by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830-1930 and its geographical area of greater Los Angeles, it can be very challenging finding artifacts and material on people of color, which makes the highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this Labor Day edition post of the Wo/men at Work series pretty remarkable.
When it was acquired a decade ago, the photograph did not have any inscriptions, though there was the title provided with the cabinet card when it was produced: “The Men That Painted the Darby.” What obviously stood out about the image, apparently taken on the balcony on top of the Neoclassical portico at the building’s entrance, was that, while there are almost 30 white men who comprised the crew, most wearing the overalls and jackets as part of their trade, the African-American man seated at the center not only was dressed much differently, but was clearly positioned their for a reason of prominence.
The location was the Hotel Darby, which also doubled as an apartment complex when it was completed early in 1910. A previous post briefly mentioned it because the structure appeared on the cover of a 1924 tourist and hotel publication and it still stands today on Adams Street and Grand Avenue. A couple of articles about the edifice when it was in the course of construction provided some notable details about it.
For example, the Los Angeles Herald of 8 August 1909 observed that the five-story structure with a basement (designed by the well-known architect John C. Austin) was to contain 130 rooms, each with a fireplace, white enamel walls and mahogany doors. There were to be 70 bathrooms with ceilings, walls and floors in white tile, considered the ultimate in sanitary conditions, while each contained wardrobes for women’s clothes.
Additionally, the approximately $100,000 hostelry had a large lobby, parlor, dining room, tea room, grill, billiard room, and a barber shop. The French Renaissance structure was of steel, reinforced concrete and brick construction and included “the most approved hollow tiling for partitions.” Considered fireproof, as all modern buildings then aimed to be, the Darby was built on the home site of Wesley Clark, who moved the residence a block to the west to build the hotel-apartment building, which was named for his mother-in-law.
Clark told the paper that “cost is a secondary consideration—that no expense will be spared in making it a modern hotel apartment in every particular, and that nothing will be omitted that will add to the comfort and convenience of guests.” Because of this, the piece concluded, it was claimed that “no hotel in California will surpass it in appearance, appointment, interior and exterior finish.”
There was also a description, almost identical in content, in the Los Angeles Times of the same date, though the latter mentioned Austin as the designer as well as gave the estimated cost. Some online sources, however, noted that the contractor for The Darby was a Black man named Charles Blodgett, who also was hired several years later to build a one-story brick dining room addition to the building. The very informative Water and Power Associates website has a photo of Blodgett at the wheel of an automobile parked in front of the structure, but, otherwise, information on the man who must be the seated gent in the photo here is sparse.
Charles Sumner Blodgett was born in October 1869 (most sources show his birth year as 1871, but he appears as a year old in the 1870 census) to freed slaves farmer Albert and housewife Amanda Blodgett in Augusta, Georgia. The family lived briefly in Dorchester County, South Carolina, about 90 miles away, but returned to Augusta, where Blodgett began work as a brick mason and where, in late 1892, he married Mary Ladeveze. The couple was still there when the 1900 census was enumerated, but left very soon after and came to Los Angeles as a daughter was born here when the 20th century dawned.
The Blodgetts resided near Echo Park just south of Temple Street, where there was a small Black community at the time, and it was while they were living in that area that Charles got the contract for build The Darby. Among other located projects he built was a five-story, 85-room tenement building on Flower Street on Bunker Hill west of today’s Broad art museum, a commercial shop at Central and 12th, and a school near Alameda Street and Washington Boulevard.
In 1920, the family resided south of Washington near where today’s Interstates 10 and 110 meet and Blodgett began to broaden his business and community interests, especially in the growing African-American neighborhood centered on Central Avenue south of Washington. He was a speaker at an October 1919 banquet given by the Progressive Business League and the Black newspaper, the California Eagle of the 11th called him “our biggest contractor.”
