by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Amid the explosive growth in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the capitalists who was deeply invested in real estate development through the region was James Boon Lankershim (1850-1931), a name people will readily associate with the San Fernando Valley because of the boulevard running on a diagonal northwest from Universal City and then north from Victory Boulevard to San Fernando Road in Sun Valley.
Important, though, as Lankershim was to the early history of that area, he was also a major figure in downtown Los Angeles real estate and had investments in what became Orange County and as far east as Pomona, though the featured object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is a letter from the Hotel Lankershim dated 17 July 1918. The letter and a receipt from March 1906 are springboards, if you will, to a summary of some of the notable history of the hostelry’s owner.
Lankershim was born in March 1850 in Charleston, Missouri, in the southeastern corner of the state near the borders with Illinois and Kentucky to Annis Moore and Isaac Lankershim. When he was ten years old, he and his family came to California and settled in San Francisco, though Isaac quickly amassed large stock ranches in Fresno and San Diego counties (obtained when land prices were down as floods and drought ravaged much of the Golden State during the Sixties) and his son, at age 18, assumed managerial responsibilities at the first and then the second.
In 1869, Isaac Lankershim and son-in-law Isaac Van Nuys (James’ brother-in-law, therefore) acquired 60,000 acres, comprising the southern half of the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando from the brothers Andrés and Pío Pico (the latter using his proceeds for the construction of the Pico House hotel on the Plaza at Los Angeles). A few years later, James came from San Diego County to help manage the ranch, which was largely planted to wheat, starting with about 2,000 acres but eventually entailing ten times that amount.
In 1878, the Lankershim and Van Nuys partnership acquired the old depot of the Los Angeles and San Pedro and then the Southern Pacific railroads (the latter having opened its new facility north of the Plaza) at the intersection of Alameda and Commercial streets just south of where US 101 goes through downtown today, and opened the Los Angeles Mills. This was principally devoted to processing the wheat from San Fernando into flour and, when it began operation in October, there were 30,000 sacks in the former depot building.
This continued to be the main enterprise for the partners, including after Isaac Lankershim died in 1882 leaving an estate of some $410,000 split between his widow, daughter (Van Nuys’ wife) and son. James Lankershim, meanwhile, in 1881, married Caroline Jones, the daughter of John Jones, an English-born merchant of long standing who served three times on the Los Angeles Common [City] Council.
Within a few years of the senior Lankershim’s death, all parties found it an opportune time to invest that bequest and ongoing income from the products of the ranch, which included sheep, horses, mules and fruit and nut orchards, in real estate, thanks principally to the onset of the great Boom of the Eighties that was largely precipitated by the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad’s transcontinental line to the region at the end of 1885.
As noted in the last post, concerning the Rivera townsite and depot on the line of the Santa Fe subsidiary, the Southern California Railway, coming from San Diego to Los Angeles, the development of another transcontinental connection from that far southern city provided another impetus for real estate speculation southwest of the Angel City.
In the case of Lankershim and others, who formed the Los Angeles Land Bureau, this involved the sale, from the end of 1886 into 1887, of a large tract, the former Metz vineyard and then reconfigured into the Center Tract, in Anaheim, which was a couple of years away from being part of Orange County, carved out of the southwestern portion of Los Angeles County. By May 1887, the Bureau, of which Lankershim was treasurer, embarked on another project during the red-hot boom, the town of Palomares, which was soon absorbed into the existing Pomona.
Later in 1887, Lankershim decided to form the Lankershim Ranch, Land and Water Company, though he did not take an official position with the firm, for the purpose of subdividing most of the San Fernando Valley holdings. Notably, a rift among residents who settled on the 12,000-acre tract developed when some, associated with Charles Forman, a business partner of Lankershim, took a liking to Toluca as a name for the community (there is a city in México of that name and there was, and still is, a Toluca Street west of downtown.)
Others, however, insisted on the name being Lankershim, so, while a post office and school district were given the former, a petition to change the district to the latter was approved. It all became moot much later, in the late 1920s, when much of the area became North Hollywood, though the community of Toluca Lake did revive that name and the thoroughfare preserves the other.
