by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Amid the tremendous level of development that took place in greater Los Angeles during the Roaring Twenties, perhaps one of the most emblematic residential projects embodying the aspirations of luxurious apartment living was “The Town House,” a Beaux-Arts high-rise on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard, a key corridor for Westside growth, and Commonwealth Avenue across from Lafayette Park.
Built by The United Pacific Securities Corporation, the complex was completed in fall 1929 and promoted as the utmost in sophisticated and modern living and tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is the unsurprisingly oversized “brochure de-luxe” issued by the company as the project was under development. This copy was inscribed on 30 January by Vice-President Laurence S. Howard, perhaps just after it was printed, and a viewing of the publication is a fascinating look into the selling of the project.
The Delaware corporation was formed in March 1928 with a capitalization of a half-million dollars by Howard and six other men, most notably New York banker Edgar L. Marston, of Blair and Company, Edward L. Doheny, Jr., son of the oil titan who brought in the Los Angeles field in the early 1890s and who was a key figure in the Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the Harding Administration earlier in the decade (though Doheny, Sr. managed to secure an acquittal on a bribery charge).
While it appears that the corporation had plans to build other structures, but never did, their $2.5 million apartment-hotel certainly was an ambitious concept. It was designed by Norman W. Alpaugh, who formerly worked with Clarence H. Russell to design the Temple Emanu-El (1924) near Western and Ninth and the Asbury Apartments (1925) at Sixth and Carondelet near Westlake (MacArthur) Park, while contractor Max Winter was known for such landmarks as the Angelus Temple and the Pasadena Playhouse. The pamphlet began by proclaiming that:
A metropolis, such as Los Angeles is rapidly becoming, has demanded “The Town House” as a monument to the perfection attained by the modern Apartment-Residence.
On Wilshire Boulevard, fronting on Commonwealth Avenue, and forming a massive and distinguished background to the beauties of Lafayette Park, which it overlooks, “The Town House” is in the heart of Los Angeles, yet its atmosphere of cosmopolitanism and the charm of its simplicity, are reminiscent of the distinguished refinement of the best homes.
It was added that the building was erected “with the most unremitting thought and care to create for the discriminating element a town home within a finely conducted larger home” while the complex “would emerge favorably from comparison with the most modern edifices to be found anywhere on this continent.” With such a status, the structure could not fail to be anything but of “not only local but national renown.”
Moreover, the developers were sure to note that “we are deeply conscious that it can never be any better than the character of the tenants,” so “the greatest of care will be exercised in establishing the desirability and conduct of guests,” while “ladies and children will be assured the most adequate protection.”
For children, there would be “trained governesses [who] will be employed by the House” while women would find their new residence “a social center of distinction,” one that would absolve them of “the irritating worries of housekeeping, with its attendant servant problems.” A lady occupant had the luxury of having “available to her the choice of dinner prepared in her apartment by a chef furnished by the House, a butler to serve, and a maid to follow to do the necessary housework in the kitchen and dining room.”
Alternatively, meals could be ordered from the restaurant and served in the apartment “for which purpose a special staff will be permanently maintained on each floor. A “chef’s pantry” was to be maintained “for each few apartments” while there would be “service in the apartment from steaming chafing dishes on wheels” which would guarantee “the successful repast for which she has hitherto only been able to wish.”
The restaurant also offered smaller private dining rooms and it was noted that it “will take an unchallengeable place in the forefront of the famous restaurants of the country” as well as being “the rendezvous of the connoisseurs of the Southland.” The complex’s Culinary Department was to be headed by “a chef of international fame,” while “extreme care will be used in the appointment of the Maitre d’ Hotel.” With residents entertaining in the facility, with its menu quality and individualized service, the restaurant would become renowned.
Enhancing the service for the female residents was a “multiple-button” service, much like the telephone, in which there “will be small plaques carrying a series of electric buttons, each signaling to and for a different kind of service.” Rather than call for a butler, maid or valet, any could be summoned at the touch of a button, thus, “the annoyance often involved in answering the doors of the apartment for servants and callers is also eliminated.” Fetching the car was also handled this way.
With the appointments of the units, “nothing has been left undone that experience, forethought, and a sincere desire to anticipate refined taste demands.” Fireplaces, windows, cedar-lined closets, chromium nickel bathroom fixtures, temperature controls in each room, and General Electric refrigerators were highlighted. For the building as a whole, “the finest and latest products of mechanical ingenuity” were utilized in the elevators, so that “the Attendants’ only duty will be to press buttons,” because there were electric automatic doors and micro-leveling at each floor.
Finally, the essay ended with the assurance to gentlemen that:
The incomparable location, the beauty of the park, the easy accessibility by street-car, bus, automobile, or even walking to downtown Los Angeles bring to the man of the house all of the advantages of the suburban home, plus added comforts only possible in an Apartment-Residence, without the annoyances of travel back and forth, the dangers, and, perhaps more important still, the wasted hour, morning and evening.
The brochure includes architectural drawings, protected with tissue paper screens, of the building; the colonnade entrance facing the park off of Commonwealth; the view of the restaurant’s rotunda from a garden; and the entrance lounge. Others provided renderings of such aspects of the “special biplex” (meaning two-story) units as the several styles and layouts of living rooms and a richly-appointed dining room.
