Temples of Trade: A “Typical Floor Plan” of the Title Insurance Building, Los Angeles, 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Anyone who buys a home at least knows of the terms “title insurance” though being able to define what this is might pose a challenge. A relatively simple explanation from First American Title Insurance Company notes that when such insurance is purchased for a property a title company does a search for public records about its prior ownership and to see if there are any issues, including levies and liens. A title insurance policy is taken out to protect an owner of property from any problems that might arise for as long as that property is held, while a mortgage entails a title insurance loan policy to protect the interest of the lender until the loan is either paid off or refinanced.

While there were searchers and examiners of records concerning property titles in Los Angeles during its first significant growth boom in the 1870s, it was not until the next and much larger one, that of 1886 to 1888, that title insurance became an important part of real estate transactions, with this concept introduced in Philadelphia during the American centennial year of 1876. The firm of Judson, Gillette and Gibson, which was formed during the earlier boom, was reconstituted in 1886 as the Abstract and Title Insurance Company.

Los Angeles Herald, 21 December 1893.

Seven years later, the firm effected a merger with the Los Angeles Abstract Company to become the Title Insurance and Trust Company (generally known as “TI” or “TICOR), which became a huge player in the regional real estate industry. Within a couple of years, the business added an escrow department as that concept of a third-party, such as a TICOR, establishing an account to hold down payments, closing costs, seller credits and other funds until the purchase of property closes and these are distributed. A mortgage escrow account, for purchases with less than a 20% down payment, is initiated at the closing of a purchase and continues through the life of the loan and payments are made monthly to the lender for homeowners insurance and property taxes.

Obviously, the onset of title insurance companies reflected the increasing complexity and sophistication of real estate purchases and, as the atmospheric growth of greater Los Angeles continued into the early 20th century, TICOR’s enterprise reaped the benefits. It originally was housed in the Abstract firm’s offices on Franklin and New High streets, neither of which no longer exist, but was just west of modern City Hall and about where Grand Park is now on the west side of Spring Street.

Los Angeles Times, 7 January 1894.

After another period of phenomenal growth, TICOR moved into a new 11-story (height-limit) building at the corner of Spring and 5th streets in early 1912, occupying three floors as well as a rooftop mapping department for its rapidly increasing business. When the Roaring Twenties brought another era of accelerating development for the firm, it decided to build its own structure across the street and to the north at 433 S. Spring and this was denoted as the Title Insurance Building.

Work on the structure began in January 1927 and the Los Angeles Times of the 23rd noted that “at present the ground is covered by the old Harris & Frank [the prominent clothiers] block and two small structures adjoining on the north” with those to be torn down the next day. Rising thirteen stories, the new building designed by the prominent firm of Parkinson and Parkinson (comprised of brothers Donald and John, the predecessor of which, Parkinson and Bergstrom, designed the structure where TICOR moved in 1911), was to “follow the Modern-American-Gothic style,” though it is generally described as Art Deco and included murals by Hugo Ballin, whose work is also seen at such Los Angeles landmarks as the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Griffith Observatory.

Times, 15 October 1911.

As is generally the case, the estimated cost and time of completion were greatly underestimated, with the latter ballooning to over double the initial figure, going from some $2 million to more than $4 million, while construction, handled by the Scofield Engineering-Construction Company, lasted about a year-and-a-half, several months later than anticipated. By March 1928, reported the Times, the project, which included a basement garage with a 200 vehicle capacity, was said to be about 80% finished and that “interior plastering is practically completed, and carpenters are busy placing the interior hardwood trimming,” after which marble was to be applied abundantly. As for the exterior, it was noted that terra cotta facing was supplied by the well-known firm of Gladding, McBean and Company.

At the end of the month, the Times published a panoramic view of the substantial structure from the southeast and stated that the previous expected opening of the first of May was pushed back two weeks. The piece observed that the 242×145 foot edifice was of Class A fire-proof construction comprising a steel frame covered in concrete with walls and floors of reinforced concrete.

Times, 23 January 1927.

Two weeks later, the paper reported that manager R. Roy Stockburger believed that three-quarters of the available four floors beyond the five TICOR was to use would be leased in June, when, at some point that month, the structure would open. When early June came, an updated noted that 70% of space not to be used by the owner was under contract and he added that lessees were “pleased with the setback style of architecture, which affords all occupants with the maximum of light and air, and with the general attractiveness of the building’s interior arrangement and decoration.”

In its 9 June edition, the Los Angeles Express noted that a firm opening date of the 14th was announced by TICOR and that “the entire day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. will be given over to a reception for clients and guests of the company, and all departments of the organization will be thrown open for public inspection.” Including the cost of the land, the total expenditure, as noted above, was in the neighborhood of $4 million, but that resulted, the company offered, “one of the finest institutional buildings in the country.”

Times, 8 May 1927.

Herman Sachs, who hailed from Romania, was mentioned as the interior designer, and highlighted were such features as three wide openings from Spring with gates cast of brass leading to a vestibule. Over each opening was a polychrome tile panel of very modern design, while the ceiling of the latter consisted of tile in striking black, gold and red colors. Brass doors led from the vestibule into the lobby and foyer where the elevators were placed.

