A vanished city lives again...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lost in time...

I've gone nuts, I really have. I am truly lost in time...

This old postcard showed up on eBay the other day in the Los Angeles category. As you can see, it says it's "Broadway looking North from Sixth St." But right away, I thought, that's weird, if this is Broadway looking north from Sixth, then why can't I see old City Hall, or the County Court House on Pound Cake Hill? No, this can't be Broadway. Is it even Los Angeles? Yes, it is, absolutely. The square white building at right center is definitely the Pacific Mutual Building at Sixth and Olive Streets.

OK, so where exactly in old Los Angeles is this, then? Well, first of all, we are obviously looking west on Sixth. That's Central Park there at right (now Pershing Square), so that would be Hill Street at the east edge of the park, then coming this direction, the unseen street in front of us would be Broadway. That means the picture was taken from a location on Spring Street, and, judging by the angle and perspective, that vantage point would almost have to be the Los Angeles Trust and Savings Bank at the northwest corner of Sixth and Spring. That's it! So, this postcard is actually "Sixth Street looking West from Spring St." And the date? It's postmarked 1912, and the L.A. Trust & Savings building... I believe that went up in 1910, so yeah, I'd say the photo for the postcard was probably taken then, in 1910.

Then I stop and think – I can recognize where I am in Los Angeles a century ago with perfect precision, but if I found myself at the same spot in downtown L.A. in 1999 (the last time I was there), I would have been almost completely lost.

What's funny is, I've acquired all this knowledge about the streets and buildings of old L.A. simply by casually viewing old images and maps I've found in online archives in only the last year or so. I've never actually sat down and studied any of this. I've just passively absorbed all this information, and have reconstructed most of turn-of-the-last-century Los Angeles in my imagination. These imaginings are so vivid now, they almost seem like real memories sometimes. It's so strange to feel so at home in a place and time as far away as this. Strange, but wonderful, too!


Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Best lighted Street in the World."

While on the subject of street lighting, I'd like to share what is probably my favorite postcard of old Los Angeles: this view of Broadway from First Street. Note the caption. Broadway is said to be the "Best lighted Street in the World." Although the card was mailed in 1907, I believe the image itself may be about a decade older, from around the turn of the last century (due to the conspicuous absence of automobiles).

I love this card mostly because the detail in it is amazing – it really brings the old city alive for me. Broadway was both the commercial center of Los Angeles and the seat of its government. (The tall Romanesque campanile with the pyramidal top is the bell tower of the old City Hall, built in 1888 – at that time, the tallest structure in Los Angeles.) Sadly, as with my even older postcard of Spring Street, not a single structure visible on this Broadway postcard remains standing today.

Here is the same view today. What was once a bustling downtown street filled with people, commerce and civil life is now a home only for sterile monolithic buildings.

View Larger Map

The postcard itself has an interesting story to tell. It was originally mailed to Belgium, and as you can see, it took almost a month to get there; traveling as it must have by sea.

In Europe, the postcard somehow survived two World Wars, made its way to the Netherlands where I bought it from an eBay seller there, and in the 21st century, the postcard is now back in California, with me. ^^

Now, see where the person who sent the card lived, and what's there today...

I can't quite decipher the name of the sender. It looks something like "Mrs. Linton," but her address is clearly "1351 Delong St."; note her 1s written in the European style.

Well, Delong Street is another of those vanished residential L.A. streets, like Palm Drive. And actually, Delong turns out to be walking distance from Palm Drive, in what was generally a very nice old out-of-the-way part of town.

Here's a view of Delong from an 1894 "bird's eye" map of Los Angeles.

We're looking towards the south here. In L.A., odd numbered addresses are on the west sides of streets, so 1351 would probably be the house immediately to the right of the "S" in "ST.", or maybe the small green one up and to the right of the "S."

Anyway, here's an aerial view of the neighborhood today, and a Google Maps Street View image. Delong Street is now occupied by the Los Angeles Convention Center...

Google Earth.

