by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Once again, this post illustrates, literally, the example of how an artifact in the Homestead’s collection has a surface or obvious value, while there can be more to it than that. In this case, the featured object are a pair of letters written on the letterhead of the behemoth New Hotel Rosslyn and Annex in Los Angeles on 13-14 June 1926, but the main purpose is not about the missives, but about the place in which they were written and its remarkable owners. So, let’s truly read between the lines.
The correspondent was 22-year old Louis Avellar, a native of Portugal who lived with his parents in San Leandro in the Bay Area. Avellar was on his way to New Orleans, perhaps for a Roman Catholic conference, given that he was active in Catholic societies, and his stay in the Angel City was short, basically a layover. He wrote his mother first, on the 13th, and told her he arrived that evening about an hour or so before and washed up and had dinner, but was going out to eat some more and have some coffee.
Avellar added that he was ready to leave the next day and said he’d had a good trip down the coast, adding that his mother shouldn’t worry (as if she wouldn’t?) He did note that “this is sure a swell hotel and I’m paying $2,50 for my room [which is] nice & clean etc. With more time on the 14th, Avellar wrote his second and longer missive to both parents, reiterating that they should not be anxious about him.
He added he had his Pullman (sleeper car) ticket—Avellar was a Southern Pacific Railroad clerk of many years, so probably had a hefty discount—and was leaving at 4 p.m. He did note that the family’s neighbor should know “that there are plenty of Blondes & Brunettes in Los Angeles, and I might ship a carload of them back to San Leandro for distribution” and also hoped neighbors were relieved that they “won’t be bothered with the moans of my Saxophone now for a while.”
As for the Angel City, he informed his folks that:
Los angeles [sic] is something like San Francisco and you can easily lose yourself if you want to but I hav’nt [sic] yet. I went to a show last night, it was real good like Frisco shows and got home (the Hotel) about 12 pm [Midnight], [and] slept like a Brick all night, swell bed and everything.
After yet another caution to not worry, he closed and told his parents he would write to them on the long Southern Pacific train ride to New Orleans. So much for then for the letters, which have a modicum of interesting content, but now we’ll turn to the hotel complex, which is represented by the vignette on the letterhead, showing the two structures, the New Hotel Rosslyn (also called the Million Dollar because of its cost) and the Annex, situated on opposite corners at the intersection of Main and Fifth streets.
The proprietors were the brothers George A. and Dwight H. Hart, whose story is a notable one in early 20th century Los Angeles. The siblings were the only children of Harriet Gleason and Henry A. Hart, the latter a farm laborer in the town of Nelson, Ohio, southeast of Cleveland. Why the family made the long migration to the Angel City in 1882 is not known, but Henry did some real estate wheeling and dealing, including during the great boom that came in 1887 and 1888, when William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was mayor of the burgeoning burg.
One of Henry Hart’s transactions was securing a note on a second mortgage for the Natick Hotel, which opened at the southwest corner of Main and First streets in 1883 (a previous post here featured a 1912 tourist’s letter written from the hotel.) In April 1890, Henry took over management of the hotel, but he died just a couple of years later, while in his Forties. His widow and sons took over the Natick’s operations and then the brothers improved it, adding a third story and expending large sums on a renovation.
By the first years of the 20th century, the Natick House was doing good business and the Hart brothers turned their attentions towards expanding their hostelry interests. The Hotel Rosslyn opened at the end of the previous century and sat on the west side of Main between 4th and 5th (see the accompanying photo). George and Dwight took possession of the Rosslyn in July 1903 and transferred their manager at the Natick over to run their new operation.
In March 1906, the Harts picked up another hotel, the Lexington, completed a couple of years prior and which was adjacent to the Rosslyn. Within a month, it was announced that the siblings were conducting major renovations to both of the hostelries which “will be connected [presumably, literally via a passageway] and conducted under one management” with a total of 280 rooms. About the time this was taking place, a former Pomona newspaper publisher told that city’s Review “about the rapid climbs of some Southern California people into the lap of fortune.”
