On August 19, 1949, the scene at 1999 West Adams Boulevard was festive. Prominent Angelenos gathered in the sleek lobby of the new Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. building, a gleaming five-story office complex designed in the Late Moderne style by famed architect Paul R. Williams. They were there to celebrate the building’s grand opening, culminating in the unveiling of two custom murals on the lobby’s walls.
At the count of one, the legendary Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle, pulled down a curtain to expose “Exploration and Colonization” by the artist Charles Alston. At the same time, Gussie Woods unveiled her son Hale Woodruff’s piece “Settlement and Development.” Together the pieces were named “The Negro in California History.”
The opening of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building in bustling West Adams was much more than just another business expansion. It was a statement in a time of profound racial discrimination and marginalization—and it became the pride of the black community, says historian Robert Lee Johnson, author of Notable Southern Californians in Black History.
“One of the ideas at that time was the idea that if black people did something, it would be, like, half-assed, with really horrible standards. And one thing about the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building, it was cutting edge for 1949, which is one reason why it still dominates that area,” he says. “This was a very modern building that would rival any other building in Los Angeles. And it was seen as a symbol for the aspirations of the black community.”
He wasn’t there to see the new headquarters, but the construction was the culmination of decades of hard work on the part of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance founder William Nickerson Jr. According to Johnson, Nickerson was born in 1879 into a middle-class black family in Coldspring, Texas. After graduating from college, Nickerson became an insurance agent for a white-owned insurance company in Texas.
The life insurance policies Nickerson was allowed to offer to other black folks were nothing like the wealth-building policies available to white customers.
“In those days they sold black people these little industrial policies, they called them ‘burial policies,’” Johnson says. “And the agent would come by and pick up your 15 cents every week to pay for your policy. They were very small policies with a lot of restrictions. The way that you pass wealth down is really with a whole life policy.”
But white-owned insurance companies denied these whole life policies to black customers.
Tired of dealing with the racism he encountered working for a white-owned company (his wife tried to convince him to quit and become a mail carrier), Nickerson and several associates eventually founded the American Mutual Benefit Association. The company was very successful, which led to lawsuits and harassment from white-owned competition. After a cross was burned in his front yard, Nickerson chartered a private rail car and moved his family to Los Angeles.
At the time, Los Angeles was known as a relatively prosperous place for African Americans, but Nickerson found a burgeoning black middle class that was sorely underserved. Due to racially restrictive covenants that were written into the deeds of homes stating non-whites could not live on or own the property, black Angelenos were forced to live primarily in the neighborhoods surrounding Central Avenue in what is known today as Historic South Central. As the black middle class rose in the 1920s, black Angelenos were looking for more stability and the opportunity to buy homes and property.
“People were still struggling to be able to buy homes, because there were restrictive covenants,” Johnson says. “Anything else that was wealth building, like homeownership, like insurance policies, were denied to most black citizens.”
Nickerson was determined to change this. Not long after his arrival in Los Angeles, he met Norman Houston, the son of a railroad porter, who had graduated from UC Berkeley before becoming a life insurance agent selling industrial policies. In 1925, the two men teamed up with George Beavers Jr., a community activist and businessman, to form what would become known as the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. Revolutionary at the time, the company would offer industrial policies and whole life insurance policies to California’s approximately 40,000 black residents.
According to Los Angeles Public Library historian Kelly Walker, the new business opened in a one-room office on the second floor of 1435 Central Avenue and met with immediate success. According to Johnson, by 1928 Golden State boasted 100 employees. That year, the company built a new two-story headquarters at 4261 Central Avenue. The Mission Revival-style headquarters, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by African-American architect James H. Garrott and constructed by African-American builder Louis Blodgett.
Over the next two decades, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance met with continued success. Thanks to its insurance policies, thousands of black Californians were able to build trans-generational wealth and borrow against their whole life insurance policies to obtain loans and mortgages to purchase homes and start businesses. By the early 1940s, Golden State had expanded into Illinois and Texas.
