Through the Viewfinder: A Cabinet Card Photograph of the Hotel Van Nuys, Los Angeles, ca. 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Isaac Newton Van Nuys was a major figure in late 19th and early 20th century greater Los Angeles as the co-owner of a large swath of the San Fernando Valley and developer of prominent buildings in downtown Los Angeles, including the subject of this post: the Hotel Van Nuys, which opened its doors in early 1897.

The structure, built on the northwest corner of Main and 4th streets and which still stands and houses the Barclay Hotel, which provides affordable housing for those with low incomes or who have been homeless, was the latest in modern features when it was completed. The quality of its construction is very much evident 125 years after the building was finished and it also has the distinction of being a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark.

Los Angeles Express, 12 February 1912.

Its builder was born in 1835 in West Sparta, New York, southeast of Buffalo and south of Rochester. After completing his education, he farmed in his home state, but, at age 30, came west via the Isthmus route through Central America and established a home in Napa County northeast of San Francisco. He was a merchant at Monticello, a town that was much later submerged with the building of the Lake Berryesa reservoir, until 1871.

A visit to the Angel City and environs the prior year convinced Van Nuys to relocate and he soon joined the Los Angeles Farming and Milling Company, established by Isaac Lankershim, who acquired the southern portion of the vast Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando in 1869 from the brothers Andrés and Pío Pico, the latter using the proceeds to build his Pico House hotel, which may be seen as the Van Nuys Hotel of its time when completed at the end of 1870.

Los Angeles Times, 13 February 1912.

Van Nuys married Lankershim’s daughter Susanna and prospered as wheat farming on the San Fernando Valley domain was carried out a massive scale. He turned his attention to development in downtown Los Angeles, including the construction of his block in which the hotel was situated. An early mention of the project came in March 1895, when the Los Angeles Express of the 23rd briefly noted “the new Van Nuys block, which is to be built at the northwest corner of Main and Fourth streets, will be 120 by 137 feet in dimensions and cost over $100,000.”

At the end of April, the paper noted that a large frame house at the corner was being “moved off the corner,” suggesting it survived by being relocated. Three months later, the Los Angeles Herald observed that excavation work was underway and in midwinter 1896, that work was going out to bid. Come April, the foundations were finished and the first story walls were in process.

Express, 23 March 1895.

When it came to the end of the summer, a plumbing test was conducted, it being stated in the Herald that this part of the structure was “one of the largest plumbing jobs ever let in the city” and costing $16,000. Newell Brothers, the contractors, did the work on the highly distinctive Bradbury Building, completed a few years prior. A month later, the Express recorded that “the great Van Nuys block . . . the pride of that section, is nearly completed, so far as the exterior is concerned.” In November, the paper lauded the structure in more detail:

The magnificent Van Nuys block is rapidly approaching completion. It presents a most beautiful appearance even now. The character of the material used, the style of architecture and the size of the building make it one of the most imposing structures in the city. In fact, it would not take “a back seat” in any city in the United States. It is a grand monument to the thrift, energy and business ability of its owner.

The article continued that as a hotel, the first floor was to include offices, a large dining room and reading parlors. Contracts were let for the furnishings and mention was made of lessee Milo M. Potter (1854-1925,) a native of Michigan who came to the Angel City in the boom year of 1888 (when William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was mayor) and became manager of the Westminster Hotel, located across the Van Nuys on the northeast corner of Main and 4th.

Los Angeles Herald, 25 July 1895.

After operating the Van Nuys, Potter opened a hotel facing the ocean in Santa Barbara and, after selling that property, remained in the area, living in Montecito until his death from a fall off a ladder while inspecting a water tower at his estate. The piece noted that Potter “intends to make it the most attractive establishment of the kind in Southern California” and that “something like $200,000 is the amount invested in the building.” In early December, the elevators built by the Llewellyn Iron Works of Los Angeles were tested “and are said to be the best in the city.”

