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The female powerhouse who developed 1920s Downtown LA

A former plumber who wore a white rose beneath the brim of her hat, Florence Casler rose to meteoric success in a field dominated by men

Built by Florence Casler, the Renaissance Building, in the heart of Skid Row, is now home to the Downtown Women’s Center.

On a spring day in early April 1926, more than 6,000 Angelenos swarmed the new 12-story Textile Center Building at 315 East Eighth Street. Designed by famed Los Angeles architect William Douglas Lee, this Gothic and Renaissance Revival loft building heralded a new kind of commercial architecture built specifically to house a certain industry.

Throughout the day, visitors were taken on tours of the building, which included groundfloor storefronts and large, airy workspaces on the floors above. There was a delightful program of music and dancing.

A fashion show featured the latest in sportswear, spring coats, and millinery, “to give the visitors an idea of the kind of wearing apparel” that would be manufactured in the building. No doubt many visitors did not notice the “nice maternal woman” with the gentle voice who oversaw both the opening day and the construction of the building they now enjoyed.

Her name was Florence C. Casler. She had lived in Los Angeles for a little over a decade, and in that time she had already developed flats, bungalows, and specialized commercial buildings worth more than $74 million in today’s money.

Florence Casler.
Public domain

Florence Sherk was born in Welland, Canada, in 1869. As a child she developed a love of music. In 1891 she married an American plumber named John H. Casler, whom she described as “a tall, handsome fellow with an adventurous wanderlust.”

They settled in Buffalo, NY, and had two daughters, Ruth and Grace. But John’s wanderlust soon got the better of him, and he took off to make his fortune in gold mines. Left on her own, Florence took over John’s small plumbing business and became a licensed plumber.

“I love plumbing,” she told a reporter years later. “But I also love art and music—and right here I want you to know I couldn’t have become such a good plumber if I hadn’t loved music. It gives one a different attitude toward work and business; it gives one rhythm, vision, enthusiasm, ambition.”

John returned home eight years later with little to show for his adventures. He discovered his wife at the head of a flourishing plumbing business that employed 12 men.

It was through plumbing that Florence became interested in construction. When John died in 1912, Florence headed for Los Angeles with nothing but her daughters and an “abiding faith in the city’s future.”

She started selling real estate, though she claimed in a 1927 profile in the Los Angeles Times that, since no one had any money, they mainly just traded land. In 1916, she joined the development firm JK Lloyd and Company. Florence seems to have quickly become the dominant force in the business.

The same LA Times profile credited her with building the first of the now ubiquitous multi-family apartment “flats” in Los Angeles. “I put up flat buildings right after the war when no one was risking building anything,” Florence said.

These flats had the appearance of elegant single-family houses and were popular with the rapidly expanding middle class population. Much like a present-day condo, they usually contained two or four spacious apartments, had ample yards, and featured the latest in modern conveniences.

By her own count, she eventually built 60 such buildings (now mostly lost). At least 20 were in the Wilshire district. Many were erected on Catalina Street, and at least four were located at the intersection of Third and Berendo Street.

Through the hustle and noise of the Fashion District, one can pick out many of Florence’s buildings because of their elegant architectural moldings and artistic details.

In 1923, Florence and her longtime partner, Jesse K. Lloyd, formed a new company, Lloyd and Casler. Florence, often listed as the gender neutral FC, was president of the company and seems to have ruled it with a firm but loving hand.

“It's important to make one’s own decisions,” Florence explained modestly to a reporter. She oversaw every area of construction and management and employed the same dedicated crew on project after project.

“I keep the same crew of men... —the carpenters, plumbers, foremen,” she explained. “We understand each other and everything moves more smoothly than if new workmen were assembled for each enterprise.”

Likewise, she formed a lasting partnership with architect William Douglas Lee. Lee, known for his work on the El Royale Apartments and the Chateau Marmont, shared Florence’s love of modern design enhanced with revival accenting and molding in terra cotta and stone, which lifted their buildings above the utilitarian norm.

Lee would be Florence’s designated architect for the greatest triumph of her career. Los Angeles was expanding at a breakneck speed in the 1920s, and Florence envisioned a new utopian commercial area centered around the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Maple Avenue, east of Downtown LA.

