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From its Downtown fortress, the Los Angeles Times built LA

The short history of the newspaper—and its opportunistic publishers

The corner of First and Spring streets in Downtown Los Angeles was a scene of celebration on July 1, 1935. The new headquarters for the Los Angeles Times had opened amid the Great Depression, and news of the grand opening was broadcast across the country.

Curious Angelenos streamed through the main entrance, past the giant revolving globe that dominated the formal lobby. Entertainer and tireless LA promoter Will Rogers was master-of-ceremonies, and singer Bing Crosby crooned a few tunes.

Fronting the Los Angeles Civic Center, the new building was a stone’s throw away from the courts, the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, and City Hall, all of which, many detractors believed—for good reason—the LA Times virtually controlled.

The LA Times had been in the center of Downtown since its inception. Founded as the Los Angeles Daily Times in 1881 by Nathan Cole Jr. and Thomas Gardiner, its early years were spent in a “hole in the wall” at the corner of Temple and New High Streets. In July 1882, the newspaper hired a new editor, Harrison Gray Otis. By 1886, he had become the sole owner and publisher of the paper.

Harrison Gray Otis, a “blustery, bellicose man who approached life as if it were the Civil War battlefield of Antietam.”
Public domain

Originally from Ohio, Otis, according to Bill Boyarsky, author of the definitive Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times, was a “blustery, bellicose man who approached life as if it were the Civil War battlefield of Antietam,” in which he had fought.

“He was a holy terror in his newspaper plant; his natural voice was that of a game-warden roaring at seal poachers,” historian Morrow Mayo said.

Otis was matched in this zeal and drive by his wife Eliza, a former schoolteacher and an accomplished writer in the patriotic, Victorian schmaltz vein. “I don’t believe that we need to be creatures of circumstances, but rather creators of them, and thus architects of our own fortune,” she wrote.

The couple believed that they had found their fortune in Los Angeles, although the town when they arrived wasn’t more than a dusty, Wild West outpost of 12,000 people, rife with crime and strife.

But they saw it as a land of unlimited opportunities, where hard-working Anglo-Americans like themselves could build a Utopian capitalistic society.

“It is the fattest land I ever was in by many degrees,” Otis wrote. “Climate and real estate make a most intoxicating mixture here in Los Angeles. Just enough has been done with the varied and rich resources to show the mighty possibilities of the region. There is nothing like it.”

Under Otis, the LA Times promoted a Republican, open-shop Los Angeles, driven by commerce and development. As the town boomed throughout the 1880s, the paper, with its brash editorials by Otis and pro LA poems and stories by Eliza, gained more and more power and readership.

Nothing signaled the Times’ importance more than when it moved out of its modest office in 1887. The move was to its new headquarters (the first of three the newspaper would build), which opened July 1, 1887, at First and Broadway.

Nicknamed “the fortress,” the six-story castle-like building was the first granite building in Los Angeles. The front counter was “fashioned from wood from Union and Confederate ships, from California missions and Lincoln’s deathbed,” while the different departments were connected by modern “speaking tubes.”

Eliza Otis waxed poetic upon its opening: “Take the granite which the age wrought for us, to build our Times Citadel, where we may fight for truth, do mighty battle ’gainst the wrong.”

“The Fortress,” the first headquarters the LA Times built, photographed in 1901.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Besides Otis himself, the most important Times employee to decamp to the new building was Harry Chandler, who had been hired as a circulation department clerk in 1885.

A “pirate visionary,” the shrewd Chandler had been promoted to the head of the department within the year. He soon caught Otis’s attention for his ruthless, innovative ways. Decades later, Chandler recalled an early stunt to punish the Times’ competitors at the Los Angeles Herald:

Through a friend, I secretly bought the circulation routes of the Herald…then I hired a big tallyho and one day shipped off the entire Herald Circulation and carrier crew to the San Bernardino Mountains for a five-day holiday. When the time came to distribute the Herald…there weren’t any boys to do it.

Chandler soon became the son Otis (the father of three daughters) never had, and his right-hand man. In 1894, Chandler became Otis’s actual son-in-law, when he married Marian, the only daughter of Eliza and Harrison to work at the LA Times.

Under the leadership of these two men, the LA Times would have its hand in almost every pro-growth endeavor in Los Angeles. It was Otis who spurred the creation of the new LA Chamber of Commerce in 1888, which lured thousands of Midwesterners and Easterners to Los Angeles.

Picking a public fight with Henry Huntington’s Southern Pacific Railroad, they helped bring the port of Los Angeles to San Pedro instead of Santa Monica.

A section of the Los Angeles aqueduct in the San Fernando Valley completed in 1913.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The LA Times was also heavily involved in the propaganda effort to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In 1903, using insider information, Otis, Chandler, and a group of LA businessmen bought 160,000 acres of the San Fernando Valley, aware that the aqueduct would make these parched regions into arable, fertile land.

The paper also continued to voraciously fight labor unions at every turn, believing that unions were an impediment to competitive growth.

“There is one city in the United States where a strike has never been able to succeed,” Chandler said proudly. “That city is Los Angeles. The reason is because it has the Times.”

There was also a racist element in their opposition since many unions were made up of leaders and members that did not fit Otis’s “Anglo-Saxon” ideal.

Otis, his paper—and “the fortress” itself—became a national symbol of oppression to pro-union leaders. Progressive California Governor Hiram Johnson echoed the sentiments of many when he described Otis as a man “with gangrened heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things.”

“The Fortress” was bombed in 1910, killing 21 employees.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

This rage came to a head in the early morning hours of October 1, 1910. An explosion tore through “The Fortress,” killing 21 employees (including Chandler’s secretary Wesley Reeves) and injuring dozens more.