Willard Goodwin, who once ran the Pomona Times, recalled that “Dan” [Dwight?] Hart drive the horse-drawn bus for the Palomares Hotel, a well-known hotel in that city until it burned down, while the other brother (George?) was employed by Tombstone, Arizona mining magnate Richard Gird at his Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, southeast of Pomona. Yet, Goodwin went on:
Today they are worth at least $200,000 — possibly $250,000. They are the largest hotel men in Los Angeles, and have long leases on the Natick, Rosslyn and Lexington hotels. They have been handling lately at their three hotels an average of over 1100 guests a day . . . last month they did a business of over $68,000.
He recorded that they both worked at the Natick in 1890 (not mentioning their father owned it) and that one, likely George, was a partner and the other met the trains (driving the hotel “bus”) and did general work at the hotel. By dint of hard work and careful planning, along with saving their shekels, the Harts built up their business and expanded, so that “for five years they have made money hand over fist.”
Tourism continued to grow by leaps and bounds and another regional boom in those first years of the century also was crucial. Goodwin concluded that the siblings probably raked in something like $50,000 a year, a princely sum for the period, and noted that “they are still young men and are on the road to millionaires’ places. And all this from no capital but their strong arms and ambition sixteen years ago.” Now, they certainly had some assistance from what their father left them, but it is true that the Harts built up a bit of an empire by 1906, but that was hardly the extent of it.
In 1912, they acquired the northwest corner of Main and Fifth, just a hop, skip and a jump from the existing Rosslyn/Lexington combo and launched the project that became the New Rosslyn Hotel. Completed and opened to the public in November 1914, the $1,250,000 building included 750 rooms and was hailed as “the largest and finest popular-priced caravansary [there’s word that has vanished from our vernacular] in the West.”
Designed in the very common Beaux Arts style by the firm of John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom, the height-limit (11 stories to prevent a crowded atmosphere like in New York, Chicago and other major American cities) structure had a large rooftop sign with a heart shape, the words “Million Dollar” to note the cost and the words “Fire Proof” and “Popular Prices,” this latter was in common usage for theaters, as well.
For the opening, the Los Angeles Times of 9 November began its coverage with the statement that:
Many thousands of persons, among them hundreds who came to the city expressly for this purpose, thronged the marble lobby, the old English dining salon, the harmonious mezzanine floor and numerous other departments of the magnificent new Hotel Rosslyn yesterday.
The paper reported that crowds arrived well before the 3:00 start time for the reception and that workers were still engaged “with their artificing” when the time came and N. Banks Creiger’s band began to play. Masses of floral celebratory bouquets were delivered to the ornate lobby, while front desk clerks scrambled to check in guests and some two-dozen bellhops took guests “from the basement, with its complete and wonderful mechanical equipment, to the roof, which is to be utilized as a roof garden and on which is erected the largest electric sign in Southern California that flashes its message to arriving visitors at the railway depots, from which it can be seen.”
Fellow hoteliers came to pay their compliments and an old journalist friend of George Hart was on hand to give operatic renditions of popular songs. The piece ended with the statement that “it was estimated by the Hart brothers late last night that at least 35,000 people passed through the hotel during the day.” It added visitors tried the ice water connected to each room, marveled at the engines and boilers, sampled purified water from a modern filtration system and tested the ventilation which processed outside air before it was sent through the building.
The Los Angeles Express was far les expressive than its rival in covering the opening, noting that the only formal component to the day was the performance of the orchestra during the hours of 3 to 6 and then 8 to 11. It also noted that “the hotel is one of the finest popular-priced hotels in the entire West, its architectural features and arrangements embracing all the latest ideas which make for the comfort and convenience of the traveling and tourist public.”
The success of the New Rosslyn was such that, just under a decade later (during which period, in 1916, they relinquished control of the Natick House), the Harts decided it was high time for an annex across Fifth on the southwest corner with Main. As they did with the hotel property, the brothers worked with John F. Sartori of the Security Trust and Savings Bank and secured a 99-year lease from the Edwards family, which owned the corner for some 55 years. Construction on the structure, which, because Dwight Hart was serving as a state senator (his tenure was from 1919-1925), was given a legislative dispensation to built at 13 stories, instead of 11, began in February 1923 and completed just before the end of the year, the peak of the latest boom in greater Los Angeles.