View Larger Map

Where «34 rue de l'industrie» is in Vilvorde, Belgium, though, I wasn't able to determine. Like Delong St. in Los Angeles, it, too, is likely no more...


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Birthday postcard

Got an unexpected surprise via eBay the other day: an old postcard mailed exactly 100 years ago today, and 46 years before I would be born.

It features a really nice view of the old L.A. County Court House, too; probably the nicest in my postcard collection.

Lovely penmanship...


Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Longstreet Palms: The oldest trees in Los Angeles?

EDIT (10/2/2021): Please note that this article contains many statements which, through subsequent research, I discovered are factually incorrect, especially the alleged connection to Confederate General James Longstreet. Click on the "longstreet palms" tag here or at the bottom of the page to read the most recent and accurate findings on this very interesting subject!

It's funny how things that we don't pay any attention to at first can gradually worm their way into our consciousness and eventually become an obsession.

Here's how one such obsession of mine began. As you can tell from my blog, one of my hobbies is collecting postcards of old Los Angeles; a common subject of which is a "palm drive" or "palm avenue," depicting a street lined usually on both sides with either native or exotic palm trees. Stereotypical California scenes, I thought, of no real noteworthiness. So, I generally ignored these palm-themed postcards – my specialty is downtown street scenes and buildings – but after a while, I started to notice that a lot of the really old palm postcards appeared to depict one specific location: one on or near West Adams Street.

Curious, I looked it up in my 1941 "Hill's Guide" of Los Angeles, and was somewhat surprised to learn that Palm Drive was an actual place.

Then, I went to Google Maps to check the location today. I recognized the area immediately. It's an old memory from my childhood, actually. Palm Drive is located on what is now (or was) the campus of the world-renowned Orthopaedic Hospital. I almost stopped my search for the palms at that point, thinking it unlikely they'd still be there. But just on a whim, I decided to have a look at the location with Street View. What I found simply blew me away. Amazingly, the palms still lived!

View Larger Map

Look how tall they are! Given that the early postcards of these palms were from the first decade of the 20th century, this meant they were at least a full century old. Truly remarkable! What I was about to find out, though, is that these palms were, in fact, much older, and even more remarkably, they had an improbable connection to a well-known figure in American history...

Cutting to the chase: in the course of my research, I uncovered convincing evidence that these two rows of Washingtonia fan palms could very well be the oldest living things in Los Angeles. They were planted by none other than Confederate General James Longstreet, about 135 years ago. That may not sound terribly ancient, but to better frame the time perspective, there are only 4 man-made structures still standing in all of Los Angeles that are older than these palm trees.

I compiled the following pictoral history principally by piecing together photos and bits of information I gleaned from two online archives: the USC Libraries Digital Archive, and the photographic collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. Now, watch the palms grow through the years!

c.1875: This is the earliest photo of Palm Drive that I've been able to find. ("Early" defined in terms of the height of the trees themselves.) How old are they here, really? There's a house near mine that was built around 1992 that has a Washingtonia in its front yard that is about as tall as these are below. From that, I infer that these historic palms probably began life around 1860. That would make them almost 150 years old  today. It was from the text accompanying this photo that I learned about the connection to Gen. Longstreet (that's his home at the end of Palm Drive).

Courtesy U.S.C. Digital Library.

1886: More information about Longstreet and his estate: "From a letter to the Herald Express (1940 February 5): 'About 1875, Confederate General Longstreet acquired the 40 acres on the northeast corner of Figueroa and West Adams streets. He did what was possibly up to that time the most extensive grading job done in Los Angeles. He made a pleasing slope up to where the house was to be built, a slope such as we used to read about in southern love stories. He built a mansion of Southern grandeaur [sic] and elegance and made the entrance from West Adams, between the palms which he planted, a southern romance. He planted the whole place with orange trees and it became the showplace of Southern California...'."

