Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Before the Convention Center, the Staples Center, LA Live and Football

This lengthy post will discuss the area around Olympic Boulevard, the Harbor Freeway, Pico and Venice Boulevards and Figueroa Street.  Images will provide a look at the historic footprint of today’s hot spot of a visitor-entertainment-sports center. 

Twelfth and Figueroa Streets marked the western fringe of the city with the U.S. conquest of California from Mexico in 1848.  Figueroa was then Calle de las Chapules or Grasshopper Street.  The city legally expanded south by 400 yards in 1859.  The street's name changed again to Pearl Street in the 1870s.  The gradual growth of the city moved southward, heeded in part by the zanja, or water ditch system, that ran a tributary along Figueroa – this was vital before the L.A. Aqueduct tapped into Owens Valley in 1913.  The Pacific Electric street cars ran along Figueroa.  Before the freeway was built in the 1950s with its parallel route, Figueroa Street was a congested north/south thoroughfare and federal highway route US 6.

Notice on the postcard below of the Harbor Freeway path which veers around the original 1971 Convention Center.  From a map one can see that the freeway was designed away from Figueroa starting at about Fifth Street downtown, but after Adams Boulevard the freeway returns alongside Figueroa.  Planners had to circumvent several important landmarks around the Pico/Figueroa area, namely the Georgia Street Police Station and the former Pacific Electric car barn.

(Image from the author's collection)

Early Settlers

A Californio family lived further south at present-day Jefferson and Figueroa - the Casa Figueroa Adobe has been documented although the structure is no longer standing.  Ramon Figueroa built the house, and a prior blog post discusses the history.

Two of the earliest non-Californio families to settle here were the Sentous brothers (from Haute-Garonne, France) and Major Horace Bell (from Indiana) with his wife Georgia Herrick (from Massachusetts) and the twelve children they raised here.

Cow Pastures

At the western boundary of the Convention Center is L.A. Live Way.  Before this designation the street was Cherry Street. 

The Pico freeway off ramp once spilled onto Cherry Street, now L.A. Live Way

Also (before Cherry Street) a section of the street from Pico extending to beyond Olympic was Sentous Street, named for the French brothers Jean and Louis Sentous, who were sheep and cattle breeders and dairymen.  They each arrived separately in Los Angeles around 1850.  Their expanses of land reached to present-day Jefferson and Western.   (Today there is Sentous Street in West Covina.)

Shown is John Sentous' cattle brand registered with the county in 1868. (Image courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.  All other photos on this page supplied by the Seaver Center are credited as "Seaver Center")

By 1887, a tract of land north of Pico (at where the Harbor Freeway runs near present-day L.A. Live Way and Pico Boulevard) was subdivided as property values rose during the period of frenetic land speculation. 

Image courtesy of the Seaver Center

Directly west of the Sentous Tract (presently on the other side of the Harbor Freeway, also north of Pico) was another tract during the boom of the late 1880s, the City Centre Tract.

Image courtesy of the Seaver Center

Pico Union, South Park and the Freeway

A three-quarter-mile section of the Harbor Freeway opened without any fanfare in 1954, and it bore through these neighborhoods.  Prior to the divide, the residents of the Sentous and City Centre tracts may very well have associated themselves with neighborhoods towards the west, to places like Union Avenue and Alvarado.  East of Figueroa was a concentration of automobile, industrial and manufacturing enterprises. 

When the area was severed, the Sentous tract and lands east were cut off.  Around 2003, these areas became referred to as a portion of “South Park” and more recently a part of the “Figueroa Corridor.”  In 2004, the neighborhood below Pico Boulevard, west of the freeway, was established into a segment of the Pico-Union Historic-Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ).

