Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Searching for ABW - 1918

Broadway, looking South from First Street. The old City Hall is the building with the tower down the street on the left. The Chamber of Commerce building is in the left foreground. On the east side of the street is the Mason Opera House. Photo from USC Digital Archives.

Near the end of his life, [The Man I Love's] grandfather, ABW, wrote an essay about his life to genealogist Donald Lines Jacobus, for publication in a volume of his family's history.

In it, he describes how in 1912, he had moved with his wife and daughter to Santa Barbara, taking a job as a linotype operator at the Santa Barbara Independent.

In July of 1914, his second child, Richard, was born.

This was a busy time for ABW. He also homesteaded some property in the Mojave Desert - quite a distance from Santa Barbara. He started a business in Los Angeles, purchasing a linotype machine and going into the printing trade downtown.

Linotype operators, 1904 - from New York Public Library

The linotype was new technology. It had been invented in 1884, and it revolutionized the newpaper printing business. Instead of painstakingly assembling each line of print by setting each letter into a "stick" of type, typesetters sat in front of a keyboard, and the machine assembled the letters to be cast as a single line of type. A job that once took twelve men could now by done in the same time by one. In his memoir, ABW recalls listening to his peers around that time, saying that the new-fangled machine would never replace the traditional typesetting technology. Shrewdly, ABW had taken the opportunity to learn linotyping in 1901, and it served him well in California.

In March of 1918, in an article ABW wrote for a paper back home in Iowa, he listed his own address as 118 North Broadway, Los Angeles.

Today, if you stand just north of the intersection of Broadway and First, you will be looking at Los Angeles' City Hall. Completed in 1928, this landmark art-deco building was until 1964 the tallest building in Los Angeles - higher buildings being prohibited by the building code due to earthquake concerns. Nearby are other government buildings, including the County Courthouse, the Hall of Records, the headquarters of CalTrans, and LAPD's Parker Center - which is why this part of town is called the Civic Center.

In 1918 this part of town was also called the Civic Center, but the public buildings were quite different than the modern white structures of today. They were huge, dark stone piles, Richardsonian Romanesque or Gothically grand, somber as public buildings should be. The massive County Courthouse was located at Temple between Broadway and Spring.

Photo of L.A. Times building, 1905, from USC Digital Archives

In 1886, the Los Angeles Times built an imposing stone building on the corner of First and Broadway - the better to cover local government. This building, with its curved corner entry and massive arched stone windows, attested to the power of the press.

Chamber of Commerce Building, circa 1905 - USC Digital Archives

Just a block south was the Chamber of Commerce building with its classic Ionic columns and bay windows, housing offices of the Los Angeles Herald, a competitor newspaper.

In those years, the neighborhood had been rocked by violence and labor struggles. The Ironworkers' Union were trying to organize steelworkers and construction workers on the many projects associated with the downtown building boom. Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles' civic leaders were vehemently anti-union. Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, supported the employers, and used his newspaper to campaign against the unions.

In the spring of 1910, the local Ironworkers went on strike, and a heated struggle came to a head.

On October 1, 1910, a bomb went off in an alley behind the building. The bomb was more destructive than its planters had intended - they had set it off directly above a main natural gas line without realizing it.

The bomb destroyed the main building, and also the next door building, which housed the printing presses. The bombers had set the timer wrong - instead of going off at 4:00 a.m. as intended, when the buildings would have been empty, it went off at 1:07 - when 115 people worked the night shift. 21 people died, including a young 23 year old typesetter named Elmer Frink, burned to death in the print shop.

By 1912, the bombers had been convicted and jailed, and the Times operated from a newly constructed building on the same site. It must have been a good place to be an entrepreneur in the new linotype field.

Broadway, looking North from Second Street, circa 1920. Photo from USC Digital Archives.

The new Times building's dome and tall clock tower can be seen in this undated photo of Broadway at Second. 118 North Broadway would have have been in that block. If ABW had worked here, he might have lived in one of the rooming houses or apartment hotels in the neighborhood.

In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, bringing water from the Owens Valley to the city. Water spurred growth and development. The Times's Otis actively promoted the city's growth. There were still some wood-frame Victorian rooming houses along the streets below Bunker Hill, but increasingly, they were being replaced by large masonry industrial and office blocks. Despite the war raging in Europe, Los Angeles boomed. Department stores and theatres flourished. Theatres and civic buildings were built. The Chamber of Commerce building held exhibits extolling the wonders of trade and agriculture.

It would have been an exciting place to be a young man, but by 1918, ABW would have been 45 - not a young man ready to sow wild oats before settling down, but an established man with a wife and two kids.

But ABW had always been footloose. From age 17, he'd bounced around newspaper jobs from Kansas to Chicago. Even while Oro was having their first child, ABW joined a military band and wrote "for several years [I] held myself subject to call at any time and from any place to fill an engagement."

And ten years later, after landing in Santa Barbara, he was unable to relax in that beautiful beach city. Still peripatetic, still bouncing.

ABW's journeys took him from one extreme to another - the plains of the Midwest, the High Rockies. The beaches, the homestead on the arid plateau of Victorville, and the bustling center of the fastest growing city in the nation.

You have to wonder - what of the family? Did they pack, pick up and follow him? Or did they stay behind, in a stable home, that he could cast off from and return to? Did Oro find her own interests, as they traveled separate orbits?

It must have been difficult. It must have gotten pretty old. There were more adventures to come, and more changes.

This is the view today from the corner of Spring Street and Second, toward Broadway and toward Bunker Hill and the Arts Center. The parking garage is located on the site of the drug store from the photo above. The west side of Broadway between First and Second is virtually vacant. The glass and steel building to the left is located where the Frost Building is seen in the top photo.

The view takes in a landmark ABW would have found uncanny - Frank Gehry's Disney Hall.


Woman in a Window said...

I think nothing will ever top the old architecture. And yes, to the family. All of the history, really. Where does it all go?

Woman in a Window said...

And I wonder, really wonder, what motivates you to write this all down? Really.

Life with Kaishon said...

This was a fascinating story. I can't wait to read the first part! : )