Through the Viewfinder: A Quartet of Snapshots in Downtown Los Angeles, late 1920s.

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the “Through the Viewfinder” series on this blog, the vast majority of the images featured have been professional photographs, generally panoramic scenes showing a variety of elements of the subject, usually of downtown Los Angeles. As the series progresses, it is hoped that it will serve as something of a visual encyclopedia of the growth of the city and the region from about 1870 and through the six decades culminating in 1930.

Yet, occasionally posts have highlighted snapshots, which provide other perspectives, even as some of them give us broad views that take in an array of a scene. Such images can often tend to be focused, directed toward a building, a group of people, an event or some other specific component.

Los Angeles Express, 23 March 1922.

Tonight’s post examines a quartet of 1920s photos, among a group of ten (others including a couple of shots of Aimee McPherson’s Angelus Temple), from the museum’s collection that were chosen because they seem to be related, although not identified as such, to traffic conditions in a rapidly growing Angel City. It wasn’t, of course, just that the city was burgeoning, with census data, always undercounted, showing the population skyrocketing from under 600,000 to some 1.2 million during the Roaring Twenties.

Rather, it was how Angelenos transported themselves through town that continued to shift dramatically towards the automobile and away from rapid transit, mainly from a regional streetcar system that was the world’s largest in terms of track mileage. As more people drove downtown to work and shop (much fewer certainly were living there as was the case in previous years), streets became increasingly congested.

Street parking was banned by the middle of the decade and innovations like the multi-story parking garage were being introduced to handle the sheet volume of vehicles that plied downtown’s thoroughfares. Another overriding concern was handling the policing of traffic, which is why we see both signals and uniformed officers as core mechanisms for keeping the flow of autos, trucks, streetcars and pedestrians in some form of reasonable order.

The first photo here is the only one that could not be identified as to location, though someone out there who knows downtown Los Angeles buildings can certainly send a comment if they know where that handsome Renaissance Revival commercial structure in the background was (and, perhaps, is) situated. In any case, we see a traffic officer standing in the middle of the intersection appearing to closely watch pedestrians making their way across the street.

Behind the officer a large Los Angeles Railway electric steetcar heads into the intersection and we can see its connection to the wires overhead as part of the system that still carried large numbers of riders, as we can see that this car, at least, is quite full. Just behind and near the streetcar are parts of a couple of autos making their way past a traffic sign planted in the middle of the intersection.

Los Angeles Times, 17 Ocrober 1926.

There are a few fun details to note in this image, as well. For example, check out the gent standing on the outside of the the first floor above the ground level commercial section of that building and who is grasping a rope. He might have been a window washer or someone working on repairs. Behind the streetcar is one of those elaborate street lights that we no longer see much of in our cityscape.

Finally, it is always fun to see the fashions, especially those of women, whether they are older females with dresses that are calf-length or younger ladies with theirs at knee-length or others sporting fur wraps and a variety of hats, including cloches. Men’s clothing, as always, is fairly uniform in terms of most wearing suits, though it is somewhat striking that a couple are bare-headed.

The second photo can be identified, fortunately, because of the ground-floor sign at the left side of the building, which is no longer extant, in the background for jeweler Edward E. Spier, who took over the millinery shop of his aunt, Dora Gotthelf, and occupied that location selling women’s clothes and jewelry from the late 1910s through the early 1930s. This is the northwest corner of 6th Street and Grand Avenue, a bit west of Pershing Square and southwest of the Biltmore Hotel and south of the Central Public Library, though the building is no longer with us.

The subject looks very clearly to have been the traffic officer standing on his little wooden platform in the middle of the intersection and who has arms raised and his white-gloved hands readied to provide guidance to drivers, though he also looks a bit like he’s conducting (the “music,” though, was more cacophony than harmony!)

It isn’t, however, particularly busy with no autos, trucks or streetcars (these would ply 6th Street) moving through the intersection, though a couple of cars are parked next to the structure. Moreover, there is only a handful of pedestrians, so it may be that the photo was taken in the middle of the day when activity was much lighter than the morning and evening “rush hour.” Meanwhile, there is another one of those impressive light standards, a mailbox and an adjoining box, and a barber’s pole near Spier’s establishment among the minutiae.

