Hamburger’s ‘Greatest temple of commerce’ to shine again

August 30, 2017
A vintage postcard of Hamburger’s Department Store. Image courtesy of Rodman Family archive

As the long-shuttered Hamburger’s Department Store downtown undergoes redevelopment and prepares eventually to reopen for a variety of purposes, it’s hard not to recall the building’s glory days.

When it opened in 1908, the Los Angeles Times called it “the greatest temple of commerce west of Chicago.” On opening day, 75,000 people rushed through its doors, and in the ballyhoo of the time, flags were raised on the roof. Live music played, politicians gave glowing speeches and bargain tables set out to entice.

When David Hamburger, a Jewish merchant, and his family opened the store on Eighth and Broadway, creating a model for multilevel shopping destinations such as the Beverly Center and Century City, he included a wide range of amenities, including book nooks in which to sit, relax and read; an 80-foot-long soda fountain; and a women’s restroom featuring “cozy seats, soft divans” and music played by a female orchestra.

As evidence of its stylishly modern design, architect Alfred F. Rosenheim included an escalator, said to be the first on the West Coast, and six elevators to whisk customers up and down the five-story, Beaux Arts-style building, which also had a rooftop garden.

In today’s terms, Hamburger’s, as it was called, can be seen as a vertical mall. In addition to sumptuous areas dedicated to the latest in men’s and women’s fashions, the building featured a post office, telegraph offices, a barber shop, grocery department, drug store and several restaurants.

If you took ill during your visit, not to worry, there was a doctor’s office where a fully equipped operating room “was ready for emergencies.” If you wanted to take a break from shopping and delve into matters more esoteric, from 1908 until 1914, the Los Angeles Central Library was located on the third floor, which it shared with the home furnishings department.

On the fifth floor was Hamburger’s Arrow Theatre, a venue seating 500 for vaudeville, “moving-picture” shows, conventions, fairs and as a meeting place for women’s organizations.

The theater, especially from 1911 to 1914, also was a meeting place to gather members and funds for several Jewish philanthropic organizations, including the Consumptive Relief Association of California (now City of Hope), Hebrew Sheltering Association (now Los Angeles Jewish Home) and Jewish War Sufferers Relief Association.

In 1921, to deepen the connection between the department store and L.A.’s Jewish community at a time when Christmas holiday advertising was viewed as influencing how Jewish children might feel about their own holiday, Hamburger’s began advertising specifically for Chanukah, much to the commendation of the city’s Jewish Mother Alliance. As another Jewish draw, Babin’s Kosher Café opened in 1921 on Hill Street on the west side of the building.

In the early 1920s, the May family of St. Louis, owner of a chain of department stores, bought Hamburger’s, making it part of its chain. With a new tower and parking structure, Hamburger’s was renamed May Co. and remained part of the downtown retail scene until 1986, when it closed, eventually becoming an indoor swap meet, with some light manufacturing on the upper floors.

The building, which was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument in 1989, was purchased by current owner, New York firm Waterbridge Capital, in 2014.

Under the guidance of the downtown architectural firm Omgivning, work currently is underway to rehabilitate the formerly rundown building. Plans include a ground-floor mix of markets and restaurants, and creative office space and a hotel on the remaining floors.

Already, the construction tarps are off, the original white facade along Broadway has been restored, and the white glazed terra cotta medallions with a large “H” for Hamburger’s can be seen once again.

According to Lauren Mishkind, an architectural designer working on the project, even more features that would be recognizable to Hamburger will be restored to the facade, including an arched entry with Doric columns, and planters that once hung from the building. A sustainable roof garden, referencing the original upper-deck garden and arboretum, also is under consideration.

“A lot of the interior plaster work was damaged over the years,” Mishkind said. One of the main goals “is to restore as much of that as possible.”

“We’re working with the L.A. Office of Historic Resources to achieve as much as we can,” she added.

With a projected completion date of two years or more from now, the decision on whether to include any interpretive historic display, such as archival photos, a timeline or a plaque memorializing the builders, has yet to be made. As for telling the history of the building, “ownership will have to speak to that,” Mishkind said.

David Asher Hamburger, who was born in Sacramento in 1857, came to Los Angeles in 1883 with his father, Asher, who owned a wholesale mercantile store in Sacramento; his mother, Hannah; and brother Moses.

Hamburger was seriously ill at the time, and doctors gave him six months to live. But he rapidly recovered and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School. After passing the California bar in 1879, he joined his brother and father in A. Hamburger & Sons, which in 1881 opened  The People’s Department Store in downtown L.A., which catered to working-class customers.

Not just a merchant and real estate developer, David Hamburger also was a columnist and Jewish community voice, writing several editorials for the B’nai B’rith Messenger.  In 1931, during a period of rising anti-Semitism nationally and in Los Angeles, he wrote a column titled “Judaism Needs Strength to Fight Anti-Semitism,” calling on his fellow Jews “to aid in the fight against prejudice and anti-Semitism, and to “place the Jew in the position in the community that his ability, his citizenship and his loyalty to his country deserves.”

In honor of their parents, the Hamburger family donated the funds for a new building, dedicated in 1928, that was called the Hamburger Home for Girls (now the Aviva Center). A director of Farmers &  Merchants Bank, and considered by the business community to be honest, Hamburger spoke publicly on business morality.

But he was not always popular. According to the “History of the Jews of Los Angeles,” Hamburger was not above offering “transportation money to attract cheap experienced tailors from New York,” to overcome a local trade union boycott.

Also, with the Olympics set to return to Los Angeles in 2028, it should be remembered that Hamburger was one of the directors of the organizing committee of the 1932 Summer Olympics in L.A.

After he died in 1944, he was remembered in the L.A. Times as a builder of the city. In addition to his successes in merchandising real estate, banking, law and philanthropy, “he was interested above all else in the progress of the city which he saw and helped grow from a stripling frontier town to metropolitan stature.”

As for his best-remembered and still important contribution, the department store, “We’re trying to bring back as much as possible,” said Mishkind, pointing out that experts are being consulted on how to best light the facade.

“It will look great at night.”

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

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