September 11, 2016

Photo Essay: The Biggest Department Store in the West, Subdivided

In 1908, Downtown Los Angeles became home to the largest department store west of Chicago.

Circa 1912 (Public Domain)

It was a giant Beaux Arts-style edifice, nicknamed "The Great White Store" for its glazed terra-cotta tiles. The flagship location of Hamburgers, it was almost like a self-contained city—with its own fire department, medical facilities, power plant, post office, library, barber shop, and movie theater. Once outside of the early 20th century retail shopping center of Downtown LA, its arrival helped build Broadway up to what it is today: the Broadway Theater and Commercial District.

Circa 2010 (Photo: Laurie Avocado; CC BY 2.0)

In the mid-1920s, the Hamburger family sold their company to The May Company, which expanded the store's footprint by adding two annexes—bringing its total square footage up to a million. The Mays spent about six decades there on Broadway and 8th Street; and when they vacated, the building got converted (as everything else did) into an indoor swap meet.

The building, most recently known as the Broadway Trade Center, was sold in 2014 to developers and is currently undergoing some renovation and minor demolition work. Interior construction probably won't really start until they know who's going to occupy it.

It's a prime location—across the street from the renovated Orpheum Theatre, next to the Eastern Columbia building condos, and a block away from the Ace Hotel—but it's an unusually large building for DTLA, so the new "mixed-use" development will need to have a large mixture of uses.

All the retail stalls are gone now, and the deserted ground level doesn't look anything like it once was—a shopping hub that people traveled to just to ride the escalator (the only one west of St. Louis at the time).

At the time, the Los Angeles Herald called the Alfred F. Rosenheim-designed emporium "magnificent" and "a marvel." Now, this "architectural triumph" is pretty shabby.

But better days are soon to come, thanks to the work that's currently being done on the exterior.

Glazed terracotta tiles are being repaired.

New wooden window frames are being fabricated...

...and everything is being salvaged, or replicated as closely as possible to the original to retain the historic integrity of the place...

...both inside and out.

The peeling paint will be scraped off the fire escapes, which will be repainted.

Some of the glass will have to be replaced...

..but some of it just needs a good cleaning.

The project has gutted a lot of the "modernizations" that had been added to the interior (especially when the upper levels were being used for garment manufacturing), so the current construction site is full of perils.

Walking through, you'd be glad to have a hard hat.

But the best part is when you can emerge onto one of the roof decks, unconstrained by a ceiling.

That's where you can really see how much the Downtown LA skyline has changed over the last 100+ years.

And it continues to change, with the construction of the Wilshire Grand Center—which is to be the tallest building in LA.

Because the original 1908 structure is actually shorter than the later annexes, there are actually a couple of different roof areas.

In Hamburgers' early days, there were gardens out here.

But the view was quite different back then.

The Eastern Columbia building, with its turquoise-colored terra-cotta tiles, wouldn't be erected until 1930.

The Orpheum wouldn't rise up until 1926.

But these and more will be what patrons see when they return to the rooftop of Hamburgers. The renovation designs account for even more use of the elevated exterior, with planned coffee counters, cocktail bars, lounges, and other such modern amenities.

But the multiplicity of businesses will all be separate. The days of this building housing a single store with many departments—whether it was Hamburgers, The May Company, Robinson's May, or Macy's—are long gone.

It'll probably be 2018 when I can get back in and see what they've done with the place. Stay tuned!

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Photo Essay: Wilshire May Company Building, Miracle Mile
Photo Essay: Bullocks Wilshire, The Art Deco Law School Campus (Updated)

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