Downtown’s Jewish L.A.ndmarks
“When I came, Los Angeles was a sleepy, ambitionless adobe village with very little promise for the future. The messenger of Optimism was deemed a dreamer; but time has more than realized the fantasies of those village oracles, and what they said would some day come to pass in Los Angeles, has come and gone, to be succeeded by things much greater still. … I believe that Los Angeles is destined to become, in not many years, a world-center, prominent in almost every field of human endeavor.”—Harris Newmark, “Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913”
No matter how you get there—by car, bicycle, on foot or Metro (yes, we do have a subway)—downtown Los Angeles has some remarkable remnants of the “sleepy, ambitionless adobe village” that Jewish businessman, communal leader and historian Harris Newmark found when he arrived in 1853, as well as a rich array of architectural, cultural and historical treasures attesting to the role played by individual Jews and the Jewish community in the growth and development of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles, the Shtetl of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, into the world center Newmark prophesied.
HISTORIC DOWNTOWN CORE
The Federal Building, on the southeast corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets, is the former site of Los Angeles’ first Jewish neighborhood. Shortly after California’s admission to the Union, a federal census taken of Los Angeles in 1851 indicated that of the town’s 1,610 inhabitants, eight were Jews. Six were German born, most were young (Jacob Frankfort, believed to be the first Jew in Los Angeles when he arrived in 1841 as a tailor-merchant with the Rowland-Workman expedition party, was the eldest at 41). All were bachelors, merchants and, like everyone else in the rough-and-tumble town, they were armed. They all had stores and lived next door to one another on the ground floor of the city’s leading commercial building, a two-story skyscraper called Bell’s Row. Merchandise was sold in the front of Bell’s Row and the men slept in back.
Olvera Street/El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, Los Angeles’ birthplace, just north of the 101 freeway, includes several sites of Jewish interest:
• At 1 W. Olvera St. are the Jones and Simpson/Jones buildings, a portion of the latter now housing the restaurant La Luz del Dia. The structures were built beginning in 1888 by Doria Deighton-Jones, the wealthy Scottish-born widow of John Jones, on the former site of the family’s large adobe home. Jones, his name notwithstanding, was a prominent local Jewish businessman, from Poland by way of England, and was one of eight Jews who served as members of the L.A. City Council during the period between 1850 and 1875. He became the first Jewish president of the City Council in 1870. Some historians posit that Mrs. Jones converted to Judaism prior to her marriage to Jones in 1858. She served as treasurer of the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society, the city’s first women’s philanthropic organization, upon its founding in 1870.
• Hellman/Quon Building, on La Plaza de Los Angeles, was built in 1900 by Isaias W. Hellman on the site of the former one-story adobe residence of Pío de Jesús Pico, the last California governor under Mexican rule. Hellman, the pioneer Los Angeles and San Francisco Jewish merchant, banker, communal leader and “Renaissance man,” transformed Los Angeles into a modern metropolis. On Hellman’s death in 1920, the building was sold to real estate agent Moses Srere. The following year, Srere sold it to Quon How Shing, a Chinese businessman, and it remains today one of the few surviving buildings of Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown. During that era, the building had a hidden bell to warn of unwelcome guests who might object to the gambling and smoking of opium on the premises.
• Dedicated in 1858, Masonic Hall at 416 N. Main St. is the oldest building in Los Angeles south of the plaza and was the home, until 1868, of the city’s first fraternal organization, Los Angeles Lodge No. 42, Free and Accepted Masons, founded in 1854. It counted many Jews among its early leadership, including Jacob Elias, who in 1854 served as first president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the original, all-purpose Jewish organization and first charitable group of any kind in the city; Abraham W. Edelman, Los Angeles’ first professional rabbi, who served several terms as Worshipful Master; and businessman Samuel Meyers, who was its treasurer for 50 years. A furniture and cabinet-making store, noted for its coffins, occupied the first floor and upstairs was the lodge room, used as meeting space by many groups, including the local Jewish community. Los Angeles Lodge No. 42 continues some 150 years later, now meeting at the Santa Monica Masonic Center.
Known as the last of the great rail stations, Union Station, across from Olvera Street/El Pueblo at 800 N. Alameda St., resulted in the controversial demolition of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. From its opening in 1939 until the advent of passenger air travel, Union Station conveyed to travelers their first romantic images of Los Angeles—Mexican tile roofs, mosaic floors, archways leading to palm-lined patios. In an earlier time, in 1872, Harris Newmark, Isaias W. Hellman and Solomon Lazard were instrumental in bringing the first railroad line, Southern Pacific, to Los Angeles.
The lobby of the Terminal Annex Post Office, 900 N. Alameda St., across Cesar Chavez Avenue from Union Station, is home to 11 murals by Latvian-born California Jewish artist Boris Deutsch (1892-1978). Titled, “Cultural Contributions of North, South and Central America,” they were commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture and completed in 1944.