Finally, at the end of 1896, the Express exclaimed that the lighting was another major innovative element of the structure which “will be a most brilliant sight at night, when the lights are on, for 2500 incandescent and 12 arc lights will make it bright as day.” The piece added that “Los Angeles people scarcely realize what a splendid hotel the Van Nuys will be made by Mr. Potter” and concluded “he is indulging in no flourish of trumpets, but quietly and methodically arranging for one of the best equipped hotels on the Pacific Coast.”

Express, 18 April 1896.

The Herald of 3 January 1897, fortunately, went into great detail about the nearly completed hostelry, deemed to be “A Credit to Los Angeles” as the headline. By this time, the cost of the building was reckoned to be about $300,000 and it lionized “the man with the golden wand” who “waved it over the central spot in our great city, and, lo! we behold the result—an ornamental cube, containing 1,718,800 cubic feet of steel, stone and precious stuffs, and the whole permeated throughout by the unrivaled Southern California sunshine.”

After lauding Van Nuys, who “has spared neither money nor effort in giving to the world the magnificent structure” that bore his name, the paper added that architects Octavius Morgan, an early practitioner of his craft with Ezra F. Kysor (architect of the remodeled Workman House) in the Angel City, and John A. Walls, designed a building that “is a monument to their ability both as architects and artists.

Los Angeles Record, 4 July 1896.

It reported that Potter expended some $60,000 on “velvet carpets, carved furniture and and solid silver services [which] bear testimony to money well spent” on furnishing the hotel.” In addition to the first floor amenities described above, there was “a charming public grill” with twenty-five tables, “and a costly bar,” while the basement boasted a barber shop and billiard room.

With respect to the accommodations, the rooms comprised “large, airy guest chambers, single or en suite” with all exposed to the outside and with plenty of closet space and private bathrooms. For safety, all the corridors ended at doors or windows leading to fire escapes, a half-dozen in all. The main staircase was iron with marble steps “so that in case of fire it would be one of the last things to go” and it was surrounded by “brick partition fire walls” that also encased the elevator shafts and the light courts, which had white tile surfacing.

Express, 5 October 1896.

Not only was the structure composed of steel framing, but the ceiling was of metal lathing and “each floor is deadened with three inches of mortar” which both limited the spread of fire but reduced noise. Moreover, the heating and lighting systems were described as providing for the safety of guests and there were two 100-horsepower boilers so that, if one broke down, the other would continue providing heat for guests. Electric fans operated via a conduit system to the electric power station and “insures a constant supply of pure, fresh air in every portion of the building.”

As for the foundations, the concrete was made by a contractor with a strong reputation for quality work and who utilized a new steam-powered mixing apparatus “which insures a stronger and more durable concrete than the old process.” 1200 barrels of cement and 800 loads of gravel were utilized. The steel framing, costing $28,000, was provided by the local Baker Iron Works, founded in 1886, and it was said “the frame of this building is one of the most solid and substantial super-structures ever erected.” The main corner column was touted as the biggest ever cast in the region and weighed 20,000 pounds, while some beams were imported and a small amount of ironwork was done in San Francisco.

Herald, 3 January 1897.

The electrical work was stated to be “entirely new to this coast” and incorporating “the most modern and recent developments in this line.” Twenty miles of telephone wires were laid in the hotel, with every room having local and long-distance phone access so that the call bell was not necessary. The Van Nuys was reported to be the only structure west of Chicago to use iron coatings on electric wire and making them fire proof. Local electricians Wybro and Lawrence provided several electric ventilators, an electric motor for an ice cream plant and a marble switchboard. The aforementioned incandescent and arc lights were wall switch controlled and wire terminals were enclosed in iron boxes for further fire protection.

