August 15, 2018

Photo Essay: Old Hollywood's Crossroads of the World, Before It Gets Swallowed Up By 'New' Hollywood

You might think that the crossroads of the world would be New York's Times Square, London's Piccadilly Circus, or Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing.

Photo: Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But no—as it turns out, it's in Hollywood.

At least, that's according to the name of the whimsical shopping plaza between Sunset and Selma, a stone's throw from Hollywood and Highland and Sunset and Vine, .

In fact, when it was built in 1936, by most accounts it was the first outdoor shopping mall in the country.

Things have changed since then. Since as early as the 1940s, Crossroads of the World started to be occupied by private businesses like magazine publishers, recording studios, video producers, and the like. Alfred Hitchcock even had an office there once. So did Huell Howser.

From the Sunset Boulevard sidewalk and street, you can see the Art Deco tower with its globe spinning 60 feet in the air, but most of the rest of this "Old Hollywood" conglomeration stands hiding behind a gate.

Although you might find that gate alluringly unlocked or even open, walking through it—from Sunset Boulevard into the former shopping plaza—isn't exactly encouraged right now.

So, what have we been missing out on for the past several decades?

At its center is a boat—more accurately, an ocean liner—reminiscent of Crossroads architect Robert V. Derrah's other nautical-themed creation in LA, the Coca-Cola bottling plant.

It's no surprise that this is one of the many LA locales that reportedly inspired Walt Disney early in his career (which explains the reproduction of Crossroads at Walt Disney World in Orlando).

The boat is surrounded by a number of cottages in a variety of international styles—Tudor, French, Swedish, Spanish, Moorish, Italian, Mexican, Dutch, Cape Cod—all storybook.

Derrah may have been the architect, but the one who really created Crossroads of the World was Ella Crawford, the widow of an allegedly mob-tied real estate developer known as "Goodtime Charlie," who took a hit in 1931.

In an effort to get out from under the dark dealings of his past, Charlie had opened a real estate and insurance brokerage in a bungalow right here on this very property—which is also where he was ultimately taken down.

Newly widowed, Ella continued Charlie's foray into real estate—first razing the bungalow, then commissioning a cosmopolitan marketplace of the world's finest goods to be built in its place.

Like a World's Fair, Crossroads of the World would transport its visitors to the far-flung reaches of the globe—without ever leaving Hollywood. And while it opened with a splash, thanks to a bit of Hollywood glitz and glamor, it never really succeeded in its original purpose.

By the time that real estate investor Morton La Kretz took over ownership in 1977 and embarked on a restoration project, Ella had passed away and her creation had fallen into disrepair. Many of the decorative tiles had been painted over and other inappropriate modifications had been made.

La Kretz proceeded to return Crossroads back to its original plans, while adding some new decorative touches, like tiled fountains, patterned walkways, and plantings that extend all the way back through the European Village that abuts Selma Avenue.

The spinning globe was replaced in 1985 and its machinery was replaced in 2005. And now, changes are once again afoot among the turrets, minarets, and frame-and-stucco structures of Crossroads of the World.

Since 2015, the Hollywood community has been, shall we say, in an uproar over development plans to demolish historic structures and build more than one high-rise in an area that's already starting to resemble Manhattan more than Southern California.

Over the course of the past three years, the renderings have been modified to include the preservation of the former Hollywood Reporter building and the entire Crossroads complex.

But according to the most recent plans, some of the open spaces between the buildings will be filled in, and the open air up above will be gobbled up by new construction designed for "mixed use."

There is one not-so-insignificant bit of good news about these new plans: Crossroads of the World will once again open up to the public and welcome pedestrians into its fairytale village.

Maybe we'll get to walk through a door and find out what's beyond those Venetian columns that adorn the front of the poured concrete Italian building. (And no two doors at Crossroads are alike, each having been custom designed and fabricated.)

In its heyday as an "Olde World" shopping plaza, Crossroads of the World offered such retailers and services as John Macsoud's men's store (at the Sunset-facing, forward end of the ship), the Continental Cafe (at the aft end), the Barber of Seville, a pastry shop, a Mexican restaurant (in the Middle Eastern building)

I hope that for the future of Crossroads, the globe keeps spinning, the lighthouse at Selma stays lit, and the surrey rides come back.

Here's a fun music video from 1991 that gives a view of the Sunset Boulevard frontage that few have experienced (or ever will).

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Coca-Cola Ship
The Studio Built By The Little Tramp, Now Home to a Frog Named Kermit
Photo Essay: The Storybook Wedding Chapel of Forest Lawn Cemetery

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