Raze and Means: The Demolition of the Old City Hall, Los Angeles, 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A previous post here featured a snapshot from 21 January 1929 taken from the observation tower atop the recently completed Los Angeles City Hall and taking in a panoramic view of the areas to the north including what became Chinatown, Elysian Park, Lincoln Heights and others. It just so happened that, on the same day, an auction was held at the previous city hall building, situated on the east side of Broadway between 2nd and 3rd streets and which served that function for nearly four decades.

The Romanesque style structure, begun when William H. Workman was the chief executive of the Angel City, was opened in 1889, shortly after he left office and just as the great Boom of the 1880s came to an end. With explosive growth continuing in the early 20th century, it was clear that edifice was not nearly large enough to house the expanding municipal bureaucracy and additional quarters were secured in the adjacent Hosfield Building, erected to the south in 1914.

Los Angeles Express, 16 January 1929.

Still, the urgency of a new civic center of a much greater scope and scale continued to be felt and, during the 1920s, plans were finally enacted for a new city hall, with Workman’s son, Boyle, being president of the City Council when construction finally commenced in 1926. The site, which was actually just a minuscule portion of an extraordinarily ambitious civic complex that would have remade a large swath of downtown, including the Plaza, included all of the Temple Block, where the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple constructed some of the earliest substantial brick commercial structures between 1857 and 1871.

With the completion and opening of the new 28-story City Hall in April 1928, the city turned its attention toward the former building with talk of selling the property, once the edifice was torn down, and using the proceeds, along with those of other municipal parcels, towards a combined police and health departments building. In its edition of 16 January 1929, the Los Angeles Express reported that,

The old redstone [red sandstone] City Hall in [on] Broadway, which housed city executives for 39 years and is one of the landmarks of Los Angeles, is soon to become a memory. A contract was awarded by [the] City Council for the razing of the historic structure. The structure, the pride of citizens of the thriving community as ground was broken for it in 1888, now presents a forlorn appearance as wreckers prepare to level it.

It was noted that the exterior looked “disheveled,” that dust and trash, including discarded liquor bottles and a simple drinking spot set up in the mayor’s quarters, were everywhere in the interior and doves roosted in mahogany desks.

Los Angeles Times, 19 January 1929.

Three days later, the Los Angeles Times observed that auctioneer William O. Trask was hired to conduct the public auction of contents from the venerable building on the 21st and it even invented dialogue that he might use, such as for the flagpole: “For forty years the Stars and Stripes has waved from this pole. Beaten by storms, shaken by—er, ahem—kissed by the glorious sun of our Southland, this magnificent eighteen-foot shaft of cast iron has stood while Los Angeles grew from a village to the fourth largest city in our nation. What patriotic society, what public-spirited citizen desires as a souvenir this faithful sentinel of our civil welfare?”

Abraham P. Chain of the Globe Wrecking and Salvage Company won the contract for demolition of the structure with a low bid of $5,000 and said that he anticipated that his profit would be derived from the sale of material salvaged from the razing supervised by Fred C. Harris, starting with the removal of doors and windows. Chain added that “fragments of the red sandstone steps . . . will be distributed to the public as souvenirs, as soon as wrecking operations permit.”

Los Angeles Record, 21 January 1929.

The Los Angeles Record of the 21st stated that there was already a commitment from a North Hollywood man to buy the flagpole, while others demonstrated interest in the sandstone steps and some of the blocks of that material used in the tower. The paper also observed that city council records indicated that there was a cornerstone laid, but it had not yet been located—it was later determined that there was no cornerstone with a box of materials laid at the site. The Times of that day added that City Clerk Robert Dominguez, of the powerful Californio family that owned Rancho San Pedro and whose uncle Manuel was a signer of the 1849 California Constitution (even though some delegates insisted he not be seated because of his dark skin) reported that there was no specified location.

The Los Angeles Express also of that day, but issued in the afternoon, reported on the auction, noting the builders and contractors were among those who appeared. When it came to the flag pole, it quoted Trask as querying, “what am I offered for that steel flag pole?” while adding that “it is a relic worthy of being placed in front of any man’s home.” George Kindred, the man named earlier as inquiring about it, won the bidding at $155, and, while the article discussed Trask and the crowd wandering through the building with offers for marble and furnishings, not much detail at all was provided about what was transacted (there were no takers, apparently, for marble slabs at 10 cents each.)

Express, 21 January 1929.

The following day, the Times offered its coverage of the sale and, as it was wont to do, it sought to animate the event with an imaginative description:

As if in indignant protest against the desecration of things redolent with the romance of early Los Angeles days, a chill wind whipped through the glassless windows . . . it was dark, it was cold and there was a sort of sinister, funer[e]al at[mosphere] [as] curious people picked their way among radiators, globes from light fixtures, old flags and bunting, plumbing fixtures, old files and cubby holes piled about the main lobby with its grand staircase of solid oak or mahogany all ready to be knocked down to the highest bidder.

Trask trod upon the large counter which Dominguez used “haranguing the crowd and declaring he was not going to holler his lungs out all day if nobody was going to bid for this high-class all-porcelain lavatory.” Notably, Kindred seems to have gotten wrapped up in Trask’s sales job about the importance of the flagpole, as he was reported to have been discussing with the auctioneer that he wanted to retract his bid—the upshot was that anyone else wanting the relic was free to go to the new city hall and make an offer.

Times, 22 January 1929.

The article added that with Trask and the assemblage “from room to room they went” where there were iron stoves, a moth-infested elk’s head, tiles, counters, and the massive vault “which at times held millions in the city’s cash and securities,” including when William H. Workman, from 1901 to 1907, served as treasurer. It concluded by informing readers that “the auction will continue as a private sale and anyone may buy a brick or the whole building.”

