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The birth and rebirth of LA’s hottest block

The building that first made Downtown LA’s South Broadway into a destination a century ago is getting ready for its comeback

Today, the former Broadway Trade Center is just another construction site in ever-shifting Downtown Los Angeles. Shrouded by a tarp, the 1.1-million-square-foot structure covers half a city block, and is slated to reopen in 2019 as a multi-use complex. New-York-based Waterbridge Capital bought the building for $130 million dollars, and is planning a Grand Central-style market, a private members club in the vein of Soho House, restaurants, and office space. With the explosive redevelopment of Downtown, it is one multi-million-dollar project among many, in an area in the grip of transformation and gentrification. But a little over 100 years ago, its original construction was the talk of the town. All eyes were on the building, then known as the new home of A. Hamburger & Sons, as it changed the commercial landscape of Los Angeles, and signaled to many that the upstart City of Angels had finally arrived.

Asher Hamburger, a Jewish native of Bavaria, arrived in America in 1839. Along with his two brothers, he opened general stores in Pennsylvania and Alabama. Enticed by the Gold Rush, in 1851 the Hamburgers moved westward, opening a new store in Sacramento. In this dusty capital of California, Asher and his wife, Hannah, raised six children. In 1881, the family was again on the move, setting their sights on Southern California and the booming Wild West outpost of Los Angeles. Here, Asher, along with his sons—including the kindly, larger-than-life Moses and the enterprising David—opened a tiny one-room general store on Main Street, near Requena Street.

From the beginning, the Hamburgers were known as straight-shooting businessmen in the town of around 12,000 people, many of them hustlers. “The business from its inception was strictly one price and spot cash,” one writer for the Los Angeles Times remembered, “which in the early days of California merchandising—of asking all you could and taking what you could get—was no easy task to accomplish.” This meant that there was no bartering and no credit—you paid the price listed, then and there.

Soon after they opened, Hamburger & Sons moved to the centrally located Bumiller Block on Spring Street. After Asher’s death in 1897, the business continued to flourish under his sons.

Over the next 20 years, Hamburger & Sons expanded rapidly, until the store filled a hodge-podge of buildings up and down bustling Spring Street. Known as “the people’s store” and “the safest place to trade,” by the turn of the century it was estimated that 8,000 people a day shopped at Hamburger for clothing, dry goods, furnishings, and homewares. Despite this, David Hamburger, citing the store’s central location and access to streetcar lines, dismissed any plans to move to a more spacious location. “Deny for us that we are building or contemplate building any time in the immediate future,” he told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1903. “All reports to the contrary are untruths, and said merely to influence the values of prospective locations.”

The 1913 view from Hill Street, looking southeast. The large white building is Hamburger’s.
Charles C. Pierce/Los Angeles Public Library

For once, a Hamburger was not shooting straight. The firm had already retained the services of real estate agent W.I. Hollingsworth. In an effort to avoid inflated prices, Hollingsworth had begun discreetly buying lots for the Hamburgers up and down the sleepy residential and commercial end of South Broadway. By December 1903, the city was abuzz with rumors of the transactions and the mysterious buyers:

The pending operations in Broadway realty have passed beyond the plane of mere rumor, and become facts concerning which the public has a right to information. For some weeks past, the representatives of what is reported to be a large mercantile concern have been industriously tying up by option, and otherwise, portions of frontage btw 8th and 9th streets … It was reported that Hamburger & Sons were the parties for whom the lots on … Broadway are being purchased, but the members of the firm deny any connection with the deal.

Despite their best efforts, the Hamburgers’ secret soon became common knowledge. In July 1905, their plan to build the “greatest building undertaken” in the history of Los Angeles was formally announced. Preliminary plans drawn up by architect A.M. Edelman (Alfred F. Rosenheim would soon take over the project) displayed a massive complex of steel and granite, the likes of which had never been seen in Southern California. This gargantuan undertaking would make once inconsequential South Broadway the new center of town, and shift commerce away from the old business district. “The magnitude of the enterprise is so stupendous that it takes time to take it in,” one reporter mused. “As operators get the perspective of the Hamburger plans they realize that it must mean much to the whole city, particularly to that portion of it.”

