Monday, September 7, 2009

Dancing Girls, Part Two

We're exploring the history of a building in downtown Los Angeles. A small yet elegant brick five-story building, the building at 833 South Spring Street sits between two empty parking lots. A tall vertical neon sign, faded and dilapidated, remains on its facade, advertising "Dancing Girls."

At the Los Angeles Public Library I found the souvenir bulletin of the Los Angeles City Club that commemorated the opening of the building, and praised its location:
"A better location for our building could hardly have been chosen than that which we now occupy at 833 South Spring Street. It is easily accessible from all parts of the downtown business district, and as the trend of building is southward from this point, the site will be come increasingly valuable."
Historically, Spring Street was Los Angeles' financial district, and from 4th to 7th Street, over a dozen banks and stock exchange buildings arose between 1910 and 1930.

Broadway, with its magnificent movie palaces, is one block to the west of Spring Street, Main Street, one block to the east. At 9th Street, Main and Spring converge in a triangle.

In this photo from the USC Digital Archives, taken in the 1920s, you can see the City Club building on the right. South of the club are retail and automotive establishments. At the center of the picture, you can see the back of the rooftop sign for the Orpheum Theatre, in the next block on Broadway. Click on the image to enlarge the photo in a new frame.

The City Club had been founded by Meyer Lissner, a leading progressive politician, in 1907. He identified four founding principles of the club's philosophy:

1) To provide a forum of "citizens who are willing, regardless of parties and factions, to lend a hand in the betterment of the City's political, social, and economic conditions," where they could gather and "exchange views, obtain accurate information, and cooperate intelligently and effectively for the public good."

2) To publicize matters of civic importance.

3) To arouse a sense of civic duty

4) To encourage public officials who are trying to carry out their duties.

That first year "five hundred men, representing the various professions and business interests of the community " joined the club. By the time the new Club headquarters was built, there were 2500 members.
Sketch from the City Club 1924 souvenir bulletin - LA Public Library CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

The club included leaders of government, academia, and business. It sponsored lectures by speakers representing a wide range of political views - from Upton Sinclair to waterworks magnate William Mulholland, to a speaker touting eugenics and the leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Its members were lawyers, bankers, stock brokers and other civic leaders, but its membership fees were affordable even for small businessmen.

The new building was designed by architect Loy L. Smith. The club bulletin describes the decor as "modified medieval baronial," with concrete chemically tinted to resemble antique stone blocks.

Sketch of Dining Room from Souvenir Bulletin, City Club of Los Angeles, 1924 - Los Angeles Public Library- CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

The club occupied the third, fourth and fifth floors. The main dining room on the fourth floor was gracious and beautiful, with large arched windows draped in green hangings. The space was open to an upper gallery that ran around it. With the galleries and adjoining lounge, the space could seat up to 700. Its acoustics were said to be "excellent."

Such lectures were an important part of the club's mission. From political issues to discussions on race; candidates' debates to musical recitals, the bulletin lists over 50 speakers that had appeared before the members in just the last two years alone. The club valued the free exchange of ideas. "All forums that promote general discussion are good, for it is only by the clash of ideas that we get the best."

The club was available for other civic organizations to use, too. As one writer wrote:
"Due to its central location in the business section and because its private dining rooms will be used to so great an extent by civic and commercial organizations for midday meetings, the City Club will undoubtedly be....the center of noon luncheon activities among business and professional men."
There was a more casual grill room, with cafeteria-style service, and private dining rooms that members could reserve. Ladies were welcome as guests of members, and were allowed a private ladies' dining room on the fifth floor mezzanine.

Grill Room, from the City Club's souvenir bulletin - LA Public Library - CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

A billiard room, library, and men's lounge were located on the third floor where the club administrative offices were.

The ground floor housed the Morris Plan Company, a lending institution for people who otherwise couldn't get loans from a bank. Second floor tenants included a Certified Public Accountant, the Municipal League, and the Engineers' Club. The meeting rooms were used by respected and professional organizations, among them the Paleontology Society, the Dental Association, and the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Los Angeles was a boom town during the 1920s and downtown land values and rents rose as the number of people and businesses increased. The city expanded into the suburbs, due at first to Los Angeles' streetcar system, which was among the widest in the nation, but also by the rising popularity of the automobile, which allowed for convenient travel between suburbs.

1931 view of Spring between 8th & 9th. The lamp-post in the foreground is in front of the City Club building - USC Digital Archives - CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

By the 1920s, downtown traffic was becoming increasingly congested and trolley service - sharing the same roads as cars - began to suffer. A 1925 study recommended an ambitious and comprehensive new rapid transit plan, with subways and elevated trains replacing the on-street trolleys.

Spring and Main come together at 9th Street, taken in 1939 - LA Public Library photo - CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

The leaders of the City Club opposed the plan. They objected to the cost, and doubted its financial soundness, noting that the existing trolley system was losing money. Several club leaders were proponents of "decentralization" as a concept of city planning. They argued that the idea of a central downtown surrounded by suburbs, accessed by rail, was outdated. A centralized rail system, fanning out from the center like spokes of a wheel, would even increase congestion, forcing travelers into the city to make their connections to other suburbs.