Yankee Residents on Figueroa

In 1866 Major Horace Bell (1830-1918) became an illustrious resident.  Originally from Indiana, he arrived in L.A. in the early 1850s and was a member of the Los Angeles Rangers, a semi-vigilante, peace-keeping group formed by private citizens.  In 1861 he joined the Union army, during which time he married Georgia Herrick in New York City, and they eventually settled at 1337 Figueroa Street.  According to the news reporting her death in 1899, she was described as the first American woman to reside west of Grand Avenue and south of Eighth Street.

Horace Bell (Courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Their homestead at 1337 Figueroa was located below Pico Street.  At the time, it was probably an idyllic location, away from the volatile, crime-ridden center of the city.  The water ditch provided the water source.  Major Bell had an office in town on Main Street, as he became an active voice in the community as an attorney and writer.  Beginning in 1882 he published a newspaper The Porcupine, for which carried the slogan “Fearless, Faithful and Free.”

For the rest of his life he was at odds with a great number of those in the city who had sided with the South; he maintained a combative personality.  On the domestic front, he had to defend his wife, too.  Georgia was well-respected, so much that the City Council named “Georgia Bell Street” in her honor.  In 1897 there was a move to change the name to “Nevada Street,” and Major Bell made his objections known though promising to ‘speak calmly.’  Those proposing the name change questioned why both “Georgia” and “Bell” needed to be in the street name.

Georgia Street formerly ran north and south between Pico and Venice, but the 1993 convention center expansion took away the public street from Pico to 15th Drive.

Major Bell later moved away to Berkeley and remarried.  The Figueroa Bowling Center was located at the Bells’ homestead address at 1337 Figueroa in the 1940s.  Bowling popularity surged after 1938; in 1940 there were 90 bowling establishments in southern California, with 45 of them in metropolitan L.A.

(Image from the author's collection)

A School is Built

Image courtesy of the Seaver Center
The Georgia Street School District covered this region at least by 1882 (the date is derived from a newspaper report in that year.)  In 1896 an elementary school was built at Pico and Sentous, named Sentous Street School.  By 1911 it became an Intermediate school.  The school was razed in 1969 to make way for one of the convention center’s multi-level parking lots.

The school children pictured here stood where L.A. Live Way runs today

About 1900, Paul R. Williams (1894-1980) attended Sentous, being the only African American student.  He was highly artistic.  He was an orphan, losing both parents before he reached five years of age.  He grew up to be a prolific, successful architect in Southern California, the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, Southern California Chapter.

The news on February the 17th 1899 reported an altercation involving a Chinese vegetable peddler in the area.  Boys from the school routinely taunted Chinese passerbys.  In this instance, the peddler retaliated by fetching a gun from his wagon and shooting at one boy thought to have thrown the stones, though missing his target.

Home for a City Convention Center

Before the Los Angeles Convention Center broke ground in 1969 to overtake an expanse from Pico Boulevard to Twelfth Street fronted by Figueroa, two sites used for convention and trade shows were the Shrine Auditorium and the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.  The business community wanted a convention center in order to compete with other major U.S. cities, and various sites were considered:  in 1954 a Civic Auditorium was proposed at Third and Fifth Streets near Flower Street; in 1966 a serious frontrunner was the Elysian Park Convention Center.  Public protests negated the Elysian Park site, and the Pico/Figueroa site became the strong choice, due to availability of land for future expansion (which the city eventually did just that.)

City planners reasoned that the area was blighted and in a high crime district whereby the project would bring improvements.  Notable structures and landmarks razed among about 100 buildings, houses, shops and stores included Sentous Intermediate School; a car barn once used for Pacific Electric streetcars and later for buses.

Evening Herald Newspaper

Another noteworthy condemned structure was the former Evening Herald newspaper building at 1233 Trenton Street.  Intricate limestone design in Churriggueresque style, it was built by Morgan, Walls and Clements in 1925.  The newspaper merged with the Examiner in the early 1960s and moved away.  Click here for a photo from the L.A. Public Library photo database.  The new convention center altered Trenton Street, which ran parallel to Georgia between Pico and Eleventh Streets.  Two new streets, "Tehran" and "Nagoya," had an international tone, and they flanked Trenton to create a entryway from Figueroa.  (Trenton, Tehran and Nagoya went away after the 1993 expansion of the convention center.)