He reserved some of the property for himself and, in 1910, became a partner in the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company with such figures as Moses H. Sherman, Henry E. Huntington, Harry Chandler and other heavy hitters, who consolidated much of the San Fernando Valley before the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed and then raked in fortunes when land values skyrocketed with that project’s completion. Included in the portfolio were over 47,000 acres held by Issac Van Nuys, as well as land from Alfred Workman (no known relation to William Workman of the Homestead) and other tracts.
By the mid-1880s, Lankershim became active in Los Angeles business and social circles. With the latter, for example, he was a dedication Mason and involved with many social clubs, while also having the distinction of being the founding president of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, launched in 1880. During this time, he became a director of the powerful Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank of Los Angeles, managed by Isaias W. Hellman, former banking partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple. Later, Lankershim launched the Main Street Savings Bank and Trust, the Cooperative Savings Bank, and the Bank of Southern California.
There are at least two other items to note about Lankershim’s standing in Los Angeles. One is that, when a national guard cavalry troop was organized in 1895, he was commissioned a captain and, in 1903, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, so he was often known in society as “Colonel Lankershim,” while he served on the guard staff under three governors.
Another is that, in 1886, he was vice-president of a mass meeting held to denounce the presence of the Chinese in America. He did not, apparently, speak at the gathering, which Mayor Edward F. Spence attended, but among those who offered orations about why the Chinese took jobs, depressed wages, sent too much money to their homeland and could or would not assimilate, among other typical harangues, were Reginaldo del Valle, Stephen M. White (a future United States Senator), future mayor Henry T. Hazard, Dr. Joseph P. Widney (a key figure at the University of Southern California), and newspaper publishers Henry Z. Osborne (Express) and Joseph D. Lynch (Herald.)
He also began aggressive acquisitions of Angel City property and one of his early building projects was the completion in 1886 of a two-story frame business building and wood-frame houses at the intersection of Main and 4th streets. The same year, he and a group of investors bought the St. Vincent’s College building and property near Central or Sixth Street Park, now Pershing Square, as the college was readying to move to a campus on Washington Boulevard at Grand Avenue. Four years later, he built a brick commercial structure at Spring and 3rd and, this coming during the bust that inevitably followed the boom, Lankershim was later credited with keeping construction workers employed while displaying unwavering faith in the city.
During the frenzy of the boom, he acquired large tracts from a couple of the remaining Spanish-speaking Californios who held substantial property in the Angel City. In September 1886, he spent $30,000, a large sum, for 9 1/2 acres owned by Pablo Reyes between Main and San Pedro streets south of downtown, while just over a year later, he purchased almost 19 acres of former state treasurer Antonio Franco Coronel’s home and surrounding land at Alameda and 7th streets for nearly $114,000.
Interestingly, Lankershim did not appear to be all that concerned about self-promotion, recognition, or celebrations for his major building projects. When the 1886 and 1890 structures were completed, virtually nothing at all was stated in newspapers reviewed for this post and the situation did not really change much when he built his namesake hotel.
The biggest located coverage came in the 23 October 1904 edition of the Los Angeles Times, which announced that the hostelry was to be leased for ten years to Edwin R. Cooper, a hotel man of long experience in Denver. Previously, it was reported that a lease arrangement with the operators of the St. Francis in San Francisco fell through and that Lankershim was pondering operating his hotel on his own.
The article had photos of Cooper, Lankershim and architect Robert B. Young, a native of Canada who practiced in Denver and San Francisco before coming to Los Angeles in fall 1878. He designed the Hollenbeck Block, the state school for boys at Whittier, the Braun Building, the Barker Brothers building and many others, while he became Lankershim’s designer of choice for his projects. The paper observed:
It is said that this will be the finest hotel in the West, and its equipment will be the best to be obtained in the markets . . . The building is the p[r]ide Col. J.B. Lankershim, its owner, and its construction, which combines the best ideas of modern hotel building, is a credit to its architect, R.B. Young, who has personally supervised the structure from its very start.
At the time, it was reported that the upper eight stories were about completed, while the first floor and basement were nearly finished and it was expected that the opening would be on New Year’s Day 1905. With 400 rooms and half as many bathrooms, this being 100 more rooms than the Angelus Hotel, the Lankershim was considered fireproof, save its mostly maple hardwood floors, while the first two levels were finished in brownstone and the upper floors were of cream-colored pressed brick with terra cotta cornices.