The area bordered by Main Street, Broadway, First Street and Temple Street, includes the former Temple Block—which Harris Newmark and partners bought in 1877 and sold 30 years later at a reduced price to the city in order to provide the nucleus of the Los Angeles Civic Center—and also encompasses the former site of the city’s first public drinking fountain, a gift from Newmark in 1882.
Civic Center includes three works by public artist Joseph Young (1919-2007), whose mosaics and stained glass are featured in many local synagogues and churches and who designed the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park. The works include: “Triforium,” a six-story-high, 60-ton, three-pronged “poly-phonoptic kinetic tower” in the courtyard of the Los Angeles Mall, which he said was designed to reflect the unfinished, kaleidoscopic nature of the city, but which critics derided as “the Million Dollar Jukebox” and “Three Wishbones in Search of a Turkey”; “Topographical Map,” on the exterior of the Richard Neutra/Robert Alexander-designed Los Angeles County Hall of Records (320 W. Temple St.), a mosaic and granite mural and fountain depicting a bird’s eye view of the County’s water and geological resources; and Architectural History of Los Angeles, a mosaic in the lobby of Parker Center (150 N. Los Angeles St.) slated to be preserved when the former LAPD headquarters building is demolished.
Los Angeles City Hall, 200 N. Spring St., the city’s most iconic building, reminds us of the proud tradition of Jewish leadership in city and county government, beginning with Morris L. Goodman, one of the aforementioned first eight Jewish residents of the pueblo, who was elected to the very first City Council in 1850. Of the seven council members, Goodman was the only American: “All of these except Goodman, who was an Israelite, had been citizens of Mexico,” wrote J.M. Guinn, a pioneer historian. The minutes of the meetings are in Spanish. Goodman and Julius L. Morris were the first Jews to serve as Los Angeles County supervisors, elected in 1860.
Stanley Mosk Courthouse, 111 N. Hill St., the main civil branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, is named for Mosk (1912-2001), associate justice of the California Supreme Court for 37 years (1964-2001), who holds the record for the court’s longest-serving justice. Before his appointment to the Supreme Court, he was California attorney general from 1958 to 1964, the first Jew to be elected to statewide executive branch office since Washington Bartlett served as governor in 1887. He previously served as a Superior Court judge and as president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Mosk was described as “an institution, an icon, a trailblazer, a legal scholar, a constitutional guardian, a veritable living legend of the American judiciary … one of the most influential members in the history of one of the most influential tribunals in the Western world” in 1999 by Albany Law School professor Vincent Martin Bonventre.
The Music Center—Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., represents the vision of Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who, as the Music Center’s Web site notes, “relentlessly and almost single-handedly persuaded political and business leaders that Los Angeles needed a major performing arts facility.” She soon realized the Music Center complex would never be built unless she could enlist the generosity of the Jewish community toward the $20 million required from individual contributors. In a brilliant fundraising strategy, Chandler is said to have capitalized on the rivalry between Howard Ahmanson of Home Savings and S. Mark Taper of American Savings, a Polish Jew who, with his wife, rescued hundreds of Jewish and Catholic children from Nazi Germany.
Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, served as artistic director from 1967 to 2004. Under his leadership the Taper received virtually every theatrical award including the 1977 special Tony for theatrical excellence and was distinguished with winning the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for consecutive years for two of its original plays, “The Kentucky Cycle” and “Angels in America.”
“Peace on Earth,” the centerpiece of the Music Center plaza, is a monumental sculpture of Jacques Lipchitz (born Chaim Jacob Lipchitz, 1891-1973) and the gift of the Lloyd E. Rigler-Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. Lipchitz, one of the most acclaimed and innovative sculptors of the 20th century, was born in Lithuania, moved to Paris in 1909 to study art and then to the United States in 1941. “Peace on Earth” was dedicated in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, with the inscription “Given as a Symbol of Peace to the Peoples of the World.” Lipchitz described his sculpture as “a prayer for peace,” adding that “if peace does not come, it is bad sculpture.”
BROADWAY AND BEYOND
A small plaque in the sidewalk near 214 S. Broadway, between Second and Third streets, placed by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, commemorates the 1873 former site of the first synagogue building of Congregation B’nai B’rith, Los Angeles’ first permanent Jewish congregation, known to us today as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Organized in 1862 with the arrival of Rabbi Abraham W. Edelman, religious services were held in various rented and borrowed spaces, including the Masonic Hall, Judge Sepulveda’s courtroom and John Temple’s saloon until Congregation B’nai B’rith was built. The synagogue was the work of the city’s leading architect, Ezra F. Kysor, who also designed Pico House, the Merced Theatre and St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. A report on the building’s dedication in the Los Angeles Star described it as “the most superior church edifice in Southern California.”
