Unit Structures: A Photo Negative of Broadway South from 5th Street, Los Angeles, Summer 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As Los Angeles and its environs experienced several waves of intense development, there became sections of the Angel City’s downtown that became known for their somewhat specialized character. Spring Street, for example, was largely known as a financial district because of the preponderance of banks and other institutions and Walter P. Temple and partners built two height-limit (11 stories for aesthetics to avoid the dark streets of the likes of New York City and Chicago) there on either side of 8th Street for the Great Republic Life and National City Bank structures.

Seventh Street developed a reputation as a shopping district thoroughfare, with such large department stores and other enterprises as Barker Brothers, Bullock’s, Coulter’s, Haggarty’s, Robinson’s and the Ville de Paris, later B.H. Dyas, along several blocks between Broadway and Figueroa.

Los Angeles Express, 27 September 1924.

Broadway became the famed theater district with a string of modest venues followed during the Roaring Twenties and into the very early 1930s by increasingly grandiose and sophisticated movie palaces, especially as development moved south from Third to Ninth streets. A dozen theaters remain from 1910-1931 and spanning that spectrum for relatively small to quite large venues.

The highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post is a summer 1927 negative taken from the middle of Broadway on the north side of its intersection at Fifth Street and looking south. The photographer appears to have crossed the street and then stopped to snap the image with a few pedestrians in the foreground and a great many more traversing Broadway on the other side of the intersection, in the middle of which is a sign prohibiting left turns on to eastbound Fifth.

Express, 16 September 1905.

Spanning buildings on either side of Broadway for at least a few blocks to the south are a great many national flags, including Old Glory, as part of promotion for the National Conference of Catholic Charities, held from 4-8 September and part of which has been the subject of a post on this blog. The focus for this post, however, concerns some of the buildings in this image, which included a mixture of movie theater and retail store structures.

On the left, or east, side of Broadway, there are some buildings from 5th southward that are not visible or poorly so. These include the Title Guarantee Building, later known as the Jewelry Trade Building, completed in 1913 at the southeast corner; the Pettebone Building, which was adjacent and, when it was finished in 1905, housed a manufacturer of street lamps.

Los Angeles Record, 15 October 1921.

Because of the flags, it is tough to see if the building housing Quinn’s Superba Theatre, a 1600-seat venue which opened in 1914, can be made out. The Superba, however, closed after about eight years and was replaced by Tait’s Coffee Shop, which, after the obvious substantial remodeling, opened in March 1923. It, too, had an eight-year life span, after which a new theater, the Roxie, in all its Art Deco glory, welcomed its first patrons in 1931. This last theater built on Broadway, seating 1,600 persons, closed in the late Eighties, but the building survives with its auditorium still extant.

Also hidden and adjacent to the coffee shop was what was finished in 1910 as Clune’s Broadway, a nickelodeon venue built by the very interesting William H. “Billy” Clune, whose notable evolution from convicted labor radical to a theater impresario has been covered here previously.

Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1922.

More visible in the photo because of its height and the word “THEATRE” on the sign painted on the side of the structure, is the first Pantages Theatre, which opened not long before Clune’s venue. The saga of Alexander Pantages and his trials for the sexual assault of Eunice Pringle has also been featured on this blog as has some of the history of the structure’s builder, William Garland. In the distance is the Broadway Arcade Building, one of the more notable downtown structures and which was finished in 1924. We’re going to defer discussion of it, however, because we have a nice photo of it and can share more of its history in a later post.

Turning to the west side of Broadway, we can see that there are so many flags grouped because of the angle that only parts of the first two structures can be seen in any detail, especially the one on the southwest corner. The building adjacent to the south was also completed in 1924 and housed Maxime’s, a store which opened at the end of September and which had a large vertical marquee sign that can partially be made out.

Record, 1 January 1923.

The Los Angeles Express of the 27th reported that “another unique mercantile establishment will make its initial bow” and it noted the fast construction in record time, as the structure’s foundation work started in April, the store (which opened at that location in 1907) moved out in June, at which time the old building was leveled and, just half a year later, the new edifice was ready for its returning tenant.

Maxime’s increased its floor space, covering the entirety of the building, by almost five times to about 17,000 square feet upon its reopening. Architectural and floor layout details were provided, noting the white terra cotta exterior, the projecting roof covered in red tile, plate glass windows with ample display space and a 36-foot long lobby island window for patrons to peruse more product.

Times, 7 January 1923.

On the various levels were departments for hats, gloves, hosiery, undergarments on the like on the first level; untrimmed hats, millinery material and other items in the basement; cloaks, dresses and suits on level two; the highest-priced millinery goods on the third floor’s “department de luxe;” sportswear on the fourth level; corsets, cosmetics, perfume and shoes on the fifth floor; and receiving-rooms, offices and stockrooms at the top level.

