February 28, 2013

West Adams


Fridays are our main workday here at RDesignsLA, we spend the day in the studio working on projects, or else out exploring the city. Our Friday a few weeks ago did not start out very well, with a number of unfortunate coffee-related mishaps. But, after we had finally caffeinated ourselves, and Rosemary had begun to dry off, we headed over to the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. This is an area of the city that we’ve both spent a lot of time in and have not seen much of. Rosemary has been working in the area for almost a year now, but we rarely get to spend any time here just wandering around. We had a great time learning about the neighborhood, how it was built, who has lived here, and how the past hundred and so years have treated it. Here’s a little of what we learned, hopefully you will find it as fascinating as we did.
Fitzgerald House or "Elegant Manor" built 1906 by Joseph Cather Newsom for music store mogul James T. Fitzgerald, 3115 West Adams Blvd.
West Adams is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and at one time, one of the wealthiest. Situated south west of the downtown core, the area was developed in the late 1880s by Henry Huntington, the successful railroad tycoon and Hulett Merritt, a Pasadena industrialist. Due to the great fortunes of those settling the neighborhood, many architecturally significant buildings were built within this relatively concentrated area of the city including the University of Southern California or USC. West Adams was home to many movie stars, celebrities and notable city figures such as Edward L. Doheny, Hattie McDaniels, Fatty Arbuckle, Busby Berkeley and Louise Beavers. By the early 1900s, the population of Los Angeles was increasing exponentially. This rapid growth allowed for the expansion and development of other urban areas leading the upper class white population to trade in West Adams for Hollywood, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. The slow and steady migration west created an opportunity for the most affluent African American families to settle into the area. Within the next thirty years, West Adams became an important and vibrant center of black wealth and power in Southern California.
Golden State Mutual Life building designed by Paul Revere Williams in 1948, corner of Adams and Western boulevards.

During the late 1940s, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, then the largest African American-owned business west of the Mississippi commissioned architect and West Adams resident, Paul Williams to build their new headquarters on the corner of Adams and Western boulevards. One of the most important black architects of his generation, Williams designed many private homes in Los Angeles and would go on to design the iconic Jet Theme Building at LAX, the Los Angeles County Courthouse, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills as well as many other prominent buildings. 
L-R: Poster from Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau, 1943, Golden State Mutual Life building model, LAX.

A beautiful moderne structure, the Golden State Mutual Life building opened in 1948 the same year that the Supreme Court invalidated the segregationist covenants on property ownership. West Adams continued to thrive, Joe Louis was a prominent resident, Ray Charles set up his business headquarters and recording studio on Washington Boulevard, the Dunbar Hotel functioned as the hub of Los Angeles black culture and home-away-from-home for Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Count Basie among many others.
L-R:The Rockettes at Club Alabama in the Dunbar Hotel (The Black Music History of Los Angeles by Tom Reed), Duke Ellington at the Dunbar Hotel, graduation dinner at the Me Mo Club 42nd and Central in 1940 (photo collection of the LAPL), Shriners Parade on Central Ave. c.1951.
But change was in the air, white flight continued to accelerate, leaving the area with very little political clout and many of the larger single family houses and mansions were subdivided into apartments and rooming houses or else thrown down and replaced with larger multi-unit apartment buildings. Racial integration allowed a great number of African Americans to move into the neighborhood, but at the same time, many began to follow the migration west. Duke Ellington, who had long maintained a suite at the Dunbar, moved to the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and others followed.
Felix Chevrolet opened in 1922 by Winslow Felix, he was a friend of filmmaker Pat Sullivan, whose animation studio created the Felix the Cat character. The iconic neon sign was erected in 1957 after the dealership moved to it's current location.

The construction of the Harbor and Santa Monica Freeways in the 1950s and 60s dealt the biggest blow to the vitality and prosperity of West Adams. The two freeways bisected the neighborhood, demolishing many of the older, more significant houses and prompted the decline of the black middle class neighborhood as a whole. Throughout this time, well-employed black Angelenos kept moving west and south, pushed out by the freeways, chasing better housing and quality of life. They left for Leimert Park, they left for Baldwin Hills, they left for the Crenshaw district. They left West Adams, a shell of its former self.
L-R:The Four Level Interchange of the Harbor Freeway nearly completed in 1949 (LA Times photo archive, UCLA), The Santa Monica Freeway under construction at LaCienega and Venice 1964, The Santa Monica Freeway under construction looking east from hoover Street 1961, official opening of the eastbound Santa Monica Freeway between the Harbor Freeway and Hoover Street June 21, 1962 (all other images LA Examiner Collection at USC).

Things began to turn around in the early 1980s, the neighborhood’s residents, still largely African American but now Latino and Asian as well, began to find better employment. With the end of the recession in the 1990s, many were able to move from being renters to buying houses in the area and fixing them up. By this time, West Adams had also become popular with artists, designers and young professionals working downtown. Mostly spared from damage during the 1992 riots, West Adams has gone through a series of ups and downs over the past few decades. Due to the abundance of historic architecture and its proximity to USC, the area has flourished lately.
L-R: Johnny's Pastrami 4331 West Adams Blvd. at night, Johnny's Pastrami neon sign during the day, Robin taking photos of the Felix Chevrolet sign.

Our Friday out in the world may not have started off very well, but I think that we ended up having a great time. Although West Adams certainly has its issues and complexities, it’s a beautiful area. The buildings both residential and commercial are fascinating. We were definitely inspired to start on a few projects virtually as soon as we got back to the studio. And it was great to get out of the car and spend some time walking around in a city so geared towards driving. We had a lot of fun discovering new (to us) places to eat and hang out that we will definitely come back to enjoy. The best part of a day like this, is discovering new layers and dimensions both within the neighborhood and within our city.

1 comment:

  1. I remember Felix. Oh my, I've gotten old.....

    ReplyDelete