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.
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
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
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
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
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.