On October 17, 1905, thousands of Angelenos gathered to watch as over 800 Hamburger employees and executives travelled from their store to the new site for groundbreaking ceremonies:

At the corner of Eighth and Broadway a large crowd gathered and waited for an hour for the parade to arrive … Just inside the property line, on the southwest corner of Eighth and Broadway, a stand had been erected … Little Asher Hamburger, in a natty cloth suit and auto-cap, upon his arrival, at once took his place in the center of the platform holding a handsome silk flag much larger than himself, making a beautiful picture that was repeatedly applauded by the crowd. Later there was also given into the lad’s possession the handsomest real shovel that ever turned dirt … the little shovel bearer stepped forward and handed the tool to Mr. [Moses] Hamburger, who … turned the first shovelful of earth and held the shovel aloft that all might see the marks of soil upon its polished surface.

For the next two years, news of the massive project’s progress consistently made local papers. It was reported that the six-floor Beaux-Arts building, designed by Rosenheim, would have two acres of space on every floor. Its skeleton was constructed from 5,500 tons of steel, and 35,000 barrels of cement were used for the floors and beams. The interior finishings were of the finest mahogany, while the exterior would be ornamented with cast iron and cream-colored terra cotta. A team of 1,400 men worked on the huge building, while buyers scoured the markets of America and Europe to fill the store with everything a middle class Angeleno could desire.

In the spring of 1908, this “white and many pillared mansion of commerce” was shaping up to be the “largest store west of Chicago.” The new store was slated to bring 1,000 new jobs to Los Angeles, which to a population of roughly 310,000 was not a paltry number, especially since the city was in a pronounced economic slump. On July 27, over 4,000 people responded to an ad calling for 1,000 new clerks at Hamburger’s. According to the Los Angeles Times, the crowd began amassing at 7 a.m., blocking traffic and knocking over bicyclists:

When the doors were finally opened, the throngs swept everything before it, overturning a section of new plate glass counters and wrecking the glass. In the private office sat Superintendent Baillie, with assistants, and the crowd was led to his registration desks, under pilotage of special police, but even then the confusion was remindful at times of a lively street fracas. Men jostled one another not always good naturedly and the eager young ladies pressed forward in battalions, each striving to be first … At the height of the scramble at 9 o’clock, half a dozen women had to be assisted from the crowd to chairs. There applicants, all but overcome by the heat and excitement, were on the verge of fainting.

A postcard of Hamburger’s exterior from the year after its opening.
Edward H. Mitchell/Los Angeles Public Library

Hundreds of people, many of them young women, were hired on the spot. As the grand opening loomed, preparations for the management of the massive new store accelerated. A volunteer fire department, made up of loyal Hamburger retainers, was organized. A doctor and nurse were hired for the in-house infirmary. Over 2,000 longtime and new employees were given a tour of the impressive building, to teach them the ropes of working in such a large space. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Bevies of pretty girls, wearing the latest millinery, and looking more like a merry throng of matinee girls than women who earn their livelihood waiting on the public, strolled through the various departments, under the lead of their floor managers, and received a first lesson, [and] familiarized themselves with the new arrangements.

After the new sales force had been introduced to their managers and work areas, they were among the first Angelenos to experience some of the mechanical innovations that would delight Edwardian Los Angeles for years to come. This included a working escalator, said to be the first in all of California:

Hundreds of charming young women, at odd moments, took their first ride on the escalator, or moving stairway, as it is popularly called. It takes the shopper from the first to the second floor. Many delightful feminine comments were made on the novel trip. The girls were having an experience equal to Coney Island, and there wasn’t a particle of danger …

They also got to view a state of the art conveyance system, said to be the first of its kind in the country, that made home delivery—de rigueur at the time—easier for everyone involved:

One of the novel features is the automatic package chute. Running through the store, from top to bottom, is what is called the gravity package slide, or chute, an ingenious affair that whisks packages of any size, shape or weight, whatever the class of goods, without danger of breakage or other damage. The packages literally fly from floor to floor without a second’s delay. The chute ends in the basement. Packages may be landed right into the department where they properly belong whether for city delivery or for country packaging.