The two passenger and single freight elevators, from a Chicago firm, were said to be ornamental, being finished in oxidized copper, and safety-oriented with speeds of 350 feet a minute and maximum loads of 2,500 pounds, with smoother motion than the usual high-speed device. The grand staircase noted earlier was the sole six-story example in Los Angeles and Llewellyn was praised for the “graceful and original” design work.

Times, 14 January 1897.

W.O. Burr, said to be the oldest wood contractor in the city, was known for the volume and quality of his work in Los Angeles and throughout the nation and his effort on the Van Nuys was said to be “one of the finest specimens of the joiner’s art to be found on the Pacific coast.” White cedar was used in rooms and halls and provided “a beautiful finish and helps in making the new hotel artistic and handsome in interior appearance.” Nearly 20% of the 545,000 feet of lumber used in the building was of this variety.

George Low was the brick contractor and nearly 1.5 million common, 85,000 pressed and 9,000 molded bricks were employed, while 1,100 barrels of lime and 300 barrels of cement were also used. His work, including thirty masons, was completed in under six months. Newell Brothers, the plumbing contractor, provided some of the most integral conveniences for guests with marble used extensively, along with tile and porcelain, and the latest in equipment was employed for lavatories, baths, sinks and other fixtures. The firm also provided the copper-lined water tanks and a steam plant utilizing new features for the Angel City and using oil as the fuel.

Times, 20 January 1897.

Plaster work was done by Christopher Hanson, who showed that he was not “a plain mechanic” but employed artistry “in such a manner as to greatly enhance the beauty of a building.” 40,000 square yards of plain plaster and three miles of molding were used, “but it is his plastic ornamental work in the cornices of the rooms and halls, made from original designs from Morgan & Walls, that compels admiration.” Also praised was D.F. Horgan of the Monarch Sign Company for his prompt and thorough painting and varnishing and who worked on some 70,000 square feet of surfaces “with the best quality of paint.”

Just under a week later, Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Erskine M. Ross and his family were the first to take up rooms at the Van Nuys, with a “soft opening” of sorts by mid-month for guests even as work on the top floors was pushed aggressively. Finally, on 19 January, the hotel was given its grand, though not formal, opening as the Herald reported “a thousand lights made brilliant the stately building” but some details needed to be finished. Ross was the first to sign the guest register and fifty other guests took rooms on that day, most evidently in the Angel City to escape harsh winter conditions elsewhere. Other notable locals were writer George Wharton James and financier William R. Staats of Pasadena.

Herald, 20 January 1897.

In its coverage, the Times observed that each floor had 32 rooms, or 160 in all, with 60 private and 10 public bathrooms. Furniture in rooms were made of birch, bird’s-eye maple, mahogany and oak and it was added that for women there was electrical heating for curling irons. On the first floor, a women’s lounge occupied the corner of Main and 4th and featured large plate glass windows, while the dining room, with 34 tables upholstered in Russian leather and with oak chairs, was on the Main Street side, north of the main entry, with half operating on the European (meaning extra charges for dining) and the other on the American (at least two meals included with lodging) plans. The grill and bar were not ready, but Romandy’s Orchestra was hired to play during meal times.

As to the photo, by Treen, it not only shows the impressive building with its frontages of Main and Fourth, including substantial awnings for the windows and entrances and its rooftop sign and flagpole, but some of the surroundings, including pedestrians and horse-drawn conveyances and electrical and telegraph wires.  To the north of the hotel are some large trees indicating a residence still stood there, while at the left side of the image is at least one towering tree in the yard, enclosed by a cast-iron fence on a low wall, of the estate of Isaias W. Hellman, president of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank and former part of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple in an earlier bank.  Later, the main bank branch would be situated on the corner and a building erected around it on both Main and Fourth.

This remarkable structure has survived for 125 years and while it remains a residential facility, its recent remodeling into affordable housing is notably as the city and region grapple with extraordinarily high costs of housing and a staggering endemic of homelessness. Whether what is now the Barclay will be joined by many other examples like it remains, of course, to be seen.

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