Since it opened in 1893, Downtown Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building has been the subject of fascination and endless speculation. Its golden, light-filled courtyard has been immortalized in countless movies, including 500 Days of Summer, The Artist, and, most famously, Blade Runner. Financed by mining magnate Lewis L. Bradbury (who did not live to see its completion), the ornate five-story office building has been lauded by architecture critics, including the architect Charles Moore, who called it “one of the most thrilling spaces on the North American continent.” It is legendary too for the influence the occult supposedly played in its creation, by a draftsman named George H. Wyman, who had never before been commissioned to design a building.
In a 1963 article entitled “Spirit World Tip Was Aid to Draftman,” the Los Angeles Times reported that Wyman, a young, untrained architect, was shocked when Bradbury approached him in the offices of his boss, architect Samuel P. Hunt. Dissatisfied with Hunt’s original plans for his building, Bradbury offered the job to Wyman. Wyman begged for time to think about it. That weekend he was using a planchette (a kind of early Ouija Board) to clear his mind, according to the Times, when a spirit told him through the board “Take Bradbury building. It will make you famous.”
The article adds that Wyman was influenced by the Utopian novel Looking Backward, during his work on the building. The vast courtyard of light, golden-hued tiles, and exotic wrought ironwork in the building were all supposedly inspired by idealized buildings described in the book.
But for all of the Bradbury Building’s otherworldly mystery and glamour, its early tenants had their feet planted firmly on the ground. In the Bradbury’s 50 or so office suites, the business of building a modern metropolis was the order of the day. Snapshots of their workaday lives form a collage of a bustling civic center, embracing all the drama the growing city had to offer.
Located at Broadway and Third in the heart of Downtown, the beautiful Bradbury, with its custom-made ironwork railings and elevators, quickly became LA’s most fashionable business address. Citizens of LA, used to cramped and dark interiors in adobe and various revival styles, were charmed by the Bradbury’s thoroughly novel, bright, and fanciful interior—which seemed to point toward a new, modern era in Los Angeles. Numerous attorneys, including the Bradbury family’s personal law firm, rented suites in the building, which was also close to the courthouse and City Hall. Prominent doctors, dentists, insurance agents, and the California Southern Railroad Company had offices there too.
Throughout the 1890s, the Bradbury also housed high-end retail businesses. Madames Beeman and Hendee operated an eclectic gift shop that sold “useful novelties,” including sofa cushions, Navajo blankets, Japanese embroidery, infant outfits, ladies’ underwear (both machine- and handmade), and “the best line of art decorative needlework in the city,” featuring “a specialty of California floral designs.” Mrs. A. Clark sold millinery, while a Mr. Courain auctioned antique rugs in his suite, including a “very rich and rare” rug made for the maharaja of Lahore.
But for all its veneer of prosperity and gentility, Los Angeles was still a Wild West town. In the late 1890s, a man named Barker Northrup operated the California Mercantile Collecting Agency out of the Bradbury. Northrup specialized in shaking down debtors on behalf of his creditor clients in the most unscrupulous ways. This included sending out menacing missives to debtors all over the county, including this letter mailed to one city firm:
It is very unpleasant for you, to be continually dunned by this agency, and we would imagine that you would prefer to adjust matters at once rather than have the facts made public, and other steps taken that would seriously embarrass you and cause you to deteriorate greatly in the estimation of your friends and tradespeople … we would suggest that if you consider your present position in the community of any value that you put forth every effort toward an early adjustment and thereby avoid further unpleasant litigation.
Yours respectfully, the California Mercantile Collecting Agency.
If debtors did not pay up, Northrup placed them on a “blacklist” that he sent to local merchants. In 1898, he was finally stopped when he was arrested for embezzlement.
A year later, in 1899, the Bradbury’s celebrated wrought iron, said to have been exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 before it was shipped west, nearly caused the death of an electric-light trimmer named J.W. Norman. “It is Norman’s duty to trim a large arc light suspended from the roof over the large central court of the Bradbury Building,” a reporter for the Los Angeles Times explained. “The light hangs at a level with the elevator cage when it is at the fifth floor. Norman reaches it from the cage with a long hook, draws it over the elevator, and puts it in order while the elevator boy [Charles Sanchez] stands on guard at the open door overlooking the court to prevent the lamp from swinging back into place.”