Blodgett’s younger brother, Louis (1878-1965), followed Charles to Los Angeles in 1904 and joined him in the contract business. In 1924, the brothers and several other Black business figures organized the Liberty Building Loan Association, which started with a modest $10,000 capital investment, but grew to be a multi-million dollar enterprise under the management of Louis, who was married to the daughter of the famous Colonel Allen Allensworth, founder of the African-American colony in the San Joaquin Valley that is now a state historic park.
The Blodgett brothers built a four-story building on Central near 25th Street that the Eagle, which first mentioned it in 1925, in its edition of 28 August 1931 called “a good object lesson in race pride” and added that “local Negroes should be proud of it and accord it their full measure of support.” Moreover, continued the paper:
we believe that the veteran builder, Mr. C.S. Blodgett, is deserving of credit in going into the venture. He might have, had he chosen, invested his funds elsewhere with greater expectation of profit. But he chose to do the thing which would raise the standard of our group in this community for before he built the Blodgett there was little evidence that the race was making any progress at all on Central avenue.
The erection of the four-story building with its modern features including elevator service was a signal for a grouping within it of some of the most progressive and worthy Negro business enterprises within the city.
While not as well known as the Dunbar Hotel, built in 1928 by the dentists John and Vada Somerville and named for them, the Blodgett was cited in the article for not only being the headquarters of Liberty Building Loan Association, but a dress goods manufacturer, the Blodgett Motor Company which sold vehicles, and professionals in the upper floors, including architects, dentists, doctors and lawyers. Also located in the structure for a time was The Blodgett Realty Company, of which Blodgett’s son, Charles, Jr., was a salesperson and which also handled collections, insurance and loans.
With African-American builders and owners and Black businesses leasing space in the structure, the Eagle concluded by noting, “it brings home to the people that there is nobody in the way of progress except ourselves that that we must find our own way out and solve our own problems. The material is at hand if we will put our minds to it.”
Another notable building with which Blodgett was associated was the Angelus Funeral Home building on Jefferson Street near Central and which was completed in November 1934. The structure was designed by the great Black architect Paul R. Williams and the Eagle proudly pointed out that 85% of the labor was done by African-American contractors and employees, including the substantial concrete and brick work handled by Blodgett. The funeral home, opened in 1925, later moved to a new home, also designed by Williams, but the 1930s structure still stands and is a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
Not long afterward, Blodgett and his wife moved to Monrovia in the northern San Gabriel Valley, and he continued working there, including in sales, until not long before his death in May 1952. He was interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. Notably, his early work as a contractor had a very specialized context, as pointed out in a 16 December 1932 article in the Eagle.
The piece stated that Harrison Gray Otis, the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times “organized the corporate interests of Southern California in a fashion so as to control the politics of Los Angeles and vicinity.” In 1889, the account continued, the firm of Hamburger and Sons, owners of a large department store that was later sold to David May and became May Company, joined forces with Otis “in an open shop plan against organized labor.”
It was asserted that “in this fight these corporate interests used Negro labor on all buildings and in their shops” even as unions began to grow and threated Otis and the other “open shop” forces. This then meant that:
Mr. George Brown and Mr. Charles S. Blodgett, building contractors, were instructed by the corporate interests to employ Negroes on all contracts which were given them. The finances for the operation of these contracts were furnished by the corporate interests because of the fact that these contractors were unable personally or through the available Negro financial resources to meet their weekly payrolls. Negroes had no banks and no building loan companies. Consequently these contractors were at the mercy of their white corporate financiers. In this fashion every contract which these contractors procured were on such terms and conditions as these corporate financial interests would dictate. When these corporate interests saw it was to their advantage to make a deal with the union labor group this deal was made.
This fascinating claim may, if true, have applied to the work Blodgett did with The Darby, including his subcontracting with the painters.
In any case, Blodgett’s life and career is a remarkable one for the history of Black Los Angeles and the photo featured here is a very rare artifact connected to him and his work as a pioneer African-American contractor in the Angel City for most of the first half of the 20th century.