A Bit of Downtown History: Tour of the Subway Terminal Area

(Part 1)

Copyright © 1999 (revised 2006) Tom Wetzel

Pershing Square
Main Street Station
Grand Central Public Market

Part 2:
Angels' Flight
Court Hill
Bunker Hill
What caused the decline of the downtown?

Into the early 1950s the Subway Terminal in downtown Los Angeles was a major transportation hub. Because of its historical importance, the Subway Terminal is a convenient starting point for a dig into bits of downtown L.A. history. In this tour we look at the area within walking distance of the subway terminal. In the map below, circa 1950-53, the Subway Terminal Building is marked in red.

Subway Terminal Area Circa 1950

The Subway Terminal was the downtown end of a one-mile-long streetcar subway that was used as the entry into downtown for four Pacific Electric light rail lines — basically streetcar lines with bits of private right of way — operating to Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, and Glendale. In 1952 the four routes still operating out of the subway provided a combined weekday total of about 100,000 rides.

The Subway Terminal was located in the basement of the Subway Terminal Building (photo below), which was the largest office building in downtown Los Angeles when it was built in 1925. The Subway Terminal was a "limit-height" building, that is, it conformed to the 150 foot height limit that had been in effect in Los Angeles from 1905 til the late '50s.

Subway Terminal Building

The underground train terminal under the Subway Terminal Building is shown in the photo below.

Walking south on Hill Street...

Two art deco limit-height office buildings were built on the same block on Hill Street as we see in the photo below left (taken in the 1980s). The building on the corner of 5th and Hill is the Title Guaranty Building, an example of the zigzag moderne style. The building mid-block is the Federal Title building...since demolished.

Below right is a postcard view of the Clark Hotel, an 11-story structure with 555 rooms, across the street from the Subway Terminal Building. The government of the People's Republic of China bought the hotel in the 1980s to be a business and cultural center — a project that was a casualty of the vagaries of China/U.S. relations.

Title Guaranty Building Hotel Clark

In the next photo (from "Pacific Electric in color Volume 1") we see a Venice Short Line train in the late '40s, having just departed from the surface tracks on the south side of the Subway Terminal Building. Note the Town theater and the Clark Hotel across the street from the Subway Terminal.

Train on Hill Street

Already at this early date breaks in the street frontage had appeared here for parking lots. This creates "dead" spots in the street frontage that makes the street less interesting as a walking environment, and the cars crossing the sidewalk are an obstacle for pedestrians.

Pershing Square

A half block south of the Subway Terminal is Pershing Square, a lively spot in the street life of downtown Los Angeles. Soapboxing in the square was a common tactic of radical and union activists in the early 20th century. This made sense because of the large population of casual workers, and workers employed at low wages in stores and workshops around the downtown area, who lived in the nearby residential hotels and lodging houses. Soapboxing in the park sometimes had to be defended against official repression. In 1909 a number of young radicals were arrested by the LAPD in a free speech fight in the park after the city council had banned speakers.

In the early 20th century, before the early 1920s, most people in Los Angeles got around on the streetcar system. But in 1912, the poorest segment of the workforce — people making under $500 a year — could not afford to ride streetcars. They got around by walking. This means there was a very large working class population living in and around the downtown area, particularly in the area running east from Main Street to the Los Angeles River, which was a residential area in the early 20th century. After the elite got the zoning changed for area east of Main Street to industrial in 1907, the working class were progressively forced out of that area over the years as housing was replaced with industry. As that process happened, many of the low-wage downtown workers moved to Bunker Hill.

As late as 1940, 80,000 people lived within a one-mile walk of 7th and Broadway (considered the center of downtown for many years). More than 12,000 of these residents lived on Bunker Hill. In the '40s and '50s Bunker Hill was a somewhat racially mixed but predominantly white working class neighborhood. People living on the hill worked in downtown stores, warehouses, hotels and the like. Most of the residents in the boarding houses and residence hotels on the hill were in their 20s and 30s.

By the 1980s the population within a mile of 7th and Broadway had fallen to about 40,000, though there are currently efforts to rebuild the downtown residential population by rehabbing vacant office buildings into apartments. However, the downtown property owners, speculators, developers and their allies in the media and government are aiming for a very different population than lived downtown in the 20th century. Throughout the first half of the 20th century the people living in and around downtown were the working class who did the work necessary to the stores, warehouses and loft manufacturing centered downtown.

