety bond. The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News exposed the affair in June 1930, noting that Merrick was able to secure an option on the land where the Big Tujunga Dam was built just prior to its acquisition by the county and that he was a “collector of campaign funds” for at least two of the five county supervisors.
Merrick, whose official business by then was as an insurance broker, conducted an interview with the paper to, naturally, deny any accusations of wrongdoing, but the Daily News made it sound as if he was a political machine boss along the lines of Kent Parrot, the “chief adviser” for Mayor George Cryer, who held that post for most of the Twenties. Merrick compounded his problems by seeking the ouster of Cryer’s successor, John C. Porter, on an accusation of the misuse of campaign funds, but then found himself investigated by the federal government for tax evasion on his 1929 income, including the $35k he pocketed in the San Gabriel Dam deal.
Though he and his treasurer, Clarence Butterfield, filed not guilty pleas, they changed their tune in May 1932 and admitted their guilt. The judge, lambasting the pair for engaging in illegalities of such “extreme gravity,” sentenced them to a year and a day in the McNeil Island federal prison in the lower Puget Sound near Tacoma, Washington, while a $1,500 fine was also levied. After eight months, Merrick was paroled, but declared bankruptcy, stating he could not afford to pay the fine.
His wife died in 1938 and Merrick spent a couple of years living in Washington, D.C., where his son worked as a civil engineer, and apparently worked as a corporation lawyer. In 1940, he decided to spend more time in Mexico and, a year later, traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From there, the trail runs cold and it may be that he died in that South American country.
As to a “vast monument” to his name that would keep him in the memories of Angelenos, that, of course, did not happen either. If anything, he might now be remembered as a black stain on the “white spot” left from the failed promises of the GLAA, even if there was a major industrial boom in the Twenties that presaged the one that emerged during and after the Second World War.