Courtesy U.S.C. Digital Library.

c.1900: This scene looks very similar to the photos of Palm Drive in the earliest 20th century postcards (e.g., as above), so even though this photo is undated, around 1900 seems about right. Here is a photo of General Longstreet's estate's grounds taken around 1890-1900. The caption mentions that the house at this time "was in use as an osteopathic hospital." The website for Orthopaedic Hospital says the clinic was founded in 1911, but evidently the property's history as a place for treating bone disorders extends back in time to the late 19th century when the property was still owned by Gen. Longstreet himself.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

c.1910: The referenced page says this photo was taken around 1920, but I guesstimate it was more likely taken closer to 1910.

Courtesy U.S.C. Digital Library.

c.1920: The text accompanying this photo gives the account that, at the time, these were the "tallest palm[s] in the city." Aha! Logically, if these were the tallest, then they were also likely the oldest. The more famous palm-lined avenues of Beverly Hills were just being planted in the late 'teens/early '20s. The trees of Palm Drive were already about 60 years old by then.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

c.1928: From the back cover of "La Reina - Los Angeles in Three Centuries," published by Security Trust & Savings Bank, 1929. The palms are truly in their prime! General Longstreet's house is gone now, and at right is the Holton Arms, an upscale West Adams "apartment hotel."

c.1940: This is the latest photo I was able find of the historical palms in the online archives. By this time, even before WWII, they had been here for 65 years, and were approximately 80 years old...

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

And it just so happened that while I was beginning to put the finishing touches on my information search, one of my favorite L.A. blogs (Larry Harnisch's The Daily Mirror) reprinted a column about General Longstreet's palm trees that had appeared in the Los Angeles Times 70 years ago, on July 8, 1938:

Click image for source.

Reading this old "Nuestro Pueblo" article was a big thrill, as it provided independent confirmation of many of the factoids I'd found in the USC and LAPL archives, with the happy inclusion of Mrs. Lucy Longstreet's role in the story.

On to the present day... via the web, I've learned that the site of Orthopaedic Hospital was sold in 2006, and that its redevelopment for luxury apartments commenced in 2007. According to this page, it appears at least some of the ancient palms have already been removed; perhaps all of them are gone now, I don't know. I don't live in the L.A. area, or I would definitely look into this myself.

It would truly be a shame to lose these venerable survivors. I wonder if anyone else but me has any idea just how old or significant these palms really are – that they were planted by a famous Confederate General and his wife, that they were once a celebrated showpiece of Los Angeles, and that today, they might just be the oldest living things in the entire city. Are Gen. Longstreet's palms really gone? I sincerely hope not...

Read the next installment in the saga of the Longstreet Palms: 'Whose palms are these, anyway?'

An 1899 postcard featuring "Palm Avenue."


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My oldest postcard

A new treasure! I just got this last week. This is my oldest postcard, probably printed in 1898. Actually, technically it's called a Private Mailing Card (as you can see). These were the first privately issued US postcards (from 1873-1898, only the USPS was authorized to produce postal cards).

Anyway, this one shows a hand-colored photo of Spring Street in Los Angeles at its intersection with 2nd Street in the late 1890s.

The imposing gabled brick building on the corner at left is the Bryson Block, an important center of commerce in Los Angeles in the last decade of the 19th century. At what looks like the end of the street in the distance is another important early commercial building, the Phillips Block. The dome you see in the background at center left is the top of the tower of the Los Angeles County Court House, and in this photo, the building immediately below it is the old 4-storey Nadeau Hotel, which, when it was built in 1886, was the tallest building in Los Angeles, and was also the site of the city's first passenger elevator.

When construction for the new Los Angeles City Hall was begun in the late 1920s, Spring Street was straightened, passing right through the site of the old Phillips Block. Here's the view north from the intersection of Spring and 2nd Sts. today. Quite a difference, eh?

View Larger Map

Not a single stick or brick of the old buildings from this point north on Spring Street remains today. In fact, they were all long-gone by 1950...


Monday, June 23, 2008

Rediscovering the "Willard" house

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite movies was the original Willard (1971), which was about a young man who befriended some rats that lived in and around his house. I liked the movie because I had so much in common with the protagonist, Willard Stiles. Willard was the son of a steel-industry man; so was I. Willard's mother was domineering and sickly, and demanded complete devotion. So did mine. Willard's working life was made a living hell by his duplicitous general manager and harassing co-workers. Mine, too. And, as I did, Willard turned to the companionship of animals as a psychic refuge from his tortured daily existence.

