by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was just under five months before the crash of the stock market on Wall Street in New York ushered in the beginnings of The Great Depression, but, the real estate section of 2 June 1929 edition of the Los Angeles Times was filled with content that would lead a reader to believe that there was no end in sight to the burgeoning development that took place in the Angel City and environs since the beginning of the Roaring Twenties.
The Times was among the most active and assiduous of boosters of the region and the pages of the section are filled with examples of this. For example, it quoted from a soon-to-be-published article by California’s Controller Ray L. Riley that the population of the Golden State was nearing 5.5 million people by the end of 1928, an increase of almost 68,000 over the prior year and of more than 2 million since the onset of the decade. It was added that over 80% of the residents were urban. As for city populations, Los Angeles was pushing 1.35 million, not quite double that of San Francisco, while Oakland was third at over 310,000. The rest of the top ten included Long Beach (140K), San Diego (125K), Sacramento (101K), Pasadena (85K), Berkeley (82K), Fresno (73K) and San Jose (56K), while Santa Monica was not far behind the last at almost 54,000.
A separate feature on the growth of the Angel City observed that, when it came to exclusive club of metropolises with 1 million residents, “Los Angeles attained that distinction in less time than any municipality in the United States and probably the world” according to the Eberle Economic Service. The firm reported that Philadelphia took 81 years to grow from 100,000 people to a million, while New York took 54, Detroit 32, Chicago 29 and the Los Angeles just 26 years. Moreover, it highlighted the city’s steady development and the company added:
The rapid growth of Los Angeles up to the present time should be extended into the future, especially if the countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean modernize as rapidly as is expected.
The background of metropolitan Los Angeles in manufacturing and commerce is just beginning to develop. The more rapid development of transportation, communication and manufacturing has imparted a great momentum to urbanization and, consequently, it is not surprising that this city developed into a metropolitan center so quickly.
It is was concluded that Eberle’s rankings of Los Angeles in many categories from building permits to harbor tonnage to postal receipts to shared traded on a stock exchange were from 1925 and the next report would advance the data two years and, correspondingly, show the Angel City’s ascent in these areas.
An illustration from a pamphlet called “Los Angeles, Metropolis of the West” and published by the major real estate development firm, Frank E. Meline, Inc., showed that the estimated population of the Angel City was 1.42 million, making it the first largest metropolis in the nation behind Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. The county was at some 2.4 million persons, up from 936,000 at the start of the Twenties. The city’s building permit value went from $205 million during the 1910s to over $1.1 billion in the course of the current decade. Finally, it was indicated that the comparative growth rate from 1900 to 1925 of Los Angeles was 973%, almost three times that of Detroit and close to seven times that of Cleveland.
As for Los Angeles’ building growth, a table of buildings that were remodeled, altered, demolished or for which foundation permits were issued totaled about 8,300 in 1920 peaking to a decade-high of over 17,500 in 1923 (when the regional boom crested—this was the year Walter P. Temple inaugurated his Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928). While there were declines in the next three years, there was another period of growth for 1927 involving almost 15,800 structures, while another drop took place the following year. Values of these structures rose from $9.2 million to over $20.5 in 1923 and above $18 million in 1927, with a steep decline to $11.3 the next year. Gilbert H. Beesemyer, a Hollywood building and loan association figure, observed that older buildings were being converted in such a way that the period was “marking the passing of the landmarks of pueblo days.”
More recent date showed that, for the six-week period ending 25 May, there were more than $30.5 million in real estate transactions in Los Angeles County, while close to $8 million in the tony Wilshire district, nearly $6.5 million in Hollywood, $4.3 million in Long Beach, and between $2 and $3 million each in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Glendale and the entire San Fernando Valley. Aside from all these statistics (some of us are geeks for numbers), there were plenty of articles that showed the aims and ambitions of developers and others were unabated.
A front-page feature began with the observation that “the first day of summer finds Los Angeles facing the greatest June building activity in its history with the prospect that by the end of the year new construction here will exceed last year by approximately $15,000,000.” The city’s building superintendent, J.J. Backus, was paraphrased as telling the Times “that no summer in the city’s history saw better prospects for construction than the present” even if that time of year often saw somewhat diminished activity. He added that permits to date for 1929 were over $46 million, an increase of over $3.2 million than for the same period the previous year.