Pictured below was probably a restaurant and bar near the Herald building:

(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)

Automobile Row

The Figueroa thoroughfare developed into an automobile row with new and used car dealerships.  (One of the earliest in the neighborhood was a Franklin dealership founded by Ralph Hamlin in 1905 at 1040 Flower Street.)  Small repair shops were among the businesses condemned in order to build the convention center.  Back on the main drag along the footprint of the convention center was the Kelley Kar Company at 1225 Figueroa.  The following is a postcard from the late thirties. 

(Image from the author's collection)

Another example of an expanding auto row in 1925 (Courtesy of Seaver Center)

Further down at 1610 Figueroa, Norman Roybark operated a used car dealership in the thirties, when he wasn’t occupied with the restaurant business.  In 1949, he opened his first Norm’s Restaurant way down Figueroa at Manchester.

More 19th Century Roots

Two other institutions to take root were Immanuel Presbyterian Church (between 9th and 10th Streets), and the Friday Morning Club (938-940 Figueroa).

The establishment of a church here in about 1888 helped to refuel a dismal Los Angeles Presbyterian congregation.  Georgia Bell was a member of the church.

The Friday Morning Club was established here in 1891.  The founder Caroline Seymour Severance was a civic leader who advocated women’s education and the right to vote, as well as kindergarten education.  A newer building was constructed on the same site beginning in 1923, and this building stands today.  Adjacent was the Playhouse, opened in 1924 offering stage entertainment with 1229 seats.  From 1940 (and as late as 1957) the front facade gained a marquee and operated as Times Theater for motion pictures.  Click here for an image from the USC Digital Library -- shown is the Hotel Figueroa on the left (correction 1/14/18) in this view looking onto north Figueroa.  and the Immanuel Church northward.  Across the street is the Times Theater within the Friday Morning Club.  Beyond the theater is the Finkle Arms Apartments, built in 1912.  This and other residential buildings were of this era – the 1912 city population was 427,000, over 8 times more than in 1890.

(Update 1/14/18)  Click here for an image from LAPL for the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, circa 1915, at the southeast corner of 10th & Figueroa (later Olympic & Figueroa).

Hotels and Motels

Across the street, a women-only hotel opened in 1926.  Below are two post card views of the Hotel Figueroa (at 939 Figueroa):

Note that this early image shows a house dwarfed by the hotel!

The history of the Hotel Figueroa has been covered in a previous post.  (Images are from the author's collection)

After the Second World War and into the 1960s a cluster of travel accommodations existed near the Hotel Figueroa.  And the Hotel Figueroa remains popular today.

Unidentified sunbathers at the hotel (Images from the author's collection)
Nearby at 920 Figueroa was the Kent Inn Motel:

A couple of blocks further west at Olympic and Georgia Streets were the Downtowner Motel (944 Olympic) and the Imperial 400 Motel (900 Olympic):

Movie trivia:  The Downtowner was a film location for the 1995 Pacino-DeNiro movie, Heat
(Motel images from the author's collection)

Convention Center Expansion

The Municipal Auditorium Department (the city governmental name for the Convention Center) received City Council approval to embark on a $310 million expansion in 1985, and this was completed in 1993.

Eventually all the buildings between Figueroa and the Freeway and Pico and Venice Boulevards were cleared out for the expansion.  A project office was set up on site in 1987 to enable residents and businesses to address their relocation concerns.  The interface between the city and the residents seemed much more amicable and accommodating than the process from the first phase of construction.  News reports indicated that for this expansion phase 1,500 residents and 128 businesses were forced to move.