The 29 December 1923 edition of the Express showed not just how more coverage of such events became important to that paper, but to the media generally, as it was common for new downtown structures to have several pages of newspaper coverage, including ads of congratulation and promotion of contractors and retail businesses involved in a project. The paper stated that 5,000 people (a fraction of the reported 1914 opening, though perhaps that estimate was more like 3,500?) were expected to view the annex, which cost $1.5 million.
The paper went on that:
The colossal edifice of marble, steel and brick now towering 150 feet above Main Street is the realization of a dream and the achievement of a great project, attained by the tireless efforts of the two brothers.
It was noted that there were some four decades of experience of the two, with their father Henry involved in the hotel business in Los Angeles from soon after their arrival, he having management of the Bellevue Terrace (of which the Homestead has two photographs, which will comprise a post here someday), situated at Pearl (Figueroa) and 6th Street, and the Wright House, another hostelry. The article detailed more of the Hart brothers history in the hotel game.
As for the Times and its extensive coverage (the Los Angeles Record featured an invitation from the Harts to attend the opening, but no articles on the 29th), it began by noting that the grand opening “marks another great forward stride for Los Angeles as a city of high class accommodations for the visitor” and it added this was the second prominent hotel opened recently, the other, unnamed, was the Biltmore, which debuted in late February.
The two portions of the Rosslyn, which totaled 1,100 rooms and 800 baths, were connected by two 145-foot long marble-walled tunnels, one for guests and other for employees moving baggage and trunks as well as pipes carrying water and heat and pneumatic tubes for sending mail, messages and money, under Fifth Street, were to be rented for the 99-year period for a total of some $4 million, a new Angel City record.
The steel framing, done by the local Llewellyn Iron Works, was finished in record time and the general contracting, by the Scofield Engineering Company, which oversaw the Biltmore project, was done in 11 months and it was averred that “the speed with which construction work was carried forward constitutes a tribute to working conditions [non-union?] in Los Angeles.
The architecture matched that of the main hotel with John Parkinson joined by his son Donald, the elder having worked on many other notable projects including, for example, the well-known Alexandria Hotel at Spring and Fifth. Furnishings were provided by Barker Brothers, another prominent Los Angeles business and whose new store and building was opened earlier in 1926. Much of the equipage for rooms was customized and there was much harmonization of furniture as well as draperies to the wall coverings.
In the public areas, there was extensive use of marble and gold leaf on friezes, while a 17th century Beauvais tapestry hung above the registration desk and a grill under the main skylight was wrought by the skilled hands of Frank Weingartner, a well-regarded local craftsperson. On the mezzanine floor, walnut furniture was designed for the space and there were hung paintings of western landscapes by F. Grayson Sayre, also known for his engravings and illustrations. Interior designer J.B. Holtzclaw was credited for bringing together all the elements of color, texture, pattern and more in the Annex.
As with registration, the dining rooms and kitchens remained in the main building, so that the Annex was largely composed of the 350 guest rooms, aside from a lobby, mezzanine and public restrooms on the lower levels. With regard to the history of the site, the Times noted that H. Edwards and a partner bought the lot in 1868 and Edwards, whose first name was Hannibal and who was a native of England, built a house on his portion the following year. Edwards sold the property in 1896 (moving to the next lot west on 5th at the intersection with Spring) and a three-story commercial structure was built, remaining until it was raised for the annex.
The Rosslyn and Annex continued to operate for decades, though as downtown changed so did the hostelry, while the buildings survived and were both renovated for housing. The main building was remodeled at a cost of $15 million and opened as lofts, with 297 units, in 2009, and the annex, comprising 264 units, was completed in 2015 and includes a mix of market-rate and affordable housing spaces.
As for the Harts, George died in late September 1929 at age 60 after several months of illness, though his death was considered a surprise and his obituary noted that he was the business-minded contributor of the partnership, handling the finance and accounting. Dwight, who was more involved in management and operations, passed away in late May 1942 and was unusual in that he was sole proprietor of a large urban hotel in the years following George’s death. He was also a director of Sartori’s bank and a former president of the Southern California Hotel Men’s Association.
Finally, an eagle-eyed reader will note that the vignette matches one of the newspaper illustrations for the opening of the Annex and anyone visiting the corner of Main and Fifth streets in downtown Los Angeles now can take in the view of these two structures and, hopefully, appreciate more of their history.