Through the Viewfinder: A Snapshot Photograph Looking North from the Los Angeles City Hall Tower, 21 January 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For many years, a Los Angeles city ordinance proscribed a height limit on downtown buildings to eleven stories. This was not for concerns about earthquakes, but was, rather, based on aesthetics as city leaders wanted to prevent the situation in other American metropolises in which towering skyscrapers largely blotted out the sun.

An exception to this rule, however, was with the construction of Los Angeles City Hall, completed in April 1928 largely on the site of the Temple Block developed by the half-brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple between 1857 and 1871. For the city’s towering civic quarters, the height was 27 stories and the structure remained the tallest in the municipality for years to come.

Moreover, there is an observation deck at the top of the tower, surmounted by a beacon for aircraft that was dedicated to solo trans-Atlantic aviator and hero Charles Lindbergh, though this space, affording 360-degree views of the city, is current closed because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

It was from this rarefied vantage point, the highest then available in the Angel City if one was not in an airplane or a balloon, that the view was captured in tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a snapshot taken on 21 January 1929 and looking northward towards what was long called Sonoratown, north of the Plaza, and what now is largely Chinatown; as well as the Elysian Hills (where the park of that name and today’s Dodger Stadium are situated); the industrial section south and east of the Los Angeles River; and, across that water course, Lincoln Heights and into the gap where the Arroyo Seco meets the Los Angeles River at Glassell Park and Highland Park.

Of course, a great deal has changed in the 93 years since the photo was taken, including the orientation of some of the key north-south streets readily in view, a reflection of the significant changes made by the City in the Civic Center and adjacent areas during the period, as well as the use of land in the vicinity.

At the lower right border is a clump of dark green where the Plaza is located, including what looks to be the quartet of Moreton Bay fig trees (one fell a few years ago) planted by Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, decades prior. What may be part of the roof of the Pico House hotel is at that lower edge. To the right of that, nearer the corner of the photo, are the distinctive dormer windows of the Vicente Lugo Adobe, situated on the east side of Los Angeles Street.

Above the adobe are the curving railroad tracks where Union Station was completed a decade later and outside the viewing area of the photo was the Chinatown that was razed to make way for the depot. North of the tracks are several areas with smokestacks denoting a heavy industry section including, thanks to large painted signs on a couple of the buildings, a lumber yard and the Western Machinery Company.

Returning to the Plaza, the north end of it includes the distinctive architecture of the La Plaza United Methodist Church, with the building completed just a couple of years before in 1926, and, to its right, the square Biscailuz Building, also finished in 1926 and which housed the headquarters of the United Methodist Church conference (today the Mexican consulate and the Mexican Cultural Institute occupy the structure.) To the left is Olvera Street (formerly Wine Street), which, at the time, was undergoing a makeover into a tourist attraction, while, further to the left, is the northwest corner of the Plaza, a space once owned, by a deed of 1847, by F.P.F. Temple.

Moving left to the bottom center is a portion of the Vickrey-Brunswig Building, built in the 1880s as retail and housing space, but later part of the Braun and then Brunswig drug companies. Brunswig grew to construct some annex buildings, including the one that has the sign painting on the west side of New High Street at the base of Fort Moore Hill. Today, the LA Plaza de Cultural y Artes, which has been open for just a bit beyond a decade, occupies that structure.

Because of the five-story height of the Vickrey-Brunswig Building, we cannot see the Plaza Church, which dates back to the early 1820s. Above that is where one of the major street alignments would soon take place. Running on a diagonal left of Main Street is the old San Fernando Street, which, after several blocks, including through what is now the Plaza parking lot north of the church, went past a five-story building on its east side, curves to the right.

Along that curve is the old Southern Pacific yard where the River Station was the main depot for the railroad from 1876 to 1888 and after which was still used as a freight yard. Today, this is Los Angeles State Historic Park and the street is now North Spring, with San Fernando Road not starting until just north of the confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco.

Returning to Main Street north the Plaza, the sharp southeast turn from Sunset Boulevard to Macy Street, which used to extend further west on what became Sunset, while, to the east, near those rail lines mentioned above, Macy then became Brooklyn Avenue—this now being César E. Chávez Avenue all the way to Figueroa Street.

Left of center and left of the old San Fernando Street was New High Street, which as shown with the location of the Brunswig Drug Company annex and its sign painting, ran along the base of Fort Moore Hill. Spring Street, which used to curve to the northeast to terminate at a triple intersection with Temple and Main streets at the head of the Temple Block or the north end of the City Hall property, was rerouted to include the section of New High to Macy/Sunset/Chávez.

Today, Spring is on a different route a block to the east on Chávez and takes the old San Fernando Street path, while New High still exists north of Chávez up to Alpine Street in the heart of Chinatown. The next north-south street west of New High was called Buena Vista (Good View) as it once passed through Fort Moore Hill. Prior to 1884 and going back to the pre-American era, it was Calle Eternidad, or Eternity Street, because the thoroughfare terminated at the Calvary Cemetery.

Notably, while the Catholic burying ground, established in 1844 after the original cemetery on the south side of the Plaza Church became full, was long abandoned with the current Calvary Cemetery established in East Los Angeles in 1896. But, the old cemetery’s outlines are still very much in evidence in this photo and the stands of dark green trees on the lower slope of the Elysian Hills also mark the location. Today, Cathedral High School (nickname: The Phantoms!) occupies the site.

Buena Vista Street gave way, however, to the extension of North Broadway, which had a tunnel under Fort Moore Hill and which also makes its northeastward curve at the bottom of the Elysian Hills. Almost in the exact center of the photo can easily be discerned the graceful arches of what was known as the Buena Vista Viaduct, crossing the river, and completed in 1911. When finished, the span, renamed the North Broadway Bridge, was the longest and widest concrete arch bridge in the state.

The last north-south street at the far left of the photo was Castellar Street, another long-standing name from early Los Angeles history, but, which, like Buena Vista, was commandeered when Hill Street was extended north beyond Fort Moore Hill. Hill today ends as an on-ramp for State Route 110 as it skirts the bottom of and then cuts through, with a tunnel, the Elysian Hills on its way towards Highland Park and eventually Pasadena.

Here and there in the Elysian Hills can be seen some structures as well as dense stands of trees at its eastern end, about where the 110 route is now, and this bucolic setting, which was home to close-knit Latino communities, became the highly contested and controversial setting of the “urban renewal” project involving, some three decades later, the construction of Dodger Stadium, which opened to great civic fanfare, but also the anger and sadness from those displaced, in 1962.

While lacking the clarity and finished quality of a professional photo, this snapshot is still a great view and a “snapshot” from the late Twenties of the highly diversified areas north of the Plaza. The smoke rising from heavy industry closer to the river is accompanied by a deep, dark tint to that portion of the area. To the west, residents of a working-class community were comprised largely of Latinos and Italians before Chinatown was moved there, with the name of “China City” applied to it in the 1930s, once the construction of Union Station began. Similarly, many of the denizens of Lincoln Heights were working-class people in proximity to the railyards, industrial businesses and other sites in this section. It is always fascinating to look at photos of bygone Los Angeles and environs and compare the locations to what is there today.

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