The new loft and apartment boom downtown is aiming at a more upscale, professional class population. The gentrifying trend has become large enough that landlords are "flipping" buildings on the southwest edge of downtown, forcing out low-income people such as garment or hotel workers, and jacking up the rents, and renting to professionals, USC students...people who can afford to pay higher rents. The Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice is the largest of the organizations that have been fighting this displacement.

Prior to 1918 Pershing Square was known as "Central Park." The lush greenery of the park (prior to the construction of the parking garage under the square in the '50s) made it an oasis in a downtown environment of concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets, lacking in street trees or other greenery. The following is a postcard view of the square in the early '40s, with the Philharmonic Auditorium and the Title Guaranty Building along the far (north) side, and the palatial Biltmore Hotel at the left. At the edge of the card at the right is the three-story Hotel Parisian. The demolition of the Hotel Parisian for a parking lot is an example of how the residential population of downtown was diminished during the postwar era.

Pershing Square

The following view shows the Philharmonic Auditorium and the Auditorium Office Building at 5th and Olive. The Auditorium ceased to be the home of the L.A. Philharmonic after the opening of the Music Center in 1964. The building was demolished in 1985.

In the early 1900s the Philharmonic Auditorium was also used for talks and political rallies. In the evening before the vote in the hugely polarized city election of November, 1911, a torchlight parade of 10,000 supporters of the Socialist Party ended here in front of the auditorium, with speakers addressing the rally. The Socialist Party received 38 percent of the vote in that election.

Philharmonic Auditorium & Office Building

Prior to the construction of the Philharmonic Auditorium and Auditorium Office Building in 1904, Hazard's Auditorium, shown below, was located on this site. Hazard's was for many years the main auditorium in Los Angeles.

Hazard's Pavillion

Across Olive Street from the Philharmonic Auditorium office building is the San Carlos Hotel (demolished). The following 1930s view shows the San Carlos from Pershing Square.

San Carlos Hotel

The next photo shows the same view today.

5th and Olive Today

At 5th and Hill, dominating the southeast corner, were several three-story Victorian era buildings, with bay windows and apartments above shops, including a book store and a barbeque joint. In the photo below we see Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel in the background. These 3-story Victorians were demolished to build the Red Line subway and replaced with a nondescript concrete plaza — erasing this lively urban spot and a bit of L.A.'s architectural past.

Victorians at 5th and Hill

The next photo shows this same view today.

Fifth and Hill Looking West

On the southwest edge of Pershing Square, at 6th and Olive, is the Pacific Mutual Building, a classical temple of capitalist finance. The building is still there but the facade of the building on the corner has been modernized.

In the '40s and '50s Pacific Mutual was headed by Asa Call, the "Mister Big" of L.A. politics. Call and Neil Petree, president of Barker Brothers furniture emporium, had formed the Committee of 25, an elite group of powerbrokers, a kind of capitalist shadow government. In the early '50s the Committee recruited empty suit congressman Norris Poulson to unseat Mayor Fletcher Bowron in a notorious red-baiting campaign in 1953. The main issue, as far as the downtown elite was concerned, was the fate of Bunker Hill. The first Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) under Bowron proposed a housing development for Bunker Hill that would provide affordable housing units for the downtown workforce. The downtown elite had different ideas — made real in the Bunker Hill of today.

In the 1930s postcard view below, a Los Angeles Railway car on the U line is about to turn left onto Olive Street to run up to 5th Street where it would turn right to continue east on 5th.

Sixth and Olive

Continuing down Hill Street we reach 7th Street, which was a major shopping street. In the postcard view below we're looking west on 7th St. at Hill. The theater on the northwest corner was originally the Pantages Theater, bought by Warner Brothers in the '40s to exhibit its product. The 8-story building housing the theater was built by Alexander Pantages in 1919. In 1988 the theater was transformed into the Jewelry Center. Today about 50,000 people work in the jewelry industry in downtown L.A. — about one out of five downtown workers.

7th at Hill

Walking east on 7th Street we reach 7th and Broadway — regarded as the center of downtown for decades. The building on the northwest corner is the former Bullocks department store. The photo at right shows the dense throngs attracted to 7th and Broadway in the 1930s.