Georgia Street Police Station

The most famous historic structure razed for the expansion was the Georgia Street Police Station at 1337 Georgia Street, near Pico Street.  The segment of Georgia Street no longer exists.  A juvenile detention facility was built here in 1915, but gradually police services included a jail and Administrative Vice and Metro offices.  In 1927, a police receiving hospital was opened on the third floor.  In its busiest times, fifty doctors and fifty nurses handled seven admissions per bed each day.  The station gained national attention from the radio crime show “Dragnet” as Sergeant Joe Friday would visit victims to record their statements by bedside.  Look Magazine proclaimed the station to have one of the largest emergency hospitals on the West Coast.  The cop characters in James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia makes several visits to Georgia Street.

In the 1940s the station was still used as a juvenile center.  The hospital moved to the Central Receiving Hospital on west Sixth Street in 1957, but the police station continued here until the mid-1980s.  Click here for an image from the L.A. Public Library photo database.

A Motion Picture Studio

In this vicinity also reflects some very early motion picture history as production work by the east coast Biograph Studios occurred here, including at Pico and Sentous, around 1911 through 1915.

Director D.W. Griffith (Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Actress Mabel Normand (Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)
Update 6-1-2017:  Newspaperman Matt Weinstock, in his book My L.A., mentioned a car barn at Pico & Georgia Streets that was used for filming.

Dinner and a Movie

Around the corner at 736 W. Pico was the Pico Theatre.  The 600-seat theater was already here in 1926 and still here in 1944, but directory listings are unclear for later dates.

Circa 1934 (Image courtesy of the Seaver Center)

A few doors west at 748 W. Pico was Johnson’s White Lunch.

It is not clear whether the Pico Theater or Johnson’s White Lunch were among the businesses to depart for the convention center expansion, but a thriving restaurant definitely impacted was the Hofbrau at 634-645 15th Street (today it is 15th Drive).

The Turner Inn Hofbrau was established sometime after World War II.  Its origin derived from the “Los Angeles Turners”, a German American club that took on a name change from the earlier Turnverein Germania.  The centennial banquet for the L.A. Turners was held at the restaurant on November 14, 1971.

Restaurant menu

Menu back cover (Images from the author's collection)

Around the corner at 1345 So. Figueroa Street was once the Turnverein Gymnasium, built in 1905.  The club espoused athletics, and among its activities were a rifle club and gymnastics. 

Its neighbor on the immediate north listed on a 1921 insurance atlas was a Bekins moving company headquarters.  At the corner of Figueroa and Pico once stood a Masonic Temple, built in 1905 (the West Gate Lodge No. 335 had recently formed in 1898 and moved here from Fourth and Hill Streets.)

Across the street were two other establishments that contributed to the growth of the city in terms of boosterism and cultural amenities.  The first An early Automobile Club of Southern California location was at 1344 So. Figueroa.  (The organization was founded in December, 1900, and moved in 1921 to the headquarters at Figueroa and Adams.)

The other establishment on the east side of Figueroa (at 1320 So. Figueroa) was the Los Angeles Little Theater which opened in September of 1913.  Its debut here was prompted by a nationwide little theater movement between 1910 and 1918 that led to the founding of amateur theater groups.  The Little Theater promoted cheap $2 seats.  A website for historic theater buildings has researched this theater.  In January of 1941, it became the Musart Theater.  The last news reference to the Musart was in April of 1951 publicizing the “Hypnoshow.”

(Click on image to zoom in)

The Condemned Community

News articles following the convention center expansion presented a positive outlook by some residents in that they were able to move out of decrepit apartments into better living spaces elsewhere.  Click here for an opposing view by sports writer Gann Matsuda who interviewed a long-time resident and also a 1999 discussion on the Staples Center.  Also in recent years residents in surrounding areas have banded together through the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice to better negotiate with developers for fair housing and job opportunities.

[Update 1/27/2019:  a new post on the Tale of Two Figueroa's and community organizer Darryl Holter.]