In all details of the structure there is not only the beauty so suggestive of the traditional attractiveness of the Southland environs, but the simplicity and the mass which are symbolic of the company’s conservatism and strength. Built of the finest materials obtainable, strengthened far beyond the demands of the most exacting of architects, the new Title Insurance Building embodies the spirit of welcome in its refinement of detail and elegance of appointment, which is such an essential element of the business policy of this old company.

On opening day, the paper focused on two floors inhabited by TICOR, including the third, which housed the “valuable land title records” and the ceiling of which was an “acoustical celotex” comprising the largest installation of such in the Angel City. The tenth floor contained executive offices and the dining room of officers, along with the general employee cafeteria and recreation rooms separated by gender.

Times, 15 March 1928.

It was added that the firm employed 700 persons with branches in six southern California counties, that it issued its millionth guarantee the prior year and, with capital and surplus above $10 million, the firm was the largest of its kind in the western United States. Among the chief executives mentioned or depicted in photos were Oliver P. Clark, who was a founder in 1893 and was secretary and treasurer; William H. Allen, Jr., who was president since 1895; and relative newcomer Stuart O’Melveny, whose father Henry was for years the firm’s counsel and whose grandfather Henry K.S. O’Melveny was an early Angel City attorney and judge. O’Melveny joined TICOR in 1923, after the death of another founder, Otto F. Brant, but rose to be vice-president by 1928 and later served as president and board chair.

Calling the opening “a monument to its growth from its small beginning thirty-five years ago,” the Times, in its edition of the 15th, observed that the event marked “a new era of service and prosperity.” The four floors utilized by TICOR were decorated so that they were “a veritable garden of flowers” with bouquets and floral pieces adorning employee desks. The paper added that “the architectural lines are pleasing especially and make the building a distinct addition to the business district in which it is located,” Spring Street being the financial center and the edifice called by some the “Queen of Spring Street.”

Express, 9 June 1928.

Featured in the piece were the mezzanine level telephone system; the trust and escrow departments (these pioneered by the firm) on the second level; the third-floor searching and title sections; the legal and purchasing areas on the fourth level; and offices elsewhere. The tenth floor was also mentioned, as described above, though it was added that “the cafeteria is complete and modern in every detail” and a private pantry kept food warm for the executives until it was ready to be served. A future addition was to be a rooftop gymnasium.

The Times also noted that “the finest of furnishings and new equipment have been installed,” while the rooms were airy and there was plenty of desk space and conveniences of all kinds for workers and customers. With the opening, it was reported that some 10,000 visitors toured the structure and “girl employees were stationed about the floor and served as guides for visitors, showing them every portion of the organization’s new offices.” Guests enjoyed cake, ice cream and punch in the cafeteria, as well.

Express, 14 June 1928.

Among the guests were city and county officials who congratulated Allen, Clark, O’Melveny and other TICOR leaders and expressed “appreciation of the years of service the organization has given Los Angeles.” An accompanying photograph graphically depicted the luxuriousness and expansiveness of the building through a view of the trust and escrow departments and gave an idea of the lavishness of the décor and furnishings.

An ad in the Express several days later showed off the new “temple of trade” and boasted that “the growth of this trust institution evidences its ability and integrity in all fiduciary capacities.” Moreover, it was noted that

The trust department of this company has grown steadily with Los Angeles. It has far outgrown its former large office space and is now established in the finest and most commodious trust company headquarters in Southern California—in the new Title Insurance Building.

The erection of the structure was part of a late Twenties flurry of commercial building construction in downtown Los Angeles and, just a few months prior, the completion of City Hall, on the former site of the Temple Block, marked the apex of an ambitious program of growth and development in the Angel City.

Express, 20 June 1928.

Yet, just around the corner, came the crash of the stock market in New York City and the unleashing of the Great Depression. The unbounded enthusiasm and near-universal belief in untrammeled economic growth was shattered and the nation and world underwent a long period of financial struggle and political turmoil, to boot.

As for TICOR, it weathered this difficult years and the World War II period, as well, with the megaboom of the postwar period marking bellwether years for the firm. As downtown Los Angeles, however, deteriorated, the firm left its headquarters after a half-century and moved to suburban Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley. It was purchased in 1992 by Chicago Title and Trust, which eight years later was acquired by Fidelity National Financial and the company is now known as Ticor Title.

The building was, as so many have been in recent years, renovated recently and is now known as “The Trust Building” offering office and retail space, while the former quarters of TICOR, renamed the Rowan Building because it was acquired by the prominent commercial real estate firm of R.A. Rowan and Company, is also still with us, but is mostly devoted, as is typical, to lofts and known as “The Rowan.”

The highlighted floor plan is of one of the five floors available for lease and showing 49 offices, the elevator and stair areas, the restrooms and other aspects. Noted discuss details about the office spaces as well as the available use of wings with some flexible space possibilities. Those interested in more were asked to go to the building office on the second level. Some pencil inscriptions appear to be calculations for square footage and area at the lower left are crossed out, suggesting these were leased and unavailable.

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