While this system usually went smoothly, on January 3, things went horribly wrong:
While Norman was trimming the lamp yesterday, he managed to form a circuit while grasping the lamp with one hand and the iron work of the elevator with the other. The electric current shot through his body, constricting his muscles so that he could not loosen his hold on the lamp. At the same time, he was powerless to exert any force in holding back the lamp, and slowly the heavy object began to swing back toward the center of the court, dragging the unfortunate man along with it. As soon as his feet had left the elevator floor, his weight would have torn him loose from the lamp … and he would have been dashed to death on the tiled floor of the corridor nearly 100 feet below. Norman realized his perilous position and screamed lustily. Dozens of people rushed from the offices in the building and were horror-stricken upon beholding the awful fate that seemed to be inevitable for the electric light man.
Luckily, young Charles Sanchez, the quick-thinking elevator boy, sprang into action. He grabbed onto Noman’s waist to keep him from falling into the courtyard below. Although he was also shocked, Sanchez managed to kick the lamp from the stunned Noman’s hands, breaking the current and saving both of their lives.
With the advent of the new century, the Bradbury increasingly became an important meeting space for the city’s elite to discuss both government and private sector deals. In 1900, a large meeting of the local transportation companies was held at the general offices of the Santa Fe Railway Company “for the purpose of discussing the cheap fare policies in practice to induce larger travel to beach points,” according to the Los Angeles Times. A year later, 20 olive growers met at the Bradbury to form a state association to represent their interests. On the fifth floor were the offices of the United States Engineers Office, where citizens were encouraged to come in to view “an interesting map showing the proposed lines for the inner harbors at San Pedro.”
By the 1900s, there was a bank in the building, as well as many insurance and real estate offices, all of which increased civilian foot traffic. Angelenos from all walks of life frequented the Bradbury for doctors appointments, law consultations, shopping excursions, and business meetings.
At 10 p.m. one Monday night in 1907, a stockholders’ meeting was held at the offices of the Copper Czar Mining Company. It had been called by a group of “distrusting stockholders, who decided to elect a new board of directors from their number and gain possession of the company’s books.” According to the Los Angeles Times, things quickly escalated when the company’s secretary got wind of what was occurring:
Frank A. McDonald, secretary, whom the stockholders sought to oust, rushed madly into the room. He demanded to know who had broken open his desk and taken the company’s books without his permission.
“We did,” shouted several stockholders.
“And what are you going to do about it?” joined the rest.
A lively debate followed, and McDonald grabbed for the books. Elcholz [a stockholder] had the books in his arms, and started across the room with them. McDonald had a hold on them, and they jerked each other about the room …
At this point the police, who had been called by a concerned neighbor, rushed into the room. They found the company President G.W. Walling rapping his gavel in an attempt to restore order. ...
“A riot call was sent into headquarters. You’re disturbing the peace,” answered the sergeant of the squad.
“Is it the consensus of this meeting that we are disturbing the peace?” asked President Walling.
“No!” shouted two dozen irate stockholders.
“Yes,” came a muffled cry from one corner of the room. The sergeant ordered “about face” and the squad retired without making any arrests. Business was resumed.
Chastised, McDonald left, presumably without his precious books.
The next year a fight occurred in the law offices of elderly LA pioneer Marshall Stimson, when he was visited by John Wolfskill and his son Ney. The two men owned neighboring ranches in Corcoran, and a feud over the purchase of hay had been brewing for some time. It soon grew physical, according to the Los Angeles Times:
Stimson alleges that the younger Wolfskill attacked him with his fingernails. A free-for-all fight ensued, in which ink stands and law books were used as missiles, and even office chairs were employed. When the dust settled, Stimson had a discolored eye and many scratches and bruises, while the younger Wolfskill also appeared the worse for combat.
That year, 1908, was an eventful one at the Bradbury. In April, “45 hungry and desperate Russian laborers descended upon the office of the Tujunga Valley Rock Company and demanded money with which to get something to eat,” according to the Los Angeles Times. These men had been building a roadway for six weeks in the Big Tujunga Wash and had been given checks that turned out to be worthless. They camped out in the rock company’s office and refused to leave until they had been paid. The police were soon called and “two policemen hurried to the building and finally dispersed the men, some of whom shed tears, some raged and others made threats against Capt. Alexander Blanchi, the mission’s Russian engineer and contractor and an official of the company.”