Fast forward ten years. I was working for my father's company at the time, and I had a business appointment in the Wilshire district across town. That office turned out to be in a grand old Victorian mansion, the likes of which were rarely seen anymore, especially right off Wilshire Boulevard, which was one of the most heavily developed (and re-developed) streets in West Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.

Anyway, I trotted up the front steps, opened up the huge carved wooden door, and stepped inside. Right away I saw it wasn't just one office, but many. I walked through the main hall seeing a large parlor then a large dining room to my left. To my right was a grand staircase. Then, as I spotted the office I was looking for at the end of the entry hall, it struck me.

I've been here before.

But no, no way. I'd never been in this house, obviously. But that front room, the room next to it, that staircase. Wow! This is the Willard house! Talk about a chill running up my spine! I was completely dumbstruck. I walked through a doorway on the far side of the main room, and there, again, to my right was another staircase – Willard's mother's staircase, the one in the movie that had the invalid's escalator chair on it. And the office my appointment was in was in the former kitchen, where Willard prepared the poison for Ben and the rest of the rats!

This was almost too much.

As soon as I introduced myself to my business associate, I asked, "Is this the house where they filmed Willard? "Yes! How did you know that?" "I just walked in and I recognized it from the movie." Then I looked out the back windows, and there was the overgrown garden and the cement pond, again, just like it was in the film.

(As an aside, there was another memorable thing about that office. It was the first time I ever saw a computer used in a work environment – and it was an Apple II, of course. ^^)

Anyway, in July, 2009, I got to see the old mansion again, though only from the outside. Oh well, I'm quite content with my memories as they are. Nothing could re-create the surprise of that initial visit!

The Higgins-Verbeck-Hirsch mansion, 637 S. Lucerne Blvd., Los Angeles. Photo by J Scott Shannon.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Origin of an obsession

It was this building and this shabby old postcard of it that planted the seeds of my present obsession with pre-WWII Los Angeles.

It's kind of a long story, but I'll try to make short work of it. Back in late 2007, while browsing the Panoramic Maps collection on the Library of Congress website, I found a number of "bird's eye" views of old L.A. I'll never forget my reaction upon seeing them for the first time.

"I don't recognize anything here."

The two maps which most caught my eye were both dated 1909. They were the most detailed, by far. After searching them for a while, I finally found something familiar: the Bradbury Building at Broadway and Third. OK, now that I had my bearings, I kept scanning the maps and found what looked like a civic center: a Hall of Records and a Court House. And, nearby, a large Post Office. Strange thing, though. The two maps had two completely different drawings of that building. Which was the correct one?

A cursory web search proved fruitless, so, just on a whim, I searched eBay for 'los angeles post office', and up came this single postcard. The image was striking and completely unfamiliar. Surely if this building were still standing when I was growing up in the L.A. area, I would have remembered it.

But if such an expensive and ornate edifice – which was clearly meant to endure as a civic monument into the ages – was gone by the time I was born, what happened to it? Well, after studying the more-accurate 1909 map a bit more, I saw why. The old post office was located very close to where the 101 freeway "slot" would be constructed in the 1940s. No wonder everything in that vicinity was gone now...

At that point, I really wanted to find out what that part of town looked like back in the day. Googling again, I queried about the post office's location – Temple and Main Streets – and voilĂ , I found a Blogger entry by a "lastraphanger" entitled "Temple and Main Streets: What Used to be Here." Wow! With both text and photos, this guy answered every question I had about the locale and much much more. I was utterly fascinated by his descriptions of this vanished part of old Los Angeles, and upon searching his blog further, I was delighted to find an absolute wealth of new information there.

So I became an ardent reader of this anonymous person's weblog. Practically every day, I learned more and more about this L.A. I never knew. Unfortunately, less than two months after I found lastraphanger's blog, he moved on in life and deleted it. To this day, I lament the loss of that important historical document...