Grand Central Market, 315 S. Broadway, a block-long collection of food stalls and shops with offices above that runs from Broadway to Hill Street, opened in 1917 and has been in operation ever since. It was rejuvenated in the 1990s due to the efforts of urban developer Ira Yellin (1940-2002), a champion of the downtown core for whom Grand Central Square is named. Yellin also led the restoration of the Bradbury Building and Million Dollar Theatre and renovation of Union Station and the former Metropolitan Water District building. Of Grand Central Market, Yellin said: “I’m always totally energized here. It just feels and smells and is utterly special.” Yellin’s father was Rabbi Isaac Yellin, who served as rabbi of Venice’s Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in the 1940s.
The Broadway Theater District, between Third and Ninth streets, is the first and largest historic theater district to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Showman Sid Grauman’s 1917 opening of the opulent Million Dollar Theater (which he bragged cost a million dollars to build) led to the world’s greatest collection of movie palaces on Broadway, with 15,000 seats by 1931. Today, 12 of the theaters on Broadway survive, largely due to the support of the Latino community. These palaces reflected the business and marketing acumen of entrepreneurs and the vision and skill of architects and artists, Jews among them:
• Cameo Theater, 528 S. Broadway (1910), designed by Alfred F. Rosenheim (1859-1943), a leading architect in Southern California whose work included Hamburger’s Department Store at Broadway and Eighth Street (1908; later the downtown May Co. and now the Broadway Trade Center) and the Herman W. Hellman Building at Fourth and Spring streets (1903; now Banco Popular). Rosenheim was the first president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
• Los Angeles Theatre, 615 S. Broadway (1931), the last movie palace built on Broadway, designed by S. Charles Lee (born Simeon Charles Levi, 1899-1990), one of Los Angeles’ most prolific and gifted theater architects, and S. Tilden Norton, whose work includes Sinai Temple’s first (1909) and second (1926) synagogue buildings.
It was built in less than six months for film exhibitor H.L. Gumbiner, in time for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic “City Lights.” The Los Angeles Theatre is considered by architectural historians to be the finest theater building in the city. Lee also designed the Tower, 802 S. Broadway (1927), completed when he was only 27 years old, also for H.L. Gumbiner. Some claim (unconfirmed) that plans for the Tower were changed during construction to accommodate the newfangled “talkies,” and that “The Jazz Singer” had its Los Angeles premiere there.
• G. Albert Lansburgh (1876-1969), one of the country’s most successful theater architects, whose other Los Angeles work includes the Wiltern, the El Capitan and Shrine Auditorium, was commissioned by the Orpheum Circuit to design the Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway (1911), and the Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway (1926), both vaudeville houses. Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker and the Marx Brothers were among the performers who appeared on the Orpheum’s stage.
The Orpheum became a movie theater in 1932, and the Corwin family’s Metropolitan Theatres operated it from 1933 until 2000, when it closed. The Orpheum’s miraculous “second act” began in 2007, after Steve Needleman of the Anjac Group invested six years of effort and $3.5 million to renovate the theater, following $4 million to develop the floors above as 35 live-work lofts. The marquee is not the original but dates from approximately 1936 and was possibly designed by B. (Benjamin) Marcus Priteca (1889-1971), a renowned theater architect of Sephardi background.
Other landmarks in downtown reflecting our rich local Jewish heritage include:
• Eastern Columbia Building (1930), 849 S. Broadway, an Art Deco-Zigzag Moderne gem built and owned for many years by the Sieroty family, is now a condominium building.
• Fashion (“schmatta business”) District, the location of manufacturers and distributors of apparel and accessories and also a reminder of Jewish involvement in the labor movement and union organizing; the Morse family’s California Market Center, Ninth and Main; the Hirsh family’s Cooper Design Space, 860 S. Los Angeles St.; the Harris Newmark Building, named in his memory by his sons in 1926, now owned by the Ben and Joyce Eisenberg Foundation and called the New Mart (including Tiara Café), 127 E. Ninth St., all housing showrooms and offices for apparel manufacturers and other creative businesses; and the Cohn-Goldwater Building, 12th and San Julian streets, the city’s first modern clothing factory, built in 1909 and later home to Cole of California, birthplace of California’s sportswear industry and the “California look,” influencing international fashion.
• Flower District, Wall Street between Seventh and Eighth streets, and Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, Central Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, important contributors to the local economy and built by entrepreneurs from many ethnic, religious and cultural traditions, including families from Sephardi and Ashkenazi backgrounds.
Stephen J. Sass is president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California and the Breed Street Shul Project. For information on tours of Jewish Los Angeles, including downtown, call (323) 761-8950 or visit jewishhistoricalsociety.org.