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KOREATOWN - BEFORE 


By Tobi Dragert 

Not long after a Korean immigrant named Hee Deok Lee opened a small grocery store on Olympic and Harvard in the 1970s, they christened the area "Koreatown." The City of Los Angeles technically adopted Koreatown in 2001.

It wasn't so much the demographics of the residents that gave rise to the name, but rather the predominance of Korean-owned businesses along the main arteries of Western, Vermont, Olympic and Wilshire, and Sixth and Third Streets. Korean immigration was quite limited until quotas were ended in 1965. The population of the area remained primarily Latino throughout most of the1980s.

HENRY GAYLORD WILSHIRE

Earlier, in the late 1800s, Henry Gaylord Wilshire cashed in on a real estate bust in Los Angeles, picking up lots in Westlake and Lafayette Parks at the going rate of $2.50 each. The area still bears the name "Wilshire Center."

At about the same time, a luckless gold miner named Edward L. Doheny got a tip that there may be oil around present day Dodger Stadium. The story goes that Doheny and his partner drilled the first well in Los Angeles with the sharpened edge of a eucalyptus tree. The Pico, Dominguez and Rocha families, original owners of Los Angeles basin ranchos, had been forced to sell years earlier, after a series of droughts killed their livestock and crops. The land had changed hands a number of times before being overrun by thousands of oil derricks built by wildcatters from Signal Hill to Huntington Beach and the banks of the Venice canals, often following the trolley track network serving greater Los Angeles at the time. At one point there were so many oil rigs, they had to be camouflaged and soundproofed so as not to disturb the citizens.

OIL FEVER

Naturally, oil riches attracted unsavory characters of all persuasions. Con-men, prostitutes, and gamblers swarmed in, along with speculators and developers, tripling the population of Los Angeles by 1910. Frenzied trades of land and mineral rights ensued, and all conversation centered around oil and money.

Oil was being produced at the rate of 6500 barrels a day, with payrolls of a couple of oil companies totaling nearly $75,000 a week by the late 1920s. When gas dropped to 8c a gallon, the oil companies conspired to back off on production to keep profits stable.

By the time residents of the fashionable Venice peninsula and other beach towns realized their canals and beaches were being polluted by oil waste, it was too late to stop the drilling. Their neighborhoods had become noisy, smelly, ugly and dangerous.

But by 1932, the oil was nearly depleted and production dropped way down. Most of the derricks were dismantled and land opened for residential development. The last oil derrick was finally gone by 1962, and the last of the oil wells capped in the early 1970s, though a few oil pumps continue to bob around Los Angeles.

 

Even after William Mulholland built the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913, water supplies to Los Angeles remained unreliable at best. Pipes and tunnels were dynamited amid persistent water rights disputes with the Owens River Valley. Once a second aqueduct was connected to the Colorado River, Los Angeles had a steady supply of water. Then when the Port of Los Angeles opened its first container terminal in 1960, the city's growth was inevitable.

HISTORIC WILSHIRE CENTER

North of the oil fields, along Wilshire Boulevard, palm-lined streets punctuated the stately mansions of Hollywood stars like Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd and notables like General Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times. In 1913, actor Fred MacMurray built its first high-rise, the Beaux Arts Bryson Hotel, still situated at 2701. In 1921, the Gaylord Hotel went up, the tallest in Los Angeles at the time, followed by the Asbury, the Langham, the Fox Normandie, and the Picadilly all on Normandie Avenue and the Windsor on Berendo.

While millions of citizens across the country scratched for food and thousands of men rode the rails in boxcars looking for paying jobs, the Great Depression had very little effect on the Wilshire Center. Its wealth and prestige rivaled Beverly Hills and Pasadena. Although it was Hollywood's golden era, Wilshire Boulevard was more popular than Hollywood Boulevard.

 

The crown jewel of the Warner Brothers chain - the Art Deco Wiltern Theater at Wilshire and Western - was opened in 1930 and is still a popular venue for hip bands and various performances.  I. Magnin opened on the corner of Wilshire and New Hampshire in 1939 - the first store in the country to be entirely operated by electricity and to be air-conditioned.

THE AMBASSADOR HOTEL

On the former site of a dairy farm, the world famous Ambassador Hotel opened in 1921, quickly becoming a favorite of upper crust Los Angeles. Big band music was broadcast from the ultra-romantic Cocoanut Grove, as glamorous couples competed for room on the spacious dance floor, trimmed with potted palms said to have come from the set of a Rudolph Valentino movie. The Ambassador hosted the Academy Awards' very first "Oscar" presentation in the early 1930s, and many of the awards ceremonies through the early 1940s.

With the Awards drawing Hollywood legends, the area soon became known as the "Upper Eastside of the West Coast." Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and others performed there, and would frequent the nearby Brown Derby and Wiltern Theater. Various celebrities lived in close proximity to the hotel at some point.

The Ambassador also drew internationally powerful people like Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and an endless list of dignitaries from Queen Elizabeth II to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

In June 1968, the Ambassador was forever fused with history.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the hotel's Embassy Room.