The automobile, they argued, made it possible to travel as one chose.
Clarence E. Dykstra, Club Secretary and future Chancellor of UCLA, published an article calling the rapid transit scheme "Congestion Deluxe."

As the '20s became the '30s, cars were even more popular. By 1931, ridership on the Red Line had dropped 24% from its mid-'20s high. The commercial core of the city moved to the Mid-Wilshire area, and retail sales in downtown plummeted. The depression dealt the final blow to the expensive transit plan.

As businesses moved west, real estate values dropped. New zoning regulations downtown that required parking linked to occupancy made it less attractive for developers to build. As 19th century buildings fell into disrepair, they were replaced by parking lots.

Another social and cultural change was taking place. In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and in the same year Congress passed the Volstead Act. Both measures outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages.

Saloon, 1933- LA Public Library photo

Supporters of Prohibition did not foresee its consequences. During the 1920s, bootlegging, smuggling and illegal drinking soared. "Speakeasies" were popular. The public disregard for the law led to the rise of other illegal enterprises, including gambling houses, where you could break two laws for the price of one. The by product of all this was crime, violence, and police corruption.

By the early '30s most Americans wanted to repeal Prohibition. At the City Club, however, temperance leaders praised its success and morality. In June 1932 a debate between pro and anti-repealers took place in front of a large audience in the City Club's impressive dining room.

The repealers won, in the end. In February of 1933, Congress voted to repeal the 18th Amendment. Californians approved ratification in May. Beginning in April of '33, it was legal to sell beer in Los Angeles. Beerhalls opened all over the city.

Although the city was changing, you would think that, of all places the City Club on South Spring Street would maintain its status. An anchor for the block, the wealth, prosperity and leadership of its respectable and powerful members keeping it from declining like the rest of downtown.

But instead it just disappeared.

By October of 1932, even before the repeal of Prohibition, the City Club was gone from 833 South Spring Street.

In its place - in the elegant dining room with its high-arched windows - was an exclusive "members only" club called the 833 Club. It was a swank joint, with a live jazz band and a hopping dance floor. On the evening of July 14, 1933 - just nine months after it opened, it was raided by the police. The cops, acting on tips from undercover agents, battered down the steel doors to a hidden vault while hundred of rich patrons looked on, uncovering illegal gambling equipment - roulette wheels, blackjack tables, and thousands of dollars in currency.

Gambling equipment confiscated by police - LA Public Library photo

Seventeen people were taken to jail, charged with illegal gambling and liquor violations. They included the club's manager, a man named George Distel. He had only recently gotten out of jail, from an earlier conviction of similar violations in connection with another club.

I'm not sure what happened to George, but the 833 Club reopened, only to be raided again in September, its new manager and four others charged with violations of the newly instituted liquor laws.

The City Club Building, once the home of LA's most powerful civic organization, was now a regular target of the Vice Squad.

In the souvenir bulletin commemorating the building's 1924 opening, Clarence E. Dykstra wrote that the principles of the Club are
"amply proved by the fact that our City Club is now housed in a building which we may call our own for years to come. .... the City Club is here to stay... we are a permanent institution and one to be reckoned with in the city's civic life in the future... For all time our community is assured that there is at least one place in the city where all public questions may be discussed from every angle if only the proponents are sincere and have the public good in mind."
But it had lasted less than ten years. Even Dykstra was gone - he left Los Angeles in 1930 to become president of a university back east.

In June of 1935, the 833 Club lost its liquor permit again, this time for the illegal service of rum to minors. Now the Los Angeles Times described the building as a "so-called club[s] where ...various classes of hoodlums meet."

How could the place have come so low in so short a time? What happened?

All I know is that at some point in the second half of 1932, the City Club stopped being active in the civic life of downtown Los Angeles. I know what took place in the building next, but I don't know why, or how.

There's more to the story.

And we haven't even gotten to the dancing girls yet.

Stayed tuned for Dancing Girls, Part Three


Unknown said...

This is so facinating! I love how you uncover these tidbits and share! I always love coming over here and visiting : )

shrink on the couch said...

It's hard to believe LA would have been defenders of prohibition.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

So interesting!
Now I know who to blame for LA's terrible transportation system and all those cars.

cactus petunia said...

Wow! What a sordid past...but it actually seems tame by today's standards.

Can't wait for part three!

Queenly Things said...

I'm on the edge of my seat.

Anonymous said...

How you turn a phrase! Break two commandments for the price of one. I enjoy reading you.

Anonymous said...

I have a collection of old matches that were recently given to me. I have a matchbook from the Roseland Roof. The matchbook reads: Roseland Roof America's Finest Hostess Ballroom Private Club Atmosphere 833 So. Spring 689-8703. The other side of the matchbook reads: Dreamland - Attractive Personable Partners 540 So. Main 688-8236 What an interesting find.