Click here to view the Wilshire Blvd interactive website that provides photos and information on various historical buildings along Wilshire Blvd (sponsored by the LA Conservancy).
Take a walking tour of Wilshire Center's history and historical buildings by way of Wilshire Angels Walk LA (download guidebook and map).
WILSHIRE BOULEVARD MILESTONES
By Jane Gilman, publisher of Larchmont Chronicle
Some 10,000 years ago prehistoric mammoths, saber tooth cats, dire wolves and camels roamed the land that would become Los Angeles. Later the Yang-Na Indians settled by the Los Angeles River and traveled a path to the La Brea ("the tar") pits to gather material for their baskets.
After the founding of Los Angeles in 1781, settlers followed the Indian trail to the tar pits for material for roofing. In 1792 the road was called Camino Viejo, ("the old road") and intersected many ranchos including Rancho La Brea.
Thousands of gold seekers arrived in California in the 1840s, and many of them came to Los Angeles with their newfound wealth to develop real estate and open businesses. Much of the land was still owned by early families such as Pico, Dominguez and Rocha, but a drought which began in 1864 and lasted two years ravaged the ranchos and forced many landowners to sell their property .
Boom, Bust in 1880s
The transatlantic railroads brought many more settlers to Los Angeles in the 1870s. Train fares were so competitive that the $100 fare from Kansas City to Los Angeles was reduced to $75 and then to $45, beckoning Easterners who came in droves. A land boom began, only to collapse in 1888 because of zealous salesmen who promised innocent buyers that their land would quadruple in value. Instead the property in so-called booming suburbs went bust. Lots were offered at $2.50 apiece to pay off back taxes.
Many of the new arrivals packed their belongings and headed back East. Henry Gaylord Wilshire had arrived with his family in Los Angeles in 1884. He predicted that with the speed of transportation Southern California would become the winter playground of the leisure class of Americans.
His purchase of a 35-acre tract was officially recorded as Lot 1, Block 25, of Hancock's Survey of Pueblo Lands in 1865. (Major Henry Hancock, father of Hancock Park's founder G. Alien Hancock, was the city's surveyor at the time).
When Wilshire bought the property in 1895 for $52,000, Westlake Park had been a city dump. In 1887 private funds enabled the land to be converted into a park (and renamed for World War II General Douglas MacArthur Jr. in 1942). Gaylord Wilshire told the city that in order for him to permit a street to bisect the property, the boulevard must be 120 feet wide and must bear his name. His street ran between Westlake Park and Lafayette Park.
Advent of the Automobile
In the early 1900s steam-driven motor cars started sharing Wilshire Boulevard with horse-drawn carriages. At the turn of the century Germain Pellissier paid $25 per acre to the Southern Pacific Railway for 160 acres between what are now Normandie and Western avenues to raise sheep and barley.
Reuben Schmidt purchased land east of Normandie for his dairy farm. Further north the movie industry was developing, and in 1910 Hollywood officially became part of the city of Los Angeles. Some of its luminaries, like Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd, were purchasing homes in the elegant suburbs of Windsor Square and Fremont Place.
Wilshire Christian Church was the first church on Wilshire Boulevard in 1911. The church received a donation of property at Wilshire and Normandie from the Chapman Brothers, owners of Chapman Market.
General Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times, built a home next to Westlake Park as did Isaac Van Nuys. Other prominent residents of Wilshire Boulevard were Edwin Tobias Earl, inventor of the refrigerated railroad car, and G. Alien Hancock, an oilman whose real estate holdings later became Hancock Park.
1920s - Another Boom
It was in 1920 that the Western Avenue Businessmen's Assoc. was started with Harold Henry as its secretary. The Association later became the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce.
When Charles Dunn founded the real estate firm in 1921 bearing his name, lots were selling for $1,500. Wilshire Boulevard was mostly populated by homes then, with some small office buildings and block after block of vacant land. Everyone was buying--from secretaries to speculators.
The first of the area's distinguished high-rise apartment buildings and hotels were erected along Wilshire Boulevard. The l0-story Bryson Apartment Hotel (at Wilshire and Rampart) dominated the landscape in 1913. It was later owned by film actor Fred MacMurray. The lavish Ambassador Hotel opened its doors on 23 acres in 1921 on the former site of Reuben Schmidt's dairy farm.
The 14-story Gaylord Apartment Hotel was built the same year by Gaylord Wilshire. The entire area near the Ambassador Hotel became the site of New York-style apartment buildings, and many film stars lived in these elegant high rises such as the Asbury, the Langham, the Fox Normandie, the Picadilly and the Windsor.
Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, purchased an apartment building at Berendo Ave. with his film actress wife Norma Talmadge in 1922. He named the building The Talmadge, and the couple lived on the 10th floor. The Doheny family opened the Town House at Wilshire and Commonwealth across from Lafayette Park (later purchased by Hilton and then by Sheraton) as an apartment hotel in 1924. That was the same year the first neon sign in the country was turned on at the new Packard car dealership that Earl C. Anthony had opened at Wilshire and La Brea.
Soon more boulevard roof-top signs were blazing apartment and hotel names in neon, and tourists from as far as Riverside were driving to Los Angeles to see the array of neon signage on Wilshire Boulevard. The Los Angeles Elks Building opened across from MacArthur Park in 1925 in an 12-story building designed by architects Claude Beelman and Aleck Curlett (the building is now the Park Plaza Hotel).