On 19 November 1928, the official dedication of the structure took place, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the printing establishment of which generated the “brochure de-luxe.” The paper noted that the wife of William Henry Smith, then-president of United Pacific Securities, “broke a bottle of pre-war effervescence” (it was Prohibition, so none of the stuff could be imbibed—at least, not publicly) against the first steel column that was put into place.
While The Town House was said to be the first of several complexes to be erected by the company, it was also noted “that more than 2000 Los Angeles persons are financially interested in the building.” The 14-story structure was to have 140 units, a terraced garden in the fold of the L-shaped edifice, the restaurant being a replica of one in Paris, the open fireplaces “and many more novel innovations.” While opening was slated for 1 September 1929, it was observed that most units were already leased for two-to-three-year periods.
By the first part of 1929, the presidency of United Pacific Securities (which formed a subsidiary called the Wilshire-Commonwealth Corporation specifically for The Town House project) passed to the younger Doheny, but, in mid-February came the shocking news that the oil scion was murdered in his newly completed behemoth of a mansion, Greystone, in Beverly Hills by his private secretary, who then turned the gun on himself. Howard moved up to assume the chief executive position after the tragedy.
The steel structure was finished and the walls and floors well underway before winter ended and Howard penned promotional articles about The Town House in local papers, such as the Los Angeles Express of 16 March, though the text was verbatim from what is in the “brochure de-luxe” and who knows if Howard actually wrote the essay? An accompanying full-page advertisement reproduced some of the renderings from the pamphlet along with a photo of Lafayette Park, but the text here was different:
Wilshire Boulevard . . .
The Town House was planned and is being built as a fitting monument for this great metropolitan thoroughfare, an edifice that will reflect the continental atmosphere of this, our greatest boulevard—one that will provide for all time a background of that elegance, restraint and beauty which Wilshire Boulevard alone demands.
The statement went on to compare the thoroughfare to such landmarks as Rue de la Paix in Paris, Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg (Petrograd), the Unter der Linden in berlin, and New York’s Fifth Avenue and asserted that “thoroughfares identify cities,” so that Wilshire served to “typify the very essence of the wonder city of the Pacific Coast.”
By mid-spring, ads were being taken out for stock sales from the Wilshire-Commonwealth Corporation as well as to promote the fact that over 1,800 investors in The United Pacific Plan contributed just north of $1 million for The Town House as well as a business building and underground garage for 300 automobiles adjacent at 2969 Wilshire Boulevard, developed by the Two Nine Six Nine Wilshire Corporation.
For the two projects, it was asserted that “all this invested capital will be returned out of profits before we derive any income from our part ownership, from which time on the 1812 OF US enjoy the proprietorship of this magnificent property for all time.” It was boasted that knowledge, training and experience in location, building type, architecture, construction and engineering, along with the resources of the rental section “all work under one administrative head for the common benefit.”
As completion of the edifice neared, another main part of promotion was that each unit was to have a General Electric refrigerator, the very same model and year, in fact, as the one displayed in the kitchen of La Casa Nueva! An article from early August in the Times pointed out, not surprisingly, given the sheer affluence, that Beverly Hills had the largest concentration of such appliances in the area, but it was also observed that “the apartment building having the largest number of electric refrigerators is the Town House,” where 124 units were in place to date. GE took out a full-page ad in the paper in early September as the grand opening neared, touting its product in the development.
In mid-August, the paper noted that culinary experts arrived from London and New York to begin work with the restaurant, including Eduarde Alexandre, brought from United Pacific Securities Corporation’s Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York, as head of catering and the Maitre d’ Hotel and chef imported from the Carlton in London. It was noted that there was the Wedgewood dining room, with a capacity of 400, the 300-person Queen Anne ballroom, a sunken garden, and four smaller dining rooms.
On 10 September, the Times reported that “the formal opening of the Town House Restaurant tonight will be signalized by a dinner-dance and lawn party” and added that the complex was “open for occupancy and after tonight the restaurant will be open to the public.” The piece continued that The Town House “was designed with the intention of making it the most elaborate institution of its character in the city” while “its sumptuousness of design” was accompanied by “all the practical features which its owners feel are necessary to make it an ideal home for its tenants.”
A week later, when the formal opening of the complex took place, the Express opined “what a fine addition to the pretentious buildings in Los Angeles is the new ‘Town House,'” while it added that Ralph McMillan of the security department, “pronounces the building one of the finest of its kind in the country.” Manager Arthur A. Dodworth came from the Biltmore, where he had been assistant manager since its opening in 1923, while, prior to that, he was assistant manager of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
In its 18 September edition’s Rotogravure Section, the Times (one wonders if its publisher Harry Chandler, more of an avid real estate investor than newspaperman, was a major stockholder in The Town House project), included four pages of photos of the project. It was certainly ushered in with all due fanfare, though just a little more than a month later, the Great Depression burst forth with the crash of the stock market in New York.
Less than a decade later, the building was converted into a hotel and, in 1942, was acquired by Conrad Hilton for his chain. A dozen years later, it became the Sheraton Town House, but the hotel closed in 1993 and demolition was threatened. With advocacy by the Los Angeles Conservancy and others, the structure was saved and, with the dawn of the 21st century, the building was renovated into 142 low-income affordable-housing units.
The fate of The Town House seems to be quite similar to the Hotel Green in Pasadena, which was built three decades more prior and had been a famous and prestigious hostelry ever since, but now it also serve as an HUD section 8 low-income apartment. How can we not sigh over the evolution of both of them from past glory to current desolation?