Blanchi was conveniently nowhere to be found. The laborers were threatened with prison time if they “made trouble,” and eventually left the Bradbury without receiving a cent.
In November, a more gruesome tragedy struck the Bradbury Building:
After searching from the top floor to the basement of the Bradbury building … yesterday afternoon for Carl King, assistant janitor, to pay him his wages, Carl Bremer, head janitor, discovered his body in the bottom of the freight elevator shaft. King’s skull was crushed and many bones broken. He had evidently been dead for several hours … King was last seen alive on the third floor where he was at work. A few minutes later the freight elevator was lowered into the basement and then run up to the third floor. S.E. Waymouth, the head engineer, did not notice who was running it, but it suddenly came to a stop with a jerk. It is believed that King was caught between the floors and hurried down the shaft, a distance of 35 feet, striking his head.
The Bradbury and its busy tenants still soldiered on. In 1915, the Bradbury family began to renovate their 22-year-old building. They spent $7,000 to lay floor tiles and repaint the interior. Such was the Bradbury’s fame already that it was announced that the estate had printed “20,000 colored postcards bearing a photograph of the building’s interior, taken from the roof through the great central well, which is a feature of the structure. These will be sent … to announce the renovation of the landmark.”
The Bradbury continued to be a desirable address throughout the 1910s. In 1916, the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange opened in the building and there were regular health lectures by Dr. Axel Gibson. In 1919, an eccentric engineer named E.W. Myers, whose lab was in the building, claimed to have discovered a new, “possibly radioactive element” in ore taken from the Los Angeles Forest Reserve Canyon. (After a flurry of press coverage, it seems his finding were dismissed.)
With the building boom of the 1920s—when new, grand structures like the Oviatt and Fine Arts Buildings began to dominate the Downtown skyline—the Bradbury began to lose some of its status. As elite law firms and businesses decamped for LA’s new Art Deco towers, the Bradbury seems to have become the de facto nonprofit office park of Los Angeles.
Its central location, name recognition, and relatively affordable rent all made it desirable, and the numbers of charities, civic, and government service offices that rented space in the building during the 1920s and ’30s almost boggles the mind. They included the Businessmen’s Cooperative Association, the American Reforestation Association, the 24-hour relief bureau of the Community Chest (which supported 137 local welfare organizations), the Conservation Association of Southern California, the Auto Park Association, the International Reform Federation, the Family Welfare Association, the American Society for the Control of Cancer, the British Benevolent Society, the California Anti-Vivisection Society, the Protestant Welfare Association, and the United Church Service Bureau.
In 1943, the Bradbury estate finally sold their famous building to the Western Management Corporation. Although the building was frequently visited by architecture students and enthusiasts—who often sketched the inner courtyard—the Bradbury became increasingly dilapidated, as did the commercial and theatrical area surrounding it. By the late 1940s, it was occupied primarily by garment manufacturing firms. In 1947, a fire broke out in a curtain factory on the fifth floor and 18 fire companies rode the Bradbury’s iconic elevators to put out the fierce blaze, with the building’s longtime elevator operator Minnie Epp leading the way.
The Bradbury was saved from fire, but it would go through several more decades of neglect. It came to represent a dystopian, decaying city to filmmakers, making it a perfect setting for scenes of futuristic urban ruin in the 1982 science fiction/noir Blade Runner. It was finally returned to its former glory in the early 1990s after being purchased by developer Ira Yellin, who hired restorative architectural whiz Brenda Levin to oversee the multimillion-dollar restoration. The area surrounding the building was still in a severe slump, so the Bradbury became a jewel in the middle of a depressed neighborhood.
But times are changing again. As Broadway continues its speedy march toward gentrification, who knows what future stories the Bradbury Building—still a working office building with numerous tenants—has yet to tell? Next time you are Downtown, peek into the Bradbury, into the golden courtyard bathed in soft streams of white light, and imagine all the thousands of Angelenos who have passed through this building, in search of a better city and a bigger life.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Ira Yellin’s last name.