Walking east on 4th Street...

Around the corner from the Subway Terminal on Broadway at 4th Street was the huge Broadway department store (see photo below), the anchor store for the north end of the Broadway shopping strip.

Broadway north towards 4th Street

The Broadway derived from a small enterprise founded in 1896 at the 4th and Broadway site. At that time this was at the southern edge of the central business district which was then centered around Temple, Spring, and Main Streets, near the site of the present city hall.

In 1912, Arthur Letts, owner of the Broadway department store built the present building at 4th and Broadway, which included 460,000 square feet of retail space. This big box was based on volume selling, which was made possible by its location at the hub of the regional electric railway transportation system. The Broadway was oriented to "budget-conscious" shoppers. Letts was also a major real estate speculator. He owned a huge chunk of land in East Hollywood (where his mansion was located) and bought up the remants of a large Mexican ranch in the foothills west of Beverly Hills in 1919. He created Westwood Village on part of this land in the late '20s.

Crowds on Broadway

Heart of the retail district

Arthur Letts also owned Bullocks department store at 7th and Broadway, which carried higher-priced merchandise. The 4th and Broadway store, the flagship of Letts' retail empire, was closed in 1972 when The Broadway moved to 7th and Flower with the opening of the Broadway Plaza (now Macys Plaza) in 1972. The former department store has been rehabbed into an office building for state employees.

The Broadway and Bullocks department stores were the subject of a huge political fight in 1911. The largest circulation daily newspaper in Los Angeles in those years was the Los Angeles Record, whose writers and editors were members or supporters of the Socialist Party. In 1911 an expose in the Record pointed out that women were systematically paid less than men for the same work. Women sales clerks and girl wrappers were paid as low as $1 a day...considered a starvation wage in those days. To retaliate, the anti-union Merchants & Manufacturers Association then demanded that its members pull their advertising from the Record, to drive it out of business. The Los Angeles labor council then asked its members to boycott any business than pulled its advertising from the pro-labor Record. The paper survived that attack, but attacks on the business class became less common in later years.

Walking south along Broadway we approach the heart of the retail district, between 5th and 8th Streets. The next two images look north from 6th Street along the west and east sides of Broadway in May 1955. This shows the crowds that Broadway still attracted in the '50s. Two theaters — the Arcade and the Roxie — are visible at right.

The streetcar at left is operating on the 5 line and will head out Santa Barbara Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard for Inglewood and Hawthorne. In a few days this streetcar line will be converted to bus operation. At the time this photo was taken, all transit service on Broadway was provided by four streetcar lines: 5, 9, W and P.

Broadway at 6th

Main Street Station

The Subway Terminal was not the only Pacific Electric station in downtown L.A. Walking east on 6th to Main, we come to the Pacific Electric Building. In the photo below, taken during World War 2, we're looking north up Main Street towards Sixth. A PE train bound for Pasadena is just turning onto Main St from Sixth Street. The 10 story building on the northeast corner of Sixth is the Kerkhoff BUilding. William Kerkhoff was a utility developer in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. The PE building in this photo was built in 1903-05 on the site of Kerkhoff's mansion. Before it became a commercial area, this part of Main Street had numerous mansions.

Huntington Building

Until 1961 the PE station here was a working railway commuter station. In fact, Main Street station was the nearest L.A. equivalent to Grand Central station in New York, with a constant flow of people...people waiting for buses or trains throughout the day and evening. To enter the station you walked through a foyer or retail arcade that was flanked on either side by small stores. Then you passed through another set of doors into the station. In the middle of the open area was the information booth where you could obtain schedules or brochures. To the right bus gates were along the south wall.

The station had a variety of services — a popcorn stand, soda fountain, shoe shine stand, a separate phone room, public lavatories. In the late '40s PE was earning $100,000 a year from the "concessions" in the Main Street station.

You walked up a long ramp to reach the waiting room for the trains on the elevated terminal to the rear of the station. Here there were also coin-operated lockers. In the late '40s the station was remodeled. The high vaulted ceiling was replaced with a drop ceiling with flourescent lights. Polished marble surfaces were added to the columns and walls. In the photos below, we see the bus gates on the left, and at the right we see the popcorn stand, the entry doors and, in the background, bus gates 1 and 2.

