Eastern Columbia & Broadway Side Trip

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Side Trip! See downtown’s Art Deco masterpiece – the Eastern Columbia Building!

This Side Trip covers seven blocks and maybe 30 minutes of your time. But if you’re into Art Deco, do it. Remember, we lost the Art Deco Richfield Building – the one you didn’t see (besides on a postcard) earlier on this tour. But we didn’t lose this icon, the Eastern Columbia Building. Along the way you’ll see more Art Deco buildings, two dazzling Broadway theatres and what was once  the largest department store on the West Coast.

–> From the corner of Grand Avenue and Eighth Street walk east on Eighth Street one block to Olive Street.

A) Commerical Exchange Building. Straight ahead on the right corner rises the 13-story Beaux-Arts Commerical Exchange Building (Walker and Eisen, 1924). The architects are the same folks who brought you the Wurlitzer Building coming up on this tour as well as the Oviatt Building you saw earlier. Time hasn’t been good to this one, though. It sits empty, yet it has an interesting past.

The Beaux Arts style loves order, balance and symmetry. Looking up at the Olive Street side you see all the windows in 2-3-2 sequence. Now check out the Eighth Street side, with all the windows strung along in happy little groups of two, right? Check again. The fourth cluster in from the corner isn’t a cluster at all – it’s a single window.

In the 1930s, during an Olive Street widening project, the city gave the building’s owner two choices: shave about five feet off the front of the building to allow for the street widening or demolish the structure. The owners did neither. Instead, they contacted the George Kress House Moving Company and here’s what George and his men did: they sliced through the middle of the building and removed a 5-foot section, then slid the Olive Street side (all 5,000 tons of it) back, leaving its façade intact.

The “house-moving” business was big back in the early years of the 20th century as urban growth pushed into once-bucolic suburbs. Certainly, it was a business that kept Kress busy; it’s believed he moved thousands of houses and commercial buildlings during his career.

Maybe because the act of moving a house down a street attracts attention, Kress became quite the showman – he offered to un-lean the leaning tower of Pisa! Besides the Commercial Exchange Building, his next best act had to be moving the Hiram Higgins house designed by John Austin (whose design portfolio included City Hall, the Shrine Auditorium, Griffith Observatory and the Collection Building seen earlier on this tour). See, “It’s a Fact,” below.

It’s a Fact:

The George Kress House Moving Company, whose slogan boasted, “If we had room to work, we could move the world,” did their finest house-move when called upon by Hiram Higgins, owners of a Wilshire Boulevard mansion. Split into three sections, the mansion moved down Wilshire Boulevard while a “house-moving party” took place within one of the sections. Onboard for the event was the Mayor of Los Angeles. Cheers!

–> Cross Olive and continue along Eighth.

B) Golden Gopher. Maybe the left side of Eighth Street won’t win any “city beautiful” awards but at least things are happening here. The Lindy Hotel (at #419 1/2″) its ground floor tenant the Golden Gopher and the Hotel Bristol are looking up and; D-Town Burger Bar, a 50s-themed burger diner, just opened, too.

An anonymous Citysearch blogger described the “Gopher” this way: “If Liberace and the Rolling Stones got together in the ’70s to do an extreme makeover of a downtrodden dive bar, the result may have looked something like this luxurious lounge.”

At this writing the Bristol was on a renovation course to affordable housing. The mural (entitled “Westside“) on the west side of the the hotel is by JR whose works – more typically of faces – can be seen throughout the city. One in his series, “Wrinkles in the City” can be seen from the Little Tokyo/Arts District MTA station platform.

C) Garfield Building. Claud Beelman, architect of the Eastern Columbia Building, designed the Garfield Building. at the northwest corner Hill and Eighth Streets. The 1929 structure hints at a Gothic design and combines Art Deco organization (vertical, setbacks, tower) with Art Nouveau ornamentation. Art Nouveau (think Tiffany lamps) often favored floral patterns and they abound here with flowers and vines. Venerable Gladding McBean did the terra cotta work.  The once-illuminated marquee is of glass, marble, nickel and cast iron.