However, that loss ultimately proved beneficial, because since I no longer had someone else to rely upon to tell me about the history of old L.A., I had to dig up the knowledge I sought by myself. Back when I was a college student, I loved literature searches, and thanks to the various online archives and the wealth of information they contain, I quickly became adept at finding my own answers to practically every aspect of old L.A. that I was curious about. The result is what you see here in my blog today!

*smiles* I still remain rather fixated on that old post office, though. As with everything else about the vanished city, the more I find out about it, the more fascinated I become. Anyway, I will definitely have a lot more to say about this building when its centennial arrives in 2010. Trust me, it will be a tale well worth the telling!


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Third Street at Hill: Then, Then, Then and Now

Within a span of only two lifetimes, one street intersection in Los Angeles undergoes an almost unimaginable series of transformations...


Courtesy U.S.C. Digital Library.


Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.


Photo by William Reagh, Courtesy California State Library.


Photo by J Scott Shannon.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

The other Wrigley Field

Several times, I remember Dad telling me about the other Wrigley Field, the one in Los Angeles: original home of the Los Angeles Angels (Pacific Coast League, 1925-1957; American League, 1961). I'd never seen pictures of it before now, though.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

Located at 42nd Place and San Pedro Street, California's Wrigley Field opened in 1925.

Courtesy U.S.C. Digital Library.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

This Wrigley Field got its lights in 1930. Its namesake in Chicago would have to wait another 58 years for night baseball.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

It was initially proposed that the Dodgers would play here after relocating from Brooklyn. This concept drawing from 1957 depicted proposed improvements to turn Wrigley Field into a major league park. Instead, it met the wrecking ball in 1966.

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Temple and Main Streets, Los Angeles: Then and Now

The civic center of Los Angeles in three centuries...

Temple Square – the heart of the city, 1885 – at the intersection of Temple, Main and Spring Streets:

USC Digital Archive.

Temple Square, 1927. The new City Hall looms over the doomed Temple Block:

Photo from La Reina - Los Angeles in Three Centuries, Published by Security Trust & Savings Bank, Los Angeles, 1929.

Temple and Main Streets, today:

Photo by J Scott Shannon.

The Temple Block was the ornate 3-storey brick structure in the older photos. It was the hub of civil life in Los Angeles during the 1870s-1880s. As we face the Temple Block, Main Street runs to the left, and Spring Street emerges at a diagonal angle to the right. Temple Street runs from left to right in the upper photo, but it can't be seen because it's obscured by the Downey Block at far right. (Here is Temple Street heading west from Temple Square.)

Spring Street was realigned when construction of the new City Hall began in early 1927. Spring now runs parallel to Main, and intersects with Temple where the large skyscraper at right is now located.

What strikes me the most when I compare these images is how the city center of old Los Angeles was a vibrant place, alive with people and commerce, while today's sterile Civic Center is almost exclusively a home for government, and where the populace is only a transitory visitor.

It's difficult to imagine this extensive a change taking place within a period of only two normal human lifespans, isn't it? Were a citizen of 19th century Los Angeles to suddenly find themself transported to today's Temple and Main, the place would no doubt be completely alien to them. Like another world entirely...


Monday, May 12, 2008

The Richfield Building

I'm in love again! ;-) This time with the Richfield Building (1928-1968), formerly located at 6th and Flower, Los Angeles. Unquestionably, the most elegant Art Deco skyscraper ever built west of the Mississippi. Its intricate, sculpted exterior was adorned with terra cotta tiles of black, burnished gold and turquoise. It rose 500 feet from street level to the top of its stainless steel neon tower.

I was alive and living in L.A. County during the last fourteen years of the building's existence, but unfortunately, I have no memory of it whatsoever. Not too surprising, considering its location, because Mother hated the adjacent Harbor Freeway and avoided it whenever possible. So near and yet so far...

Library of Congress-Historic American Buildings Survey.

Library of Congress-Historic American Buildings Survey.

Even its elevators were Deco design jewels:

Library of Congress-Historic American Buildings Survey.

