by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead is fortunate to have in its photo collection of some 9,000 images some great aerial shots of downtown from the mid-1920s, providing a visceral visual view of the remarkable growth that took place in the city and region as the city’s population more than doubled (and census figures are usually low) from over 575,000 to well north of 1.2 million, while that of the county grew even faster, from 936,000 to just over 2.2. million.
The relentless transformation of the Angel City was in all directions, though its eastern limits were fixed not far from downtown, while those of the south, west and north, where there was so much more room to grow, had greatly expanded through aggressive annexation in recent decades. This included almost all of the massive San Fernando Valley, northeast towards Pasadena and between the Crown City and Glendale, west to the Pacific and south, including the controversial “shoestring” comprising a narrow strip to link the city to the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is the third photograph of downtown Los Angeles taken in 1924-1925 by Spence Air Photos, a pioneering firm in the business of taking aerial images, and the view from 12th Street looking north well conveys the sheer scope and scale of a downtown that, unlike many large American (and others worldwide), had the ability to spread horizontally across a large plain rather than vertically in a concentrated central core.
In fact, Los Angeles had an ordinance limiting buildings heights to eleven stories for aesthetic reasons, as the city wanted to allow for more light downtown and not have the mass of skyscrapers feel more oppressive amid the crowds and noise. Street parking, traffic control and other measures were being implemented to try to keep the city freer (though, hardly exempt) from the problems (perceived or otherwise) plaguing large metropolises elsewhere.
The image was taken from an altitude high enough that it is difficult to make out many details, though scans shown here of portions of the photo help a little, and the best way to get our bearings is through the dark asphalt-paved north-south thoroughfares that, from west to east, are Figueroa, Flower, Hope, Grand, Olive, Hill, Broadway, Main and Los Angeles. The last two, while distinctive from the rest for their decided angling to the northeast are, however, not particularly visible above roughly 7th Street, while Spring really cannot be made out at all, though its southern terminus at Main and 9th can be picked out toward the lower right.
Another area that stands out somewhat is the dark green patch almost at dead center and which is Pershing Square, long known as Sixth Street and then Central Park and which then had plenty of trees, grass, and plants, unlike the version there today. Not that they can be made out easily, but surrounding the park were some landmark structures, including, on the west, the Biltmore Hotel, then a couple of years old, and, to the north, the Temple Baptist Church and Auditorium, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic, then five years old, called home.
To the west, or left, of Pershing Square, a light colored area shows the site of what became the Los Angeles Central Public Library, which opened in 1926, though, when this photo was taken, the property was not long removed from the demolition of the state Normal School, which operated on the parcel frm the early 1880s until about a decade prior to the image’s creation. Above this, of course, is Bunker Hill, an area that would undergo a radical, and lamented for many, “urban renewal” years later.
Above and to the right are two structures that also are set apart from the surrounding landscape are the Hall of Justice, which was still under construction and would not be completed until the next year (it closed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but underwent a $235 million renovation and reopened two decades later), and the Hall of Records, completed in 1912 and which was set at an angle in front of the other building because of street realignments (it was razed in 1973.) Right behind the latter was the county courthouse, finished in 1891 and closed after the Long Beach quake of 1933, leading to its demolition three years later. Just in front of the Hall of Records is the well-known medieval looking tower of the Los Angeles Times building and to the left can be made out the two “holes” of the Hill Street tunnels.
The biggest concentration of taller height-limit structures is at the right from the center down and these are along Hill, Broadway, Spring and Main and mainly from 4th southward. Much of this area, especially along Spring, which was known as the financial district because of the preponderance of banks, brokerages and other institutions, was the prime center of commercial construction activity in the era and area.
On Broadway were a growing number of extravagant movie “palaces” with theaters showing greater size, ornamentation, and sophistication and that trend would continue through the decade with venues built further south on that thoroughfare. At the bottom toward the right corner is a large white building with thre distinct sections facing 12th Street and behind which is the famous Herald-Examiner Building, though the latter is largely hidden by the former. Just above and to the right of this, at the northeast corner of Broadway and 11th, was the Los Angeles Railway Buliding, with a Western Auto Supply sign on its roof—this is now the Hoxton Hotel.
One of the many investors in business property during that time was Walter P. Temple, who was part of syndicates that built a pair of buildings between Main and Spring and on either side of 8th, just north of where Spring ended at Main. The Central Finance Building Company built the Great Republic Life Building on the north side of 8th and in which Temple moved his headquarters for the Temple Estate Company, which managed most of his real estate holdings, the Temple Townsite Company, administrator of the newly founded Town of Temple (creaed in spring 1923), and the Walter P. Temple Oil Company, which pursued petroleum prospecting projects in several greater Los Angeles locations. The National City Holding Company, on the south side of that street, erected the National City Bank Building, and both buildings were designed by the well-known architects Walker and Eisen, who worked on several of Temple’s individual real estate projects in the first years of the Twenties.
At the lower center and left, there look to have been a good many residential structures, including a few single-family houses, but mainly apartment buildings, with a smattering of newer and taller commercial structures. Toward the upper left are dark crests of the Elysian Hills, where the park long existed and where, after enormous controversy and the displacement of Latinos, Dodger Stadium would be built almost four decades later. A dark green patch and a large stucture with a central tower was the Sisters of Charity Infirmary, the first part of which was opened in 1884 with additions made about two decades later, at Beaudry Street and Sunset Boulevard. Behind the haze at the top are portions of the Verdugo Mountains and, towering in the distance, the San Gabriel range.
At the upper right are the northeast sections of the city, where Cypress Park and Highland Park are situated, though it is challenging, even with magnification, to make out much at all. At the right edge just above center, however, are the tall dark tanks of the Los Angeles Gas Company, at what is often called the Aliso Gas Works, on the west bank of the Los Angeles River and on both sides of Aliso Street where U.S. 101 cuts through downtown today and not far from Union Station, which was still fiteen years in the future. Above that and to the left, again shrouded in haze and blurred by distance, are portions of Lincoln Heights (formerly East Los Angeles.)
Again, even with the four “blow-up” scans provided here, it is challenging to make out many details from this great aerial view, but, really, its main importance is to show, from a “bird’s eye” perspective, just how much downtown Los Angeles had grown by the mid-1920s. As the book edited by William Deverell and Tom Sitton and published two decades ago this year aptly put it, the Angel City was definitely a “metropolis in the making” and this wonderful photograph graphiically illustrates the continuing transformation just as the peak in the real estate boom had passed and half a decade before the onset of the Great Depression.