Upon Nickerson’s death in 1945, Golden State was the largest black-owned company west of the Mississippi River. Houston became president of Golden State, which experienced continual growth in the postwar era. In 1947, the Los Angeles Sentinel, LA’s largest black newspaper, reported the company had earned more than $2 million in 1946 and had 115,000 policy holders. The firm boasted 479 employees, including 118 World War II veterans. It also had a strict no discrimination policy—offering its services to all men and women, regardless of race.
By the mid-1940s it was clear that the growing company needed a new, state-of-the-art headquarters. Making a bold statement, Golden State leaders decided to move the business from Central Avenue, buying property in the neighborhood of West Adams. The old Victorian neighborhood had recently become the home of wealthy black luminaries, including Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and Houston himself, who lived in the famed enclave of Sugar Hill.
The company’s choice of architect for the new headquarters was a no-brainer. Los Angeles native Paul R. Williams was already a legend, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects.
The prolific Williams was known for versatility, and during his career would design everything from homes for movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to the Los Angeles County Courthouse to the Hillside Memorial Park and the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was also very active in the black community, and served on the board of the Broadway Federal Savings and Loan, which was founded to aid black homeowners (Williams would convince the board to lend money for the construction of the iconic Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills after the Stahls were unable to find financing for the unconventional project).
“A lot of people know Paul Williams for the grand residences he designed. But he also designed very simple buildings and he took commissions that were very much personally connected to things he cared about, like Golden State Mutual,” says Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy. “The Golden State Mutual building is a really good example of that, where he was very much connected to what the business was doing. He wanted to be part of that.”
Williams was also put in charge of commissioning two African American artists to paint epic murals depicting black history in California, which would be displayed in the lobby. According to Houston, the murals were needed “to instill in our young people the knowledge that they had a lot to do with the building of our state.” In 1948, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported:
Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston, New York artists who have been commissioned by the Golden State Mutual Insurance Company to paint two murals which will depict California history and the contribution of its pioneer Negro citizens, arrived here last week for a three-week period of study and research for subject material for the canvases which will be painted in their New York studios.
On March 31, ground was broken at the corner of Adams Boulevard and Western Avenue to start construction on the building. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mayor Fletcher Bowron attended the groundbreaking ceremonies, stating that “gigantic businesses are coming to California now because home concerns like Golden State Mutual have pioneered the field and made it attractive for the investment of their money.” A speech was also given by Mary Parker, one of the original 500 members of Golden State, who “stressed the pride felt by all policy holders as owners of the mutual insurance company.”
After 14 months of construction, the new building was ready to open in August of 1949. According to the Paul R. Williams Project, Williams said he ”planned the building around the way the company operates.” Always pragmatic in his choice of architectural style, Williams created a building that was purposeful and sophisticated, with a style all its own.
“It’s a sort of Deco modernism that he liked because it’s attractive and powerful. And all of his architecture has circles and ellipses. If you look through all of his architecture, he gravitated toward that kind of geometry,” says Leslie Luebbers, director of the Paul R. Williams Project. “For example, if you look at the lobby, there are all of these curves. The balcony is curved, there’s a softened curve. The well around the elevator is curved.”
The exterior is also classic Williams, with a central structure flanked by two protruding wings. “Another thing that’s very common in his work is these angled wings. He has the central facade and then the wings sort of come forward,” Luebbers says. “It looks like it might be dark inside, but it isn’t. It’s incredibly light. And that was a big thing with him. I think it’s one of the reasons that he uses those angled wings, because they capture more light.”
The building was soon the talk of black Los Angeles. A reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel described the new building’s interior:
Soft green walls, attractive greenery throughout the building, spacious spans of working space, acoustic ceiling, and marbleized tile floors make the entire building a pleasant atmosphere for working. An artistically decorated auditorium, seating 400 persons… an employee cafeteria tropically decorated, with outdoor dining deck; a medical laboratory completely and modernly equipped for use by a company physician and nurse in employment examinations, and medical examinations for insurance applicants; a special research library; auto park for employees and customers- all are a part of the progressive planning that has characterized all of the company’s operations. The executive offices on the fifth floor are parapet encased with each office individually decorated and distinctively appointed- featuring an entire wall of glass paneling for entrance to the rooftop deck. The room for the board of directors is a model of propriety and genteel attractiveness in design with a huge photo mural of a California scene covering an entire wall.