The Ambassador's popularity had begun to decline as chic hotels competed in Beverly Hills. Its downward spiral was hastened by the lack of maintenance and upkeep. In 1989, the doors of the grande dame were shuttered and the buildings left to crumble, while numerous lawsuits were filed and various conservation and civic groups and LAUSD squabbled over its fate. At last, the complex was too far-gone to be saved. In September 2005, various fittings were auctioned off, and in January 2006, the wrecking ball took down the last remaining part of the hotel, where a school will be built. The Cocoanut Grove, the coffee shop, and parts of the shopping arcade could still be salvaged for appropriate use by the school, but it is unlikely. A small park, the Ambassador/Robert F. Kennedy Park is in the planning stages near the area.

Dozens of Christian churches and numerous temples create an imposing presence along Wilshire Boulevard, most built in a distinctive architectural style. Los Angeles's oldest synagogue, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple at the corner of Hobart, was built in1929 in Byzantine Revival. St. James Episcopal Church is said to be the best example in Southern California of Gothic Revival, and St. Basil's represents the modern with panels of stained glass between smooth symmetrical columns.

The Gothic Immanuel Presbyterian Church is directly across the street from the Talmadge Luxury Apartments, still available for lease today. One of the finest examples of Art Deco elegance on the West Coast, the apartments even provide maid's and butler's quarters. The movie producer husband of silent screen actress Norma Talmadge built it for her in 1922.

As freeways made the suburbs accessible, urban flight took its toll and the splendid Wilshire Center faded, though the Miracle Mile commercial district, west from Fairfax Avenue, did continue to thrive. As they passed store windows at 30 mph, auto shoppers could be enticed to stop. The developer, A.W. Ross, invented timed traffic signals and left-turn lanes to make car traffic easier. Desmonds, Silverwood's, Coulter's, and Seibu stores moved into long, sleek Art Deco and Streamline Moderne structures, the most distinctive being the May Co. building, now part of "Museum Row." While some compared the Miracle Mile to the Champs-Elysees, locals said the miracle was that such prosperity could spring up so close to the La Brea Tar Pits, which had been excavated in the early 1900s.

ARCHITECTURAL WONDERS OF WILSHIRE CENTER/KOREATOWN

In 1929, the Chapman Brothers designed the country's first auto-oriented market on 6th and Alexandria. It is a stunning example of Spanish Revival architecture, distinguished by elaborate Churrigueresque detailing. Since being restored in 1989, it is a bustling destination for daytime shoppers and a hip nightclub set.

The first "suburban" department store, the beautiful Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire, welcomed about 300,000 wealthy clientele at its grand opening in 1928, one month before the start of the Great Depression. Their patronage helped the store survive over the next decade.

Bullocks Wilshire, inspired by the Paris Exhibition, was the ultimate for haughty shoppers. Uniformed valets parked Rolls Royces and Bentleys and white-gloved doormen greeted polite society as well as stars like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, or Clark Gable. Angela Lansbury once clerked there, showing exclusive designer gowns to clientele, who later went up to the exquisite Penthouse Tea Room for finger sandwiches.

But as more exclusive shops opened in Beverly Hills and malls opened in the suburbs, business at Bullocks Wilshire began to wane. After over 60 years, the building changed hands, and in 1994, fell into bankruptcy. Fortunately, the Southwestern Law School bought it, restored it, and now maintains it beautifully.

WILSHIRE NEON LIGHT PARADE

In 1923, auto baron Earle C. Anthony installed America's first neon sign to advertise his Packard dealership at 7th and Flower. Georges Claude, the French inventor, soon licensed his signs to numerous U.S. companies. Neon was three times brighter, cost less to burn, and lasted much longer than regular bulbs. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles led the way with neon signs along Wilshire Boulevard that could be seen from miles away. By the late 1920s, neon had become the symbol of glamour and progress. Many New York style buildings in Wilshire Center are still capped by neon signs.

Neon lights were a perfect fit for the sweeping curves of buildings along Wilshire Boulevard. Car and foot traffic made it the place in Southern California to see neon signs. The most concentrated original Art Deco neon signs in the world are found in Los Angeles, 150 of which are along Wilshire, in the Hollywood District and Downtown. Many elegant buildings in the Wilshire Center, including the Los Altos Apartments, Wiltern Theater, Wilshire Ebell Theater, and the Gaylord Apartments, are still lit with neon signs.

The City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department is working with the Museum of Neon Art on a project, LUMENS, Living Urban Museum of Electric & Neon Signs, to relight and restore the historic Wilshire Neon Corridor. Post-modern artists today create neon works recognized in America's finest contemporary museums and galleries.


"WE WERE HERE"
A Pictorial History

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c. 1900 Henry Chung with Sigmond Rhee

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c. 1903 KOREAN WORKERS IN LA

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c. 1906 HEY RON AHN

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c. 1907 Korean Scholars

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c. 1907 KOREAN STUDENTS

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C. 1907 VISITING COLLEGE STUDENT

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c. 1915 HUSBAND & WIFE

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c. 1919 LOCAL WORKERS

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c. 1925 SUNDAY WITH THE FAMILY

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c. 1925 DOSAN CHANG HO AHN

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c. 1935 MEN ON LOCAL OUTING

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c. 1936 HOTEL WORKERS

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c. 1937 SAM LEE KOREAN OLYPIAN

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c. 1939 LOCAL BUSINESSMEN

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c. 1940 GETTING READY TO LEAVE FOR CHURCH

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c. 1935 DR CHO

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