“Why, Los Angeles is to be a big city, and we’ve got to have space for our industries to grow,” she explained.

Between 1924 and 1928, Lloyd and Casler built at least seven specialized industrial buildings in what is now known as LA’s Fashion District.

All seem to have been designed by Lee. These include the aforementioned Textile Center Building, the Allied Crafts Building, the Graphic Arts Building, the Garment Capitol Building, the Furniture Exchange Building, the Printing Center, and the Merchant’s Exchange Building.

The exteriors were elegant pressed brick. At street level there were often decorative arcades, and the upper stories were generally dominated by long rows of clerestory windows.

These high-grade buildings were quickly rented out, since all featured “well lighted and ventilated work and display space” that fostered “ideal working conditions in the matter of conveniences, light, shipping facilities, etc.”

In 1925, Florence was elected director of the People’s Bank, making her the first female officer of a national bank in Los Angeles. She was also vice president of the Pico Street Association and a member of the Chamber of Commerce.

In 1928, Florence officially struck out on her own when she formed the Casler Construction Company. That year, she scored her biggest client yet when she began constructing the Bendix Building at 1206 South Maple Avenue for the Bendix Aviation Corporation.

Florence’s meteoric success fascinated the local business community. How had this middle-aged music lover, with a feminine white rose tucked beneath the brim of her hat, succeeded in such a male dominated field?

“I always play a lone hand,” she explained to a reporter in a 1931 profile in the LA Times. “No partners for me.”

With revival accenting and molding in terra cotta and stone, many of Florence’s buildings stood out from the utilitarian norm.

But she did promote women whenever she could. She made both her daughters directors at her new company, and Ruth kept the books for her.

Asked what she did for recreation, she spoke highly of an informal group of 50 “bright, clever successful” business women who met for dinner once a month. “No officers, no dues,” she explained. “We just meet year after year because we love each other.”

The Great Depression appears to have been the undoing of Florence’s empire. The Bendix Building (which still features the famed neon BENDIX aviation tower) was the last recorded completed project by the Casler Construction Company.

In the 1931 LA Times profile, Florence talked big—speaking of plans to build a theater complex, a department store, and a building devoted solely to music—but it seems that none of these projects were ever completed.

The Bendix Building (which still features the famed neon BENDIX aviation tower) was the last recorded completed project by the Casler Construction Company.

Tax records show that all of Lloyd and Casler’s buildings were sold off during the Depression. Florence is mentioned in the LA Times for attending a musical evening in 1932 and for being an honorary member of the Canadian Society in 1933.

A census from 1940 shows 70-year-old Florence living with Ruth and her electrician husband Frank Beck in Los Angeles. Her occupation is listed as “contractor.” After that, the name Florence Casler disappears from view.

She died on March 15, 1954, and is buried in rural Yolo County. So what was Florence doing for the last 14 years of her life? Did she build any structures we are unaware of? It is hard to believe that this industrious woman, who loved new inventions, who disliked golf because it was “too slow,” simply faded away in a small Northern California town.

Today, what remains of Florence is her buildings. Through the hustle and noise of the Fashion District, one can pick out many of Florence’s buildings because of their elegant architectural moldings and artistic details, visible despite the layer of grime that covers them.

Many of the buildings on Maple Street still hum with various commercial activities, though some also seem to have been converted into low-rent apartments. A few blocks away is the Textile Design Building.

In 2007, it was re-adapted by developer MJW Investments, and it was one of the first repurposed high-end loft buildings in Downtown Los Angeles. The building Florence might be most proud of is the Gothic Revival building that she and William Douglas Lee constructed at 442 San Pedro Street.

Historically known as the Renaissance Building, it is now in the heart of LA’s Skid Row. In 2010, it was beautifully transformed by the firm of Pica and Sullivan into the nonprofit Downtown Women’s Center, which houses more than 100 homeless and low-income women in Los Angeles. The redesign won numerous awards, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Preservation Award in 2011.

It seems a fitting use of a building built by a woman who once chuckled when a reporter asked if she believed women could raise a family and have a successful career. “I had to,” she laughed, “so I never thought about it.”

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