Backus was quoted as stating that “conditions in Los Angeles are better than other sections of the Coast” though Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia were also hot markets and he noted that “construction here also is well balanced, there being proper portions of office buildings, homes, and industrial units.” With his belief that “conditions never looked better,” the superintendent concluded, “I anticipate a steady advance, but no boom and no letdown.” Wrong as his prognostication turned out to be, Backus reported on projects costing $1 million and over.
These included the completed Los Angeles Stock Exchange, William H. Clune, and Federal Reserve Bank buildings along with in-process structures like the Town House, the May Company, Bullock’s Wilshire, and the William May Garland. Beyond these well-known edifices, there were apartments, stores, industrial structures, single family houses and others, with such manufacturing facilities as the Firestone Tire addition, the Samson Tire factory (this being the distinctive City of Commerce complex that is still off Interstate 5), and the addition to the Willys-Knight-Overland automobile plant, with these costing $8 million, $7 million and $1 million, respectively. Newly issued permits included work on the May Company addition, the Greek Theatre at Griffith Park, new structures at the Orthopaedic Hospital and more, with over $8.5 million of these just for the month.
A separate article reported that the Procter and Gamble Company was planning to build a $5 million factory, though site selection was still in progress (one was completed in Long Beach in 1931), while another featured project was a breakwater at Santa Monica that was to run from the end of Beverly Boulevard to opposite Montana Avenue. The accompanying article noted that, in the so-called Harbor Wars of the 1890s, the town lost out on federal funding for a commercial harbor to the existing, modest facilities at San Pedro/Wilmington. For this plan, though, there was more of an interest in improving the “State Coast Highway” of Highway 1 with widening as well as having more beach frontage and the breakwater was intended to limit exposure to high tides and storms.
Another featured project on the front page was the Wilshire Amusement Corporation’s plan to build a 1400-seat theater on the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Hamilton Drive in Beverly Hills. S. Charles Lee, who designed many area theaters including the Tower (1927) and Los Angeles (1931) on Broadway, the Hollywood Melrose Hotel (1927), and, one of his early works, the modest La Puente Valley Woman’s Club (1923), provided the design for the Art Deco structure which had a much larger capacity of 2,500 when it opened in September 1930 as the Fox Wilshire. Today, it is a live performance venue named after Haim and Cheryl Saban, who gave $5 million towards its restoration.
Elsewhere, another theater project underway was the Fairfax, located on the northwest corner of the intersection of the street of that name and Beverly Boulevard. The $400,000 complex, with stores in addition to the 1,800-seat venue owned by the Fairfax Theatre Company (which also operated the Forum Theatre on Pico Boulevard near Crenshaw Boulevard), was designed by William C. Pennell in the Art Deco style. The structure, with “the latest in talking and movie equipment” along with a “spacious foyer and private lounger,” was completed in March 1930 and was just recently designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, with much of the significance having to do with its presence in the emerging Jewish community in that part of the city.
A page two piece observed that apartment construction in Los Angeles in 1929 was to involve some 900 structures and costs of about $25 million. For the first four months of the year, there were almost 300 permits for buildings valued at just south of $7.7 million and it was forecast that the year would be about on par with the prior. There was a guess, though, that about $8 million in apartments would be started during the year, though this involved unannounced projects. Another notable residential project shown by illustration was the Hebrew Sheltering Home for the Aged, designed by Max Maltzman, and for which the groundbreaking was being held that day at the Boyle Heights site that was formerly the residence of community founder William H. Workman, nephew of the Homestead’s previous owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.
On that page are images of the Firestone tire plant addition as well as new buildings for a flying school operated by the Curtiss Flying Service at Mines Field, later renamed Los Angeles International Airport, with the former to have expanded production of some 3.5 million pounds of rubber for some 12,000 tires and 14,000 tubes each year and the latter, one of 27 planned by the firm across the country, to have an administration building, four hangars, classrooms, a mess hall and dormitories, with a total intended investment of a half million dollars.