In its edition of the 25th, the Times published a letter from Jackson A. Graves, the lawyer and banker whose 1927 memoir, My Seventy Years in California, was followed three years later by California Memories, in which he recounted how the old City Hall was placed in its location. He noted that Moses L. Wicks, a prominent figure in late 19th century Los Angeles, “was the prime mover there,” in that Wicks secured an option on the Broadway property and went to the City Council for negotiations.

Times, 17 February 1929.

When that body balked at the price, Wicks was willing to reduce it and told Graves of “the benefit that the location would do the property in the neighborhood,” including the northeast corner of Broadway and Third, which was owned by Graves’ wife and where the couple until recently had resided. Swayed by the reasoning, Graves joined with Wicks in making large monetary contributions to the acquisition fund for the civic building and, by securing more from friends and neighbors, “we soon had enough money on hand to make up the difference between the price asked for the property and that which the Council was willing to pay.” It was concluded that Wicks, who died in 1919 after being hit by a car, “was a very energetic and enthusiastic real estate dealer, and did much for the advancement of Los Angeles city.”

The Record, in its issue of the 29th, reported that the City Council set a 21 February date for accepting bids for the lease of the site once the edifice was completely razed, with an agreement to be of five years’ duration, including a 60-day termination notice. The city attorney was also directed to prepare a clearing of title for the property along with the nearby central police station preparatory for sale. As noted above, the idea was to sell these lots with funds generated going to the joint police and health departments quarters at the Civic Center. Meanwhile, managing editor Alexander Y. Tully of the Express, in his “Shootin’ Straight” column joked that a dime was found in one of the vaults in the structure and marveled “that’s the only one the Cryer crowd overlooked!” This reference was to Mayor George E. Cryer and his cronies at City Hall.

Express, 4 March 1929.

As the removal of the building continued, the Times of 17 February provided some interesting history of the site, noting that the earliest recorded owner was Francisco Figueroa, of the family for whom the well-known thoroughfare is named and who was a treasurer of the pueblo of Los Angeles and then the first elected treasurer of the American era (his resignation led to F.P.F. Temple taking the office in 1850).

When Figueroa, who also owned lots on Eternity Street (North Broadway), paid $382 into the municipality’s treasury in November 1849, he was, in fact, the treasurer. The article added that Wicks, Luther H. Titus (who owned a large orange grove in the San Gabriel Valley), and Howard W. Mills deeded part of the Figueroa tract to the city for the structure for $54,000. In 1929, however, the frontage alone was pegged at not far from $600,000.

Times, 10 March 1929.

Another interesting historical tidbit about the Old City Hall came in Lee Shippey’s “The Lee Side O’L.A.” column in the Times in its edition of the 22nd. Specifically, he was commenting on the beautiful ornamental landscape at the the new city hall and how this was said to be a novel concept, but City Treasurer Ned T. Powell, who served under William H. Workman in the early years of the century and then was a successor for a record twenty-two years from 1916 to 1938, told Shippey that “back around 1900 we had quite a garden there.”

This included cotton, which Powell imported from his native Georgia and he said “cotton was such a novelty in California then that people couldn’t believe it,” although F.P.F. Temple, William Workman and others experimented with it during the Civil War in case the region might become an alternative source outside the Confederate South. He added that people would frequent walk out the back door of the Imperial Restaurant on Spring Street and into the City Hall garden and Powell compared it to the Broadway-Spring Arcade Building of that period and which is still with us today. Curious guests, though, picked at the cotton to the extent that the plants could not grow sufficiently and, as additions to the civic building came along, the garden was sacrificed.

Times, 23 April 1929.

In its issue of 10 March, the Times reproduced a painting of the Old City Hall by Boza Hessova, a Hollywood artist from Prague, Czechoslovakia, who’d only come to the area from Chicago a few months prior. In “learning with astonishment that it was to be demolished,” such attitudes about buildings being different in her homeland, Hessova hastened to paint the structure. The paper received a description from Arthur Miller, who accounted that her work “has real historical significance and deserves a place of honor in the city’s archives.” Hessova (1899-1981), also known as Beatrice Hess, painted landscapes and portraits and, fortunately, this painting survived and is now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

By April, the ground was cleared and a parking lot opened with a lease arranged with James Lloyd of Hollywood. A reported interested party was Simon Lazarus, operator of the Million Dollar Theatre, which did, however, make use of the new lot for patrons, so perhaps he worked with Lloyd. Soon, however, the latter sought a major cut in the monthly amount from $2700 to $1500 because the 200 spaces were not being used enough and, while this was agreed to, it was found that there was no signed lease nor was it known if the city received any revenues from the arrangement, which was then ended. A new deal was struck with the firm of Howard and Nunn and, to this day, the former city hall site is a parking garage for the Times as well as a small open lot operated separately.

Express, 12 August 1929.

As for the demolition, the original $5,000 bid turned out to be a bad bargain for the contractor, who claimed that most of the structure’s walls consisted of brickbats, or fragments of full-sized bricks. With some 12,000 loads of this material that was essentially unsalable, the contractor sought an additional $12,000 to make up the shortfall that accrued. The city attorney, however, that there was legally nothing that could be done to modify the contract. There were, however, two local buildings that made use of bricks and sandstone from the edifice—check out this post from Historic Los Angeles.

References to the Old City Hall‘s pending demolition, found in conjunction with some research about that panoramic view from the new civic complex’s observation tower, hopefully provides some interesting history about the city halls of Los Angeles. As the current facility approaches its centennial, we’ll look to find more ways to share some of that history, as well.

Leave a Reply