On August 10, 1908, California’s “greatest temple of trade,” in many ways akin to a contemporary mall in scale and offerings, officially celebrated its grand opening. At a ceremony on the fourth floor, home to the endless bakery, grocery department, and dining hall, the Hamburgers mingled with prominent members of the city, including Mayor Arthur Cyprian Harper. David Hamburger gave a speech praising his employees and the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles:

We have kept men employed through the panic, and bought all our building materials from Los Angeles firms that we might show the world how stable the city is. If this building is a monument, it is one of gratitude, to the people of Southern California, and it has been erected through stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance and honesty, which are the principles of success in all things. We dedicate it to you.

After years of anticipation, the doors to Hamburger & Sons were thrown open to the public. According to the Los Angeles Times, they were not disappointed:

Through the main doorway on Broadway, with an arch twenty-eight feet above the paving, the big store is entered. The first cross-aisle is almost a city block long and is thirty-two feet wide between rows of columns. Neckwear, veils, leather goods, silverware, jewelry and other stocks cover 7000 square feet. Nearby, drugs, perfumery, embroideries, handkerchiefs and laces, occupy about 4000 square feet. Women’s eyes will also feast on embroidered gowns, displayed on models in this quarter. The soda-water fountain is eighty feet long. The center aisle, as wide and grand as a boulevard, gives access to what has been christened “Silktown.” Here, ladies can inspect tens of thousands of patterns, literally by the acre.

An estimated 75,000 people streamed through the door that first day, the spacious aisles swallowing “thousands with discomfort.” All day long visitors stood in line for a chance to ride the escalator, view the 800 feet of decorated street-front windows, and explore the “15 acres of floors,” featuring the latest in consumer goods. There were reading nooks, employee game rooms, a dentist office, a beauty parlor, a chiropodist, a post office, a telegraph office, a credit office, a barbershop, a rooftop garden, and an auditorium and theater where tired shoppers could watch a quick Vaudeville act or one-reel motion picture. “At first the immensity of the new store almost overwhelms the visitor,” one reporter noted, “but eventually this feeling of space wears off, principally because each department is so wholly complete in itself that interest is centered in what is just before the eyes.”

With the opening of Hamburger & Sons, the area around South Broadway became the new entertainment mecca of Los Angeles. Within a year, the Hamburgers knew they had made the right choice. “A year ago, when we decided to build on our present location, we thought we were ten years ahead of the city,” one Hamburger executive said. “Now we find the city has pretty nearly grown up to us, and we are almost exercising our full capacity in trade.” Competing department stores, offices, restaurants and entertainment palaces soon filled both sides of the street. The public library even moved into the Hamburger building for a time. By the 1910s, South Broadway was a bustling, 20th century cosmopolitan fun zone, the perfect place for LA’s growing middle and upper classes to spend their hard-earned disposable income.

Interior of the May Company department store, which took over the Hamburger building.
Rob Brown/Los Angeles Public Library

In 1923, the building was expanded and redesigned by architect Albert C. Martin. That same year, the Hamburgers sold the store to the St. Louis-based May Company, which made the store its flagship in the West. Another renovation and expansion occurred in 1929, and for the next 50 years, the May Company was a Downtown Los Angeles institution. But as fabulous Broadway declined in the postwar years, so did the store’s profits and cachet. In 1986, the May Company moved out of the historic building to a much smaller space at Seventh and Figueroa. The building eventually became the Broadway Trade Center, a rundown commercial space on equally rundown South Broadway.

Much like Hamburgers at the turn of the last century, the opening of the Ace Hotel in 2014 attracted new activity and investment to South Broadway. This resurgence has benefitted its predecessor—the Hamburgers’ “great white store” is now receiving its most complete renovation ever. Omgivning, the LA-based architecture firm in charge of the project, promises that many of the building’s historic relics will be restored in all their Edwardian glory. This includes the original escalators, the “moving stairways” that once delighted our ancestors so. These will be preserved for aesthetic value only—we jaded modern Angelenos won’t be able to enjoy the excitement of that first wild ride.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

California Broadway Trade Center

830 S. Hill St., Los Angeles, CA
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