Charlie Chaplin was using the Westlake Park lake for many of his movie scenes. Gloria Swanson lived in an apartment building she owned near the Ambassador Hotel. Her husband Herbert Somborn opened the Brown Derby Restaurant, a hat-shaped building at Wilshire and Alexandria in 1926, in an era when restaurants were shaped like igloos, hot dogs and teepees. In 1927 Ebell of Los Angeles, a women's organization, began construction of its Italian Renaissance clubhouse at Wilshire and Lucerne.
Bullocks Opens in 1929
In 1929 Bullocks Wilshire, dubbed the "cathedral of commerce," was built at Wilshire and Westmoreland as the city's first branch department store in the suburbs. Its Art Deco architectural style was modeled after the designs which premiered at the Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Moderne. That same year the Academy Awards ceremony was moved from the Hollywood Roosevelt to the Ambassador Hotel.
A section of Germain Pellessier's sheep farm became the site of the Pellessier Building and Wiltern Theatre which began construction at the corner of Wilshire and Western in 1929. The theater, operated by Warners Bros., opened in 1931 with the premiere of the movie "Alexander Hamilton."
The world's first drive-in market opened in 1929 when Chapman Market drew motor cars to its drive-through grocery store at Sixth St. and Alexandria. By the 1930s the residential communities of Fremont Place, Windsor Square and Mancock Park were attracting the city's leading families such as the Jansses, Bannings, Rowans and the Van Nuys (the Van Nuys had their home in Westlake Park moved in three pieces to Windsor Square).
Survives the Depression
Wilshire Boulevard survived the Depression of the 1930s as well as land speculators' exploitation and was fast becoming the heart of Los Angeles, a symbol of the city's exciting growth. Farmers Insurance decided Wilshire Boulevard would be the ideal place for its headquarters, and built a three-story building at Wilshire and Rimpau. In 1948 Farmers added four more stories to its headquarters and in 1967 doubled the size of its facility.
When I. Magnin's opened in 1939 at Wilshire and New Hampshire it was the first retail store in the country to be operated entirely by electricity and completely air-conditioned. The store marked the consolidation of three stores, formerly located in the Ambassador Hotel, the Biltmore Hotel and in Hollywood. Department stores were opening suburban branches as the Miracle Mile area developed between La Brea and Fairfax avenues. Wilshire Boulevard was the place to see and be seen-movie stars motored down the avenue in their Packards, Lincolns and Cords.
Height Limit Lifted in 1951
When the 13-story height limit on buildings was lifted in 1951, golfers had to look elsewhere for driving range. The property on the south side of Wilshire between Mariposa and Normandie was converted to the site of the first three 12-story Tishman Plaza buildings in 1952 (now known as Central Plaza). Designed by Claude Beelman, they were the first office buildings to be erected by the prestigious Tishman firm in Los Angeles.
Insurance companies began locating their west coast headquarters in Wilshire Center because of tax incentives provided by the State. The drawing boards at the architectural firm of Langdon and Wilson were responsible for such projects as the U. S. Borax Building at Westmoreland, the CNA Building (now the Superior Court building) and Wilshire Plaza at Wilshire and Serrano.
1960s & 70s See Building Spurt
Some 22 high rise office buildings were erected on Wilshire Boulevard from 1966 to 1976, to provide office space for such companies as Getty Oil Co., Ahmanson Financial Co., Beneficial Standard Life Insurance, Wausau and Equitable Life Insurance. Dedication of the Liberty Bell, an exact replica of the original bell in Philadelphia, was held at Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co.'s lobby at the firm's Wilshire and Oxford headquarters in 1968.
The same year Bobby Kennedy, former U.S. Attorney General and Senator, was shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel following a party which celebrated his victory in the California primary election for President.
The Chapman Park Hotel, built in 1936, was torn down to make way for the 34-story Equitable Plaza office building erected in 1969. Cardinal James Mclnryre spoke at the dedication of St. Basil's Church, Kingsley and Wilshire, in 1969. By 1970 firms such as CNA, Pacific Indemnity and Pierce National Life were starting construction of their own high rise buildings. Southwestern University School of Law moved from its downtown location of 50 years to a four-story campus just south of Wilshire Boulevard on Westmoreland in 1973.
After a seven-year study by a community advisory group and the City Planning Dept., the Wilshire Plan was submitted to the Planning Committee of City Council. The plan outlined zoning and development recommendations for the Wilshire area between La Cienega and Hoover.
The influx of Korean immigrants resulted in many new agencies such as the Korean Youth and Community Center being established in 1974 to ease the transition for an estimate70,000 newcomers from Korea to Wilshire Center.
1980s - Start of Subway
By 1981 Wilshire residents and business owners were contacting their elected officials in Washington, D.C. to urge financing of the Wilshire subway. Wilshire Boulevard was expected to be the site of six of the 16 stations in the system. They were to be Alvarado, Vermont, Normandie, Western, La Brea and Fairfax. Today, the MTA Red Line does not include La Brea and Fairfax.
Developer Wayne Ratkovich purchased the historic 12-story Pellissier Building and its Wiltern Theater, saving it from the wrecker's ball. The restored building opened again to the public with a performance of the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater in 1985. Building restoration was also underway in the 1980s at Chapman Park Studio and Market, the Sterling Bank building at Wilshire and Berendo, the Park Plaza Hotel and the Granada Building, a combination apartment and office complex.
In 1995 the Wilshire Chamber of Commerce closed off Wilshire Boulevard for first time between Western and Hobart on a Saturday to celebrate the Wilshire Boulevard Centennial. This celebration marked the 100 year anniversary of the founding of Wilshire Boulevard when Gaylord Wilshire purchased 35 acres between MacArthur Park and Lafayetta Park, giving his name to the thoroughfare.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE HISTORY - STREETSCAPE: THE PLAN THAT SAVED A COMMUNITY