The lobby (try to peek through, if you can) with its black and purple marble, polished nickel furnishings and spectacular gothic-style chandelier, was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument; the rest of the building followed nine years later after a  $1 million makeover. The present owners, the Chetrit Group, bought the building in 1991 but have not moved to renovate the structure. In March of 2010, the Downtown News named it one of downtown’s ten worst eyesores.

–> Cross Hill Street, turn right and cross Eighth Street. Continue east to Broadway.

D) Broadway Trade Center. You’re walking past the former May Company department store, now the Broadway Trade Center. Look for the “H” signs above the first floor level. Erected in 1908, the store was called “Hamburger’s Department Store” before acquired by The May Company in 1923.

Look across the street to the left at the boxy, shiny, granite-clad structure labeled “Beaudry.” It’s the Union Bank Annex – a 1957 extension to the former Union Bank. The architect of this “International-style” building? Why, the talented Mr. Claud Beelman!

Though some architects may be associated with particular styles, Beelman’s works flowed smoothly from Beaux-Arts to Art Deco and on into Corporate Moderne and Corporate International. The fact is, most most architects didn’t follow trends; they created them. Always at the cutting edge – and to some critics, often over that edge – architects worked tirelessly to convince their clients they weren’t just building their buildings, but their very legacies.

It’s a Fact: Although Broadway’s Tower Theatre was the first in town wired for sound, its opening featured the silent movie, “The Gingham Girl.”  It’s not a Fact……that the first motion picture with “talking” segments, “The Jazz Singer,” premiered at the wired-for-sound Tower Theatre. It sure makes for a nice story, though.

As you near Broadway, look for “The May Co.” in the terrazzo at the Eighth Street entrance to the Broadway Trade Center.

–> Stop at the corner of Eighth and Broadway.

E) Tower Theatre. There at the corner rises the elegant little Tower Theatre. Broadway’s narrowest theater, it opened in 1927 – the first built specifically for “talkies.” It’s also believed to be the first downtown theatre to be “air-cooled.” The architect, twenty-eight-year-old Simeon Charles Levi (later, S. Charles Lee), also designed the Los Angeles Theatre two blocks up the street as well as the Bruin Theatre in Westwood – just a few of the 400 or so structures attributed to him.

–> Cross Broadway, turn right and continue down the street.

Don’t miss the detail in the Wurlitzer Building (architects Walker & Eisen, 1924) at #818 S. Broadway. With its terra cotta façade recently cleaned, its colors stand out beautifully. Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer opened his first shop in Cincinnati selling imported muscial instruments but within a few decades was making violins, harps, juke-boxes and their best-known product, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” theatre organs. There’s more about those organs coming up soon in this Side Trip.

F) Eastern Columbia Building. Looking down Broadway you can instantly spot this Side Trip’s destination: the Eastern Columbia Building. No matter the weather, the structure’s brilliant turquoise, blue and gold terra cotta will be striking. A neon clock, restored and relit in 2005, perches near the top of the building just below the decorative flying buttresses that brace a central smokestack. And it all gets better as you get closer.

–> Continue down Broadway to the Eastern Columbia Building.

Completed in 1930, the Claud Beelman-designed building featured a ground floor and mezzanine devoted to the owners’ flagship department stores: Eastern Outfitting, selling appliances and home furnishings (they got their start selling clocks) on one side of the central entrance hall, and Columbia Outfitting, purveyors of clothing, linens and accessories across the hall. The remainder of the building was devoted to offices.

Anchoring downtown’s southern limits, the turquoise building was – and is – visible for miles around. The gold color you see is real. It’s gold dust, $25,000 worth of it  – a tidy sum in 1930 depression-era dollars.

The Sieroty family, owners of what was once 39 stores in the Southland, closed the store in 1956 and within two years the lower floors had been converted to offices and the mezzanine level removed. A 2007 conversion has brought 147 loft condos to the 13-story building; some residences boast 14-foot ceilings. You can’t see from here but tenants have a rooftop pool, sundeck, cabanas, barbeque pit, fitness room – and incredible downtown views.

G) Ninth & Broadway Building. Before heading back to the main tour route, check out the Ninth & Broadway Building. Yet another design of Claud Beelman, the 1930 building (he was a busy guy!) offers some interesting exterior ornamentation – mostly in the Art Nouveau style. Inside, knock on the walls and what you thought was marble proves to be a faux marble finish. The ceiling used to be covered by a 1950s-era drop ceiling. And note the unusual use of roman numerals above the Art Nouveau elevator doors – and the original interior walls of the elevators.