Library of Congress-Historic American Buildings Survey.

Library of Congress-Historic American Buildings Survey.

Sadly for architecture buffs like me, after Richfield Oil merged with Atlantic Petroleum to form ARCO in 1966, the Richfield headquarters in Los Angeles was deemed redundant. It was torn down in 1968-1969, and replaced by the impossibly drab twin ARCO Towers in 1970.

Los Angeles Public Library.

Bleah. :-p

Aside: here is a restored Richfield service station (1934). Richfield's service stations of the time were also tastefully designed... simple but stylish.

Courtesy C. V. Dusty on Flickr.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Nostalgia for a place I never knew...

I should be taking eBay auction pics right now, but I'm feeling too edgy.

So, I'm relaxing like I have been a lot lately – traveling back in time to 20th century Los Angeles.

It's amazing to me that I feel nostalgic for a place I fled from in terror 25 years ago.

But it's not actually that Los Angeles I journey to in my mind. Mostly it's to a Los Angeles I never knew; before WWII, when it was a real city – a downtown that people actually lived in, as opposed to commuting to.

The freeways changed all that, though. The freeways bled the life out of Los Angeles. By the time I was born in the mid-'50s, most working folks had already left the city for suburbia.

I think this postcard photo was taken around 1950. (That's a '49 Buick in the foreground, and I can't really see any cars on the freeway that look much newer.) It's the Hollywood Freeway westbound just as it's leaving the city center.

It's a pretty view, but from a historical perspective, what's interesting to me is seeing all those houses and trees on Bunker Hill (above the billboard). It was still a largely residential neighborhood in 1950. I don't remember it being like that when I was growing up in the '60s. I do remember when the fate of the last two houses on Bunker Hill became a matter of public debate around 1968, though. That's when I as a young man first really became aware that there ever was a neighborhood there (and a quite wealthy neighborhood it was in its time, too).

*chuckle* I still think it's strange that I think fondly of L.A., though, at any stage of its history. Strange it may be, but that's where my thoughts have been going a lot lately when my mind wanders, which has been fairly often. ;-)


Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Bradbury Building

Photo by J Scott Shannon.

Right after you got your driver's license, where was the very first place you drove to on your own? Do you remember? I sure do! As soon as I could talk my dad into loaning me his car for a day, of all places, I went here – to the Bradbury Building, at 304 S. Broadway in Los Angeles. I couldn't wait to see this place with my own eyes. I was 16 years old then, and the Bradbury Building was, at least in an architectural sense, my first love...

Photo by J Scott Shannon.

I'd learned about the Bradbury Building via a favorite TV show called "Ralph Story's Los Angeles," and what I saw really struck a chord in me. For starters, I could hardly believe such an old building still existed in Los Angeles (it was built in 1889-1893). I'd grown up in the L.A. area and I never heard of the place before, and neither had my parents, both of whom had lived most of their lives in the southland.

Just to look at it, though, you can understand why the Bradbury Building didn't attract a lot of attention. It doesn't appear to be anything special at all from the outside. It's the interior design of the place that sets it apart from all others of its time, and still makes it a standout to this day...

Introducing the world's first modern open atrium office building.

Photo by J Scott Shannon.

Photo by J Scott Shannon.

Heh. Are you thinking maybe you've seen this interior space before? Well, you probably have! (It was J.F. Sebastian's apartment building in Blade Runner.) :-)

I remember the day so well – I'd dragged my friend Gary along for the ride, and it being a Saturday, we had the whole building essentially to ourselves. It was great! We went up and down one of the ancient elevators at least twice. (It was surprisingly quiet, as I recall.)

*sighs* I always wanted to be an architect when I was growing up, but my teachers and counselors finally convinced me that I didn't have the math or art skills to be good at it. (Thanks a bunch, folks.) I should have just gone ahead and done it anyway. I know now I could have been great. I've always had an eye for beauty in buildings. By and large, I'm very disappointed with the quality of the architecture my generation has produced. I know I'd've done a lot better if I'd had the chance...