In the next photo we see the soda fountain and gift shop as they looked before the late 1940s remodel. The arched windows look out onto 6th Street, to the north.

PE Soda Fountain

Below we see a postcard view of the elevated terminal at the rear of the Main Street station.

Sixth and Main Streets Elevated 

The elevated consisted of a two-block-long steel structure plus a three-block-long ramp (mostly made of wood trestle construction) at 3.89% grade to street level at San Pedro Street. In the 1930s rapid transit plan (submitted unsuccessfully to the New Deal administration for funding), the PE elevated structure would have been extended over four miles to Long Beach and Slauson Avenues on the PE right of way. (The Blue Line now operates over much of this route but it is plagued with many grade crossings.)

The elevated was torn out in the mid-'60s but the office building survives, recently rehabbed into apartments as the Pacific Electric Lofts).

If we were to walk east along 6th Street from the PE station at Main in the '40s, we'd soon encounter both the Americal Federation of Labor's Union Labor Temple and also the editorial offices the original Daily News newspaper. The photo below looks north from 7th Street towards the PE elevated structure. This yard below the "el" was used to store out of service cars and also to load mail. If you look at the right beyond the el structure, you can see the AFL Union Labor Temple at right.

The el and the union labor temple

Immediately to the south of the PE Main Street station on Main Street was (is) the Hotel Cecil. In the PE era this hotel was patronized by traveling salesmen and other visitors. The hotel still operates as a residential hotel.

On 5th Street...

Retracing our steps west on 5th Street to Spring, we come to the Alexandria Hotel. The photo below looks south on Spring at 5th, with the former Citizen's National Bank building at the right, beyond it is the Alexandria Hotel.

Spring at 5th Today

Continuing west on 5th, we come to 5th and Broadway. This was the site of the J.J. Newberry variety store, as we see in this 1950s postcard view.

5th and Broadway

Walking north on Hill Street...

Just north of the Subway Terminal Building, on the opposite side of Hill Street were two Victorian era buildings at 4th. The two photos below give two different views of this intersection. In the first photo, we are looking east on 4th circa 1920. The building on the left (northeast corner) is the Hotel Brighton. Both of these buildings were torn down after World War 2 for parking lots (which still exist).

Hotel Brighton

The photo below (from the USC digital archives) provides another view (circa 1928-30) of the intersection of 4th and Hill. Fourth is the street coming in at right. We're looking south. The 9-story office building on the north side of the Subway Terminal building was torn down after World War 2 for a parking lot (what else?). The 11-story building on the northwest corner of the intersection — the building at the right in the photo — is the Black Building — an office building that was torn down circa 1970 as part of the Bunker Hill redevelopment project. Pershing Square is in the distance.

Hill looking south at 4th
Continuing north on Hill Street from the Subway Terminal a long-time institution on the east side of the street is the Grand Central Public Market, a European-style open market of stalls that runs through the block from Hill to Broadway. Two Victorians — four-story and three-story — were neighbors of the market to the south, as we see in the photo at right (taken in the '60s). These buildings had single-room occupant (SRO) hotels over shops. Both were demolished to expand the parking lot that now dominates the northeast corner of 4th and Hill. Another instance of how the residential population of downtown has been diminished and the urban fabric ripped up to accommodate automobiles. The 7-story F. P. Fay Building in this photo occupies the southeast corner of 3rd and Hill. Hill Street at Grand Central Market

After Ira Yellin, former head of Catellus Development Corp., gained control of the Grand Central Pulbic Market, with financial backing from the CRA, he demolished the Fay Building for a hideous parking structure...yet another accommodation to the automobile. Yellin also rehabbed the space in the upper floors of the Grand Central Market into rental apartments. These changes were part of Yellin's plan of changing the Public Market from serving primarily working class Latino customers to serving a more upscale population of a gentrifying downtown.

Around the corner from the Grand Central Public Market, at 3rd and Broadway, is the PanAmerican Building, shown at right in a photo from the early 1960s. The upper four floors — formerly office space — have been rehabbed into apartments.

PanAmerican Building

Continue to Part 2 of the Downtown Tour: Angels Flight and Bunker Hill