With regard to aviation, which was expanded exponentially in the era, a separate article and a trio of photos highlighted the expansion of the plant of aviator L. Morton Bach at Clover Field, named after the son of magazine publisher Sam T. Clover, in Santa Monica and now Santa Monica Airport. The firm’s third unit of buildings, comprising 60,000 square feet, added to the facility’s ability to build a baker’s dozen of aircraft beyond the eleven completed since the plant opened two years prior and Pickwick and West Coast were carriers utilizing Bach planes. It was noted that the company planned to expand its operations to the east, while the piece concluded that the plant had its own baseball field for its growing workforce.
Another featured project was the establishment, around walnut, apricot, plum and, especially, those from “one of the most famous peach orchards in the country,” of Toluca Lake Center, developed by the Becker-Arbuckle-Wright Corporation and which opened two weeks prior. Each lot specifically had a quota of walnut or fruit trees on it and former state senator Frank Arbuckle, one of the principals, noted “not one tree on the entire property will be needlessly removed or destroyed” and he added “as homes are built at Toluca Lake Center and full advantage is taken of the beautiful trees, I believe we shall have some of the handsomest residential streets to be found anywhere in Los Angeles.” Also mentioned was Toluca Lake Park, which had 177 houses to date and more announced, including one for Joseph Van Meter, who worked for comedian Charles Chaplin.
An article featuring outlying community development highlighted work done in San Diego, Pasadena (with the Crown City’s municipal golf course, designed by William P. Bell and now known as the Brookside Golf Club), and Huntington Park, where the King-Colegrove Building was completed, but severely damaged in the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, while a seven-story community hotel project was never realized, likely because of the forthcoming depression. A brief piece, with a photo, discussed the contract for the Alhambra Elks Lodge, which was built at Main and Almansor streets, across from the First United Methodist Church, the former residence of Walter P. Temple and Laura González and their family. Temple was an active member of the lodge, which completed its building, still standing today.
There was “A Page for Home Builders” with features like “A Home Builders’ Primer” of questions and answers and a “Real Estate Primer” discussing the finer points of contract law, along with features on mortgages, metal lath, and two house plans. One of the latter is a two-bedroom Spanish Colonial Revival that could be built at the modest cost of $4,500, but which was distinctive in that its architect as a woman, Mary Cameron, whose work was submitted to the Small Home Plan Bureau of the Los Angeles Architectural Plan and praised as “unusually attractive” and for its “economy both of space in construction and cost.”
The second was designed by Allied Architects’ Association, a consortium of prominent figures like Elmer Grey, Myron Hunt, Reginald Johnson, and Octavius Morgan who did the plans for prominent public buildings like the Los Angeles County Hospital, the Hall of Justice and [Bob Hope] Patriotic Hall. This one-bedroom (with a wall bed in the living room), one-bath home was another of those small houses, deemed a “step child” of typical residential design, but this example “is designed to meet the requirements of the family or individual who must economize in space, service and expenditure, but wishes the little to be good.” At 1,100 square feet, exclusive of the narrow garage, the house, with plans available from the Small House Plan Service, could be built for no more than $3,500.
There is a bit of history in E. Palmer Conner’s “The Romance of the Ranchos” feature, in which he briefly discussed the history of the Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera, granted in 1843 to Vicente Sánchez. His grandson, Tomás Sánchez, who was county sheriff for most of the 1860s, owned the ranch until he sold it in 1875 to a group, including F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, who were engaged in the creation of the nearby Centinela townsite. This was not mentioned by Conner, however, who only said that “Lucky” Baldwin came into ownership, but this was through a transaction involving Workman and Temple, whose failing bank borrowed heavily from Baldwin and then closed when they couldn’t repay his loan. What we know as the Baldwin Hills was largely on the Cienega ranch.
Finally, there are a good many advertisements of note, including for properties on offer by realtors; communities like Runnymede in what is now Reseda; developments like Rancho Malibu la Costa in the city of that name; Oak Knoll Marino in San Marino; Harry H. Culver’s University City near his own Culver City; and the Janss Investment Corporation’s Westwood Hills. In all, this section makes for fascinating reading just months before the onset of the Great Depression and when booster enthusiasm in greater Los Angeles was still largely high.