Will Capitol Milling building become grist for downtown redevelopment?

July 26, 2017
Located next to Blossom Plaza in Chinatown, this rendering shows plans for the adaptive reuse of Capitol Milling. Rendering courtesy of Workshop Design Collective

A chunk of Los Angeles Jewish history near Chinatown is in danger of being jackhammered away now that a developer has begun adapting and rehabilitating the structures that once housed Capitol Milling, a business owned by Jewish families who milled the wheat that helped sustain a city for generations.

Still, Steve Riboli, the owner of San Antonio Winery who plans to turn the mill site into a 50,000-square-foot mix of restaurants, shops and offices, said in an email that he is open to telling the story of the mill and its Jewish ownership, but the final form of any commemoration has yet to be decided.

Built by Abel Stearns in the 1830s, the mill was purchased in 1883 by Jacob Loew, son-in-law of L.A. pioneer and influential businessman Harris Newmark, who brought his nephew, Herman Levi, into the business. Levi was the son-in-law of Estelle (Newmark) and Leon Loeb, whose son, Joseph, was a founder of Loeb & Loeb, a prominent Los Angeles law firm still in business today.

Descendants of these families owned and operated the flour mill, and when the business ended production in 1998 — it was sold to packaged-food company Conagra, then to San Antonio Winery — it was the oldest family-run business in Los Angeles. With downtown Los Angeles filled with construction cranes, and many of its older buildings undergoing rehabilitation, Jewish connections to buildings are at risk. Already, the former Harris Newmark Building (127 E. Ninth St.) has been renamed The New Mart Building.

“I’m certain we will memorialize the past ownership of the building,” said Riboli, whose winery is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. “We are a long ways out from telling the story of the mill history, and I will be communicating with the Levi family for vintage photos and articles.”

Located adjacent to a bustling Metro Gold Line stop and the Los Angeles State Historic Park, the mill and its history offer a rare opportunity to highlight how Jews were important to the early development of Los Angeles.

The complex of buildings, which today includes a multistory tower that has a large eagle and “Capitol Milling” painted on its side, “was one of the earliest significant industrial buildings in the city, going back to the 19th century,” said Ken Bernstein, manager and

The original Capitol Milling
Co. building.

principal city planner of the City of Los Angeles’ Office of Historic Resources.

Adding to that significance in a city whose story is the story of water is the fact that, for many years, Capitol’s mills were powered entirely by water from the Zanja Madre, or “Mother Ditch,” the original aqueduct that brought water to the early settlers of Los Angeles.

By the latter part of the 19th century, Capitol Milling, which later would have Ralphs markets as a customer, was a key part of how Angelenos put bread on the table.

“It was one of the leading enterprises of the city,” the Los Angeles Times reported on April 2, 1888. Running day and night and employing around 40 people to produce “flour, meal and feed,” the total output of the mill in the previous year was “1,800 to 2,000 carloads of ten tons each, most of which was consumed in Los Angeles and vicinity.”

Capitol Milling also was involved with helping to feed L.A.’s Jewish poor. According to a Jan. 31, 1910, article in the B’nai B’rith Messenger, the mill donated monthly “150 pounds of breakfast food, 200 pounds of flour” through a Jewish organization called the Los Angeles Fruit and Flower Mission.

In recognition of the mill’s importance to L.A. history, the Natural History Museum has preserved the mill’s original French millstones in its collection.

Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, which was responsible for saving the Breed Street Shul, also recognized the mill’s place in L.A. Jewish History. “It illustrates in such a dramatic way how, from early on, Jews were engaged in commerce and in such a fundamental way, dealing with basic sustenance,” he said.

Sass said he hoped the developer would see the building’s rich history as an asset. “Increasingly, property owners, developers, local groups recognize that. It’s smart business-wise, as well as being a good neighbor,” he said.

Although the building is listed in the California Register of Historical Resources and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it “was not a project that required any special  city planning approvals for which conditions could be imposed,” said Bernstein, referring to such things as historical interpretive displays. And despite the building’s history, he added, his office cannot impose additional conditions.

However the building might be memorialized, it’s up to Riboli, but he is not required by law to do anything.

As a result, he was not required to add anything interpretive to his redevelopment plan. In a December 2014 memorandum, an outside consultant recommended “mitigation measures for the project,” Bernstein said.

But “they were not memorialized because this was not a discretionary planning approval,” Bernstein said. The Jewish heritage of the mill’s ownership was not cited in the memorandum. “I don’t think this was well documented previously,” Bernstein said. “Certainly, this could become part of any interpretive program at the property.”

John Newmark Levi Jr., who worked at Capitol Milling from 1955 to 1964 and served on the company’s board of directors from the mid-1980s to 1998, said he wonders if anyone in the Jewish community cares about what happens to the building or if his family’s role will be remembered.

His cousin Doug Levi, who was president of Capitol Milling when it closed, acknowledged that when the property was sold in 1999, no provision was made to keep the new owner from “preserving the building or its history.”

Gerald Gubatan, senior planning deputy for City Councilman Gil Cedillo, in whose district Capitol Milling is located, said there were plans to incorporate a large glass element etched with wheat to reference the site’s history.

He noted, however, that in the project’s next phase, “there is an opportunity to layer in historic markers” and suggested that the public right of way that connects the Capitol Milling site with the nearby state park might be the proper place.

“It’s fine to have the wheat there — that’s great. It would be great if there was something interpretive that explained why it’s there,” said Sass, adding that he “would be happy to work with the developer to come up with something that appropriately recognizes the rich history that site represents. It seems like a wonderful opportunity to tell the story. It would be a shame if that opportunity was missed.”

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com. 

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