–> Exit the building and walk next door to the Orpheum Theatre.

H) Orpheum Theatre. The Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, Sally Rand, Judy Garland (Francis Gumm, back then), Duke Ellington, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Jack Benny all performed here. So has Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. The Beaux-Arts Orpheum Theatre (G. Albert Lansburgh, 1926)  is done up in a Renaissance Revival style with an unusual placement of the theatre to the side, rather than behind, the main entrance.

The Orpheum (that’s the “O” in “RKO”) moved around a bit downtown. They first operated a non-ciruit venue on Main Street in the early 1880s, opening a theatre on Spring Street (1888) and then moving onto Broadway into what is today’s Palace (1911). Today’s Opheum, the fourth and final in the city, opened in 1926 at the peak of the silent-movie era and made it through the talkies, wide-screen, 3-D, Cinemascope eras, finally closing in 2001 – but only for a while. Owned by Steve Needleman (the Needleman family has owned the theatre since 1964), a major restoration took place. Most agree that the venue hasn’t looked this good in 50 years.

Its organ, the “Wurlitzer, Style 240 Special, Opus 1821” (image right), was installed two days before Christmas, 1927. It remains the last original theatre organ on Broadway and one of only three in Southern California. Far above the organ are the 37 sound-proofed (?) live/work lofts: the Orpheum Lofts.

The Los Angeles Conservancy hosts their “Last Remaining Seats” program each year at this and other Broadway theatres.

–> Return to the corner of Broadway at Ninth Street and cross back to the Eastern Columbia Building entrance.

Photo-op! The vestibule of the Eastern Columbia loves the lens!

While you’re here, try to guess the purpose of the eyelet-like protrusions you see above the first floors on the corner buildings at this intersection. Look carefully.

Answer: They were installed to support steel cables that were strung across the street. From those cables hung the electrical wires from which streetcars gained their power. The streetcars are gone but…

Streetcars may be returning to downtown Los Angeles – soon! GoLAstreetcar is on track, as it were, to get things rolling again. Click here for more information about bringing streetcars back to downtown L.A.

The “Bringing Back Broadway” initiative is moving to revitalize Broadway. Click here for more information about the initiative.

–> Return once again to the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street.

I) Blackstone’s Lofts. It’s a tough to look pretty when you’re sitting across the street from a turquoise, blue and gold building, but Blackstone’s Lofts, formerly a department store (Blackstone’s Department Store, John Parkinson, 1916) looks  respectable. The owners went to big expense preserving the historic features of the building, including restoration of the original glass exterior windows. Second-floor tenants in the 82-unit building have picture window views of their dazzling neighbor through glass that once framed store mannequins. Those second-floor mannequins could be seen from the sidewalk but even more easily from the top level of double-decker buses that used to share the street with streetcars.

Across Broadway from the Blackstone Lofts, just down from Ninth Street corner, is a little gem of a building that seems to be barely hanging on. It’s the Broadway Leasehold Company Building, (aka L.L. Burns Building) erected in 1914 and designed by the Meyer & Holler and the Milwaukee Building Company. It’s similar to, but not as ornate as, the Brock & Company Building (where Mas Malo and SevenGrand are located) on Seventh Street) you saw passed earlier on the main tour.

–> Walk east on Ninth Street towards Hill Street.

J) May Company Garage. On the left, at #228 W. Ninth, is the May Company Garage. Back in the day, parking garages were given some serious design attention; this one, by Curlett and Beelman, dates to 1927. Claud Beeleman, you may recall, designed the Eastern Columbia Building. Obviously cars, and where to park them, has been an issue for Angelenos for generations.

–> Cross Hill Street and continue on Ninth Street to Olive Street.

At #318 W. Ninth Street is another Curlett and Beelman building – this one, the Insurance Exchange Building (1924), erected for offices instead of cars.

At Ninth Street and Grand Avenue the Side Trip ends and you’ll rejoin the main tour. Take a short walk up Grand Avenue so you don’t miss anything covered in the main tour.

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