The building with the most visibility—well, at least portions of the first seven floors or so— was the home of the Fifth Street Store, which opened on the site in 1905 in a much smaller structure. There were three owners originally, but, by the time the edifice was completed, there were two: William A. Faris (1872-1944) and Ralf M. Walker (1872-1935.)

Express, 7 July 1923.

Walker was from Michigan, where he was born to a farming family in Bellevue, now a town of just about 1,300 persons northwest of Battle Creek. Walker worked in small grocery stores in his home state and arrived in the Angel City at the dawn of the 20th century, where he found employment with Arthur Letts at The Broadway and remained as a department manager at that dominant department store until he co-founded the Fifth Street Store.

William A. Faris, hailed from Connecticut and came to Los Angeles in 1894, going to work with another major retailer, Hamburger’s. In short order, though, he was hired by Letts for The Broadway and became the manager of the enterprise’s increasingly lucrative finances. Faris and Walker partnered with D.H. Steele to open the new store and the latter helped manage it for a few years before stepping down, though he kept a financial interest for a period.

Record, 3 October 1923.

Over more than fifteen years, the Fifth Street Store grew as the city and region developed. It began with capital of below $200,000, but, by 1922, that mushroomed ten-fold, while sales more than doubled from about $3.5 million in 1917 to over $7.3 just four years later. With such expansion, Faris and Walker, who’d contemplated a new structure on the site in 1917, decided in fall 1921 to take the plunge and construct the 11-story building.

Notably, the approach was by units, by which three distinct phases were erected, allowing for the store to be in continuous operation, while the project progressed. While the initial time-frame was to be a year-and-a-half and cost $1.5 million, the former was much longer, and the lease was a typical one for 99 years. After traveling in the east in late 1920, Faris and Walker, the latter also going to Europe to inspect stores there, decided to hire Aleck Curlett, formerly of Curlett and Beelman, to design the structure, while they retained a veteran of department store construction for The Broadway, Hamburger’s and others, to work directly with Curlett and contractors.

Times, 16 March 1924.

Among the features highlighted in early press coverage were eight passenger elevators, a freight elevator, and an escalator system from the basement to the eighth floor with a capacity of ten elevators. The Express of 12 October 1921 noted that sales were actually $8 million with the employee force of some 1,200 employees, a far cry from the 100 that started in 1905. The entirety of the square footage was triple that of the original building with the first unit at the rear along Fifth Street.

Also noted by the Los Angeles Record of the 15th was that the structure was to have a two-story, 1,200-seat auditorium; a lunchroom and cafeteria; an open-air garden on the roof; and modern restrooms, all for the employees, while a mezzanine level was to house public lounges and restrooms. The first floor was to be clad in marble, while hardwood and plaster was used extensively elsewhere. Two entrances were on Broadway and one on Fifth with the former having an arcade of dual windows for displays, while terra cotta for the exterior and hollow tile for walls was provided by the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company.

Express, 4 February 1925.

As was the case with a great many of the skyscrapers built in the Angel City at the time, 6% interest mortgage bonds totaling $850,000 were offered by local brokers. One bond dealer, with offices in Los Angeles and Pasadena, proclaimed that “with such a building—occupied by one of the most thriving and substantial businesses in the fastest growing city in the country, the security behind these bonds is excellent.”

The units were completed in three successive years—1922, 1923, and 1924—with the company celebrating the openings of them in ads, while also having a massive birthday cake baked for customers to celebrate is 18th birthday in the fall of 1923. In March 1924, just after the final unit was finished and the entirety of the structure done, Faris decided to retire and left Walker to rename the parent company from Faris-Walker Company to Walker, Inc. as he moved seven employees up to higher management positions. Walker continued his active role in operations until, while on a shopping trip for merchandise in New York in 1935, he died suddenly of a heart attack.

As for Faris, who’d been the financial wizard of the store, he delved deeply into other ventures. He was a long-time director of Citizens National Bank, which merged with its sister trust and savings bank in 1928, formed the Commonwealth Oil Company that same year with some partners to prospect for petroleum at Huntington Beach, and, most of all, became a major developer along the Miracle Mile of Wilshire Boulevard. His work there included commercial structures, including the W.A. Faris Tower, which housed the Desmond’s department store. Faris died at his Beverly Hills residence in fall 1944 just shy of his 72nd birthday.

This photo is an interesting one documenting a portion of the very busy Historic Core area of theaters and stores along Broadway, including the Fifth Street Store, which was not as well-known as The Broadway, Robinson’s and May Company (which took over Hamburger’s a few years prior), but which was a thriving retail operation for nearly four decades.

2 thoughts

  1. The current use of the building, as a loft style condominium conversion from 2003-2005 now contains 281 housing units and is named SB Grand. The SB is short for Shy Barry, the reverse of the assumed name of Barry Shy.

  2. Hi Adam, thank you, that was accidentally left out of the post, so it is appreciated that you thought of it.

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