Express, 1 February 1926.

The third view was taken from the southeast corner of Hill and Fifth streets looking north up the former. This locale was also pegged because of a commercial sign, this being the one at the upper right for “Brooks Suits—O’Coats,” a bargain clothier advertising its $25 suits. That establishment and the United Cigar shop were situated in the Pershing Square Building, located at the northeast corner of the intersection and which was designed by the well-known architectural firm of Aleck Curlett and Claude Beelman and completed in 1924—it is now devoted to office and retail uses.

In the foreground is a streetcar conductor standing next to a compatriot largely hidden, but who looks to have a receiver at his ear and which comes from a box, the door of which is open and has “LARY” stenciled onto it. Behind this is a traffic signal, though neither the “Go” or the “Stop” sign has precedence. In the intersection it looks like there is a barrel protected by a cast-iron barrier and this, too, might have been used by a traffic officer.

There are at least two other structures that can be identified in this photo. In the distance is the Subway Terminal Building, designed by Schultze and Weaver in the Beaux Arts style with Renaissance Revival decorative elents and completed in 1926 over the subterranean train system that led out of the city to the regions to the west and to the San Fernando Valley. In 2005, the massive structure was rehabbed as loft apartments and is known as Metro 417.

At the left is part of the rooftop sign and the impressive entrance with the sculpted figures at the top of the College Theatre, opened in 1910 and designed by Silas R. Burns and Sumner P. Hunt, this latter becoming very prominent in later years. Situated at 449 South Hill, the venue got its name from its nearness to the State Normal School for teacher education that later morphed into the University of California, Los Angeles, while the site became the Central Public Library.

The theater looks to have operated until the end of the Twenties and then became a retail space and a restaurant before the structure was razed and the site became, as was so typical, a parking lot. Very recently part of the Park Fifth apartment building was built there along with the adjacent former location of the Temple/Philharmonic Auditorium. The dark structure with the awnings, of which we can see just a sliver, was the old California Club, which moved a few blocks west on Figueroa near Sixth.

Los Angeles Record, 10 June 1929.

Finally, there is the last of the quartet, taken at the same intersection of Fifth and Hill, but from the southwest corner with Pershing Square behind the photographer. We see a good part of the south elevation of the Pershing Square Building facing 5th and a small portion of the west side on Hill and more Brooks and United Cigar signage and this structure still stands.

Further east on 5th is a four-story hotel, one of the several locations of the very popular Boos Brothers Cafeteria, and the Metropolitan Building, designed by another prominent architect, John Parkinson and completed in 1913. A couple of signs painted on the west elevation of the structure include one for a wholesale jeweler, but also for the location, for about thirteen years, of the Los Angeles Public Library. As noted above, the institution moved to a new site, formerly occupied by the Normal School, at Fifth and Grand in 1926. The structure is, once again, comprised of condos and retail units on the ground floor.

The unusual A.L. Bath Building at the southeast corner with the corner dome on the roof and the minaret designs above the third story and completed in 1898 to house a hotel is long gone and a subway stop for Pershing Square is on that corner now. Behind it, on the west elevation of a building, are the words “Center of Los Angeles” and this structure, designed by Aleck Curlett and finished in 1921, was the home of the Fifth Street Department Store. It is now the SB Grand and, naturally, is comprised of lofts with ground-level retail space.

Once again, it is very likely that the subject of the image is the traffic signal, with its lights and signs, these latter again looking to be in the midst of changing from “Stop” to “Go” or vice-versa. There are definitely far more pedestrians and autos, including the two fellows in the convertible coupe, who appear to be waiting to turn right on Hill. There are a pair of different street lights, these sporting the four smaller shades “orbiting” the larger on the in the middle.

These snapshots are great little visual documents of the Angel City during another of its many spectacular periods of growth (appearing to date at least from 1926) and also a nice addition to the “Through the Viewfinder” series.

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