Brothers J.B. and J.J. McNamara, members of International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, who had orchestrated more than 100 cross-country bombings in twisted pursuit of anti-union activists, were eventually convicted of the crime.

“I wanted the whole building to go to hell,” J.B. McNamara later said. “I am sorry so many people were killed. I hoped to get General Otis.”

This terrorism strengthened the Times’ anti-union stance, which would persist until the 1960s. On October 1, 1912, the two-year anniversary of the bombing, the ever-resilient LA Times reopened at its new headquarters on First and Broadway, the second of three headquarter it would build Downtown. The new building, the LA Times boasted, was built with the “permanent stability of a Gibraltar” and “wider, deeper, higher in the air, [and] extended farther in the earth”

Harrison Gray Otis died in 1917, and Harry Chandler officially took the reins of the Times- and the direction of Los Angeles.

Chandler had his hands in every LA honeypot, owning stakes in oil wells, promoting and investing in the burgeoning SoCal aviation industry, investing in steamships, Goodyear Oil and Tire, and subdivisions—including the fabled Hollywoodland in Beachwood Canyon—in the city and the Valley.

At every turn, the LA Times was there to promote the boss’s latest business venture.

“Before a single board was nailed,” historian Kevin Roderick said, “the Times, doing its part to sell the boss’s land, proclaimed nonexistent new communities” to be “the wonder towns” of the San Fernando Valley.

“I think of Harry Chandler not as a publisher but as a land developer, a dreamer, a builder,” his daughter-in-law Dorothy Chandler would later say. “His mind wasn’t on the newspaper, I hate to tell you.”

Chandler was well-aware of the power of his position at the LA Times, and his ability to shape the city around him.

“There isn’t a public office in the world I would want to accept as a result of my many years of work at the Times office,” he said. “I’m able to render a service to the public that is far beyond anything I could in any elected position.”

View of the magnificent LA Times building, designed by architect Gordon Kaufmann, in 1935.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

So it was, that at the height of the depression in Los Angeles, with building slowed and hope being lost, the increasingly powerful LA Times decided to make a statement about it belief in the city they had helped mold.

Chandler hired architect Gordon Kaufmann to build a magnificent new headquarters, allegedly giving the architect one directive: “Let it be a suitable newspaper plant and a monument to our city.” Chandler claimed to have paid cash for the new plant.

Designed in what was called the “monumental modern” style, the imposing new six-story building was topped with a graceful clock tower that could be seen throughout the civic center.

“Faced with Indiana limestone, California granite, bronze and aluminum, it apparently has been designed to endure as long as Los Angeles itself,” one Times writer editorialized.

The building was designed so that the temperature was always maintained at “75 degrees… conditions needed for the perfect production of newspaper.” Carved in the impressive stone frontings of the building were slogans and quotes, including that of lionized former publisher Harrison Gray Otis: “Stand fast, stand firm, stand true.”

Chandler wrote an editorial himself about the new building and his family’s paper:

The Times has always been so much a part of Los Angeles that the history of one is a history of the other… the old Times eagle will have new feathers and a new roost; but its eye will remain vigilant for injustice, tyranny, and the opportunity to defend those whose arms are too weak to defend themselves.

This new construction project on First and Spring Streets brought the praise of many in Southern California desperate for some good news. Always its best booster, the LA Times reported on the building’s grand opening on July 1, 1935, in bombastic tones that echoed its publisher and his admirers.

After Chandler’s retirement, his handsome, laid-back son, Norman, became publisher. Under him, the Times continued to exert a powerful influence on Los Angeles and Southern California, helping a young politician named Richard Nixon get elected, and influencing leaders across the street.

“The Times dominated Los Angeles City Hall,” Boyarsky writes of the Norman Chandler era, “helped by an influential reporter who signaled thumbs up and thumbs down when telling council members how to vote on measures that interested the paper.”

In 1960, Norman’s forward-thinking, hard-charging son, Otis, became publisher. Under Otis, the paper became a Pulitzer-caliber paper, covering all sides of the issues and holding increasingly progressive views.

“Just as Harrison Gray Otis used his newspaper to promote the rise of Los Angeles from a remote western town to an important American metropolis,” historian Kevin Starr wrote, “Otis Chandler, during his watch on the Times, helped Los Angeles move towards international prominence, helped it become a world-class city.”

By the 1980s, when Tom Johnson became publisher, the Times headquarters had grown, eventually featuring five interconnected buildings which took up an entire city block known as Times-Mirror Square.

Times-Mirror Square, photographed in 2006.

In 2000, the Chandler family sold the paper and its storied building to the Tribune Media Company. But the power of the LA Times was shrinking dramatically, with the internet and new media steadily decreasing circulation numbers.

As the Times’ once mighty workforce declined, its owners began to rent out portions of the complex to other businesses and film shoots. In 2016, it sold Times-Mirror Square to the Onni Group for $100 million, though the LA Times stayed on as a renter.

Today, the last days of the LA Times in Downtown are at hand. In April, the Times’ new owner, billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, announced that the paper was leaving First and Spring, exiled to a complex at 2300 East Imperial Highway in El Segundo, 19 miles away. He promised the new building would have “lots of light, a daycare center [and] a museum to honor the newspaper’s history and modern technology.”

LA Times employees have been moving out of the building department by department.

The Onni Group plans to turn portions of Times Mirror Square into a mixed-used residential and commercial complex. One can only imagine how Otis and Chandler, as pro-growth and pro-development as they were, would feel about that.

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