The new headquarters was officially dedicated on August 23, 1949. On that day, a time capsule was placed in the cornerstone of the building. It included insurance pamphlets, portraits of the founders ,and the following resolution:
To our successors in the year 2000, setting forth the founding principles of the Company that they may be imbued with the spirit of the founder which has motivated us to build with service, to fulfill every promise made under a contract, to give fair and honest service without regard to race, creed or color... by the most efficient management possible.
During the week of celebrations leading up to the dedication more than 10,000 people would tour the building. Tours were offered regularly at least through December, with the Los Angeles Sentinel stating that “people of the community are invited especially to bring out-of-town guests to tour the building.” Church groups and social and civic clubs were also encouraged to visit.
“It was designed by an African-American architect for an African-American business that catered to the African-American community, and had artists telling the African-American story,” says Scott Fine.
After moving into its new showplace, Golden State continued to flourish, becoming a success story covered in major national outlets. “Business knows no color,” Houston told the magazine Fortnight in 1951. “We are an insurance firm competing for business on a strictly business basis. We deserve to live and grow on what we can deliver. Through happenstance we are Negroes. But also, and foremost we are insurance men.”
The company also continued to promote African American art and artists. In 1957, artist William Pajaud was hired by the public relations division of the firm. Pajaud saw that Golden State was in a unique position to collect art by black artists. “I asked the executives if they would like to have their portraits on the walls and at that point I had them,” Pajaud told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “At that time, they had the two murals and Mr. Nickerson’s bust. Except for a few desert scenes done by nonblack artists, they had no fine art in the building.”
Pajaud was given the green light and went on to amass one of the most prolific collections of black art in the country. Soon, the halls and offices of the Golden State headquarters were crowded with art by the likes of Betye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Charles White. One of the collection’s prized possession was Beulah Woodard’s clay statue of early LA real estate dynamo Biddy Mason. In 1985, artist Richard Wyatt painted “The Insurance Man,” an overscale painting of a black insurance man which was displayed in the auditorium.
Sadly, Golden State’s business faltered, due to poor management and black policy holders increasingly taking their business to bigger agencies. Facing bankruptcy, in 2007 the company sold off much of its prized art collection, netting $1.5 million at auction. However, it was too little too late. The company was ordered into conservation in 2009, and its landmark headquarters was purchased by Community Impact Development, a partnership formed to provide a new home for the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center (SCLARC), an agency that provides services to people with developmental disabilities. When the California State Conservation and Liquidation Office prepared to sell the two iconic lobby murals that comprised “The Negro in California History” to the Smithsonian, the LA Conservancy and other advocacy groups stepped in to stop the sale. They were successful, and the murals remain in the lobby to this day.
In 2011, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Starting in 2014, it underwent a massive renovation. Completed in 2015, AE3 Architects and Project Managers oversaw the renovation, which helped restore the building to the state Williams had intended. That year, a monument designed by artist Georgia Hanna Toliver honoring Williams was unveiled in a new plaza on the side of the building. Today, the building is part of the SCLARC campus.
For Adrian Scott Fine, the restored building—particularly the lobby—is a time-warp treat. “It’s like walking back in time. It’s very much preserved as it was when it originally opened in 1949. So it’s just got that feel and even that kind of smell, you can still in a way smell the nicotine of the decades before,” he says. “Then you look up one side, and you see one of the murals, then look to the other side, and you see the other mural. And they’re so vibrant and beautiful. “
To many in the preservation community, who have seen so many important LA landmarks— including the Williams-redesigned Ambassador Hotel—demolished, SCLARC’s stewardship of the building is a very good thing. “They very much care about the building, its history, its contribution to the African-American community, and the heritage of LA,” Scott Fine says.
It still towers over the intersection of Adams and Western, a monument to triumph and pride in the face of adversity.