The structure was distinctive in that it had three separate towers above the first floor, not unlike what happened with the Biltmore Hotel not quite two decades later. Amenities included billiard parlors, Turkish baths, and a barber shop, while the lobby off 7th Street was dressed in two types of marble, used modern lighting, and had, above the wainscoting, oil paintings as if tapestries and of regional scenery.
At the corner facing Broadway and 7th was a parlor said to be the most luxurious on the Pacific Coast, while the first floor contained a ladies’ lounge, smoking and writing rooms, a grill and dining rooms, the bar, the kitchen and offices. All had tile floors except the first, which sported a polished hardwood flooring.
Also of interest was that each floor of rooms was done in a separate style, including Mission Revival, (French Second?) Empire, Louis XV, Queen Anne, Colonial (Revival) and Oriental (whatever this entailed!). No rooms had wall-to-wall carpeting, but used rugs over red birch wood floors, while walls were painted from floor to ceiling.
Most furniture came from Grand Rapids, Michigan, then the capital of that product in the nation, while silver tableware was obtained from New York, as did carpets and drapes In all, Lankershim was said to have expended $800,000 to date on the structure, but with further expenditures the price tag was expected to top $1 million. Separately, it was announced that Harry Fryman was hired as manager, coming from such hostelries as the Van Nuys, Echo Mountain on Mt. Lowe, and the Brighton Beach at Point Fermin at San Pedro. The hotel’s opening was delayed to mid-February 1905 and was somewhat low-key as the accompanying article shows.
The bill shown here and from the Museum’s holdings is dated 5 March 1906 and was for two rooms at $3.50 a day for four days, including baggage and phone charges. It features a vignette of the hotel with his distinctive rooftop sign that spanned the length of all three towers. By October 1914, the lease with Cooper and his partner, Davis, was ended and the hotel was operated by Lankershim with William R. Flood as his manager.
The aforementioned letter from Flood to a doctor in Phoenix note that:
As the summer time is here, it is with pleasure that we wish to call your attention to the superior accommodations of this magnificent hotel, which is the best located in our city for the purpose . . . convenient to all banks, theaters, and shopping districts . . . Our Service throughout is elegant and refined, and our prices moderate.
Flood, after noting that he was told the doctor was contemplating spending his summer in Los Angeles (Phoenix has been known to get a bit warm during that time of year!), added that he was including a floor plan and price list and noted that a hotel car would pick him up at the railroad depot.
The manager then concluded his missive by noting that “we are anticipating a very large summer travel, as Los Angeles is fast becoming almost as attractive for the tourists in the summer as in the winter” because of the excellent weather in the former and being “preferred by a great many to the winters.” The Lankershim remained open until the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 forced its closure, though the structure was not razed until the 1980s, with a blog stating the first and second floors were salvaged and a parking garage built above it.
As for James B. Lankershim, he completed another major Los Angeles business structure, the San Fernando (named, of course, for the valley where he got his start), though, typically, it opened with virtually no fanfare on 1 October 1907. A few years later, the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Corporation began its work in the San Fernando Valley and, with the rapid growth of the motion picture industry, Carl Laemmle and his Universal Pictures empire became the first film company to build a studio in the lower end of the valley, purchasing land from Lankershim for what became Universal City, including where the studios and entertainment complex is now.
Lankershim, with his son, was in France in October 1931 (his wife died in Paris in 1928), visiting his daughter when he became ill on the return voyage and was removed from the ship at New York and taken to a Brooklyn hospital. After two weeks, the 81-year old capitalist, who’d been in poor health for some years, but was not considered in danger when he embarked on the trip, died.
Notably, his ashes were spread on a hillside of the north face of the Santa Monica Mountains range where a monument, later designated a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark, was built in his honor. It is in a remote location near Mulholland Drive a little south of Universal City and not only mentions a bit of of Lankershim’s history, but noted that the Treaty of Cahuenga, ending the Mexican-American War in California, was signed 1 1/2 miles to the north across from the main entrance to Universal Studios.