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In 1928, The Roof Garden Nightclub opened in storage building’s penthouse clubrooms.
Alissa Walker

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LA’s most beautiful storage building was also a speakeasy

During Prohibition, the ornate tower was more than a place to store old mattresses

High atop the American Storage Co. building, midnight revelers were living it up in the penthouse suites of the “members only” Forty-One Club. It was Christmastime in 1931, and below, the Beverly-Vermont area was quiet, most unaware of the activities going on 150 feet above. Suddenly, federal agents raided the club, arresting the manager, bartender, waiters, the hostess, and even the cook. As patrons fled down the elevators and staircase to the parking lot below, the feds set to work, combing every inch of the club. What they found was a whole lot of illegal hooch.

Today, the American Storage building towers over a particularly nondescript interchange of low-slung gas stations, bungalows, and markets. Visible from the 101 freeway, it rises like a sleek, sophisticated fortress, seemingly much too glamorous to simply be a place Angelenos store their unwanted junk. But for a time, it was.

In 1927, Comosart Realty and Building Corp. president James Bowen announced the construction of a new state-of-the-art storage facility on Beverly Boulevard. In the spirit of the LA boomtime mentality of the of the 1920s, the $800,000 structure was to be no ordinary storage complex. “The structure, thirteen stories in height, is to be the first building of its kind in Los Angeles following the setback plan of New York’s skyscrapers,” the Los Angeles Times reported in November of that year.

The cosmopolitan setback plan, which has often been referred to as the “wedding cake” style, was that of a tiered skyscraper. The setback had been the architectural answer to a 1916 New York City zoning law that limited the amount of mass a building could take up on a single lot. “There were a number of different formulas, but in general terms, the law required that after a prescribed vertical height above the sidewalk (usually 90 feet for cross streets or 150 to 200 feet for avenues), a high-rise had to be stepped back within a diagonal plane projected from the center of the street,” explains Planning and Zoning New York City: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

The 1916 law had resulted in such famous New York landmarks as the Empire State Building and the Waldorf Astoria. While Los Angeles did not have such a law, the city did have an ordinance—on the books since 1904—stipulating that a building could only be 13 stories, or 150 feet in height, ensuring “symmetry of the skyline” (the law would be on the books until 1956).

Prominent architect Arthur E. Harvey was hired to design the Beverly Boulevard storage facility. Harvey designed many landmark LA buildings over the years, including the Chateau Elysée (now the Scientology Celebrity Centre) in Franklin Village, Wilshire Professional Building, the Santa Monica Professional Building, Los Altos Apartments in Windsor Square, and the Woman’s Club of Hollywood.

On Beverly Boulevard, he drafted an elaborate Italianate- and Spanish-style structure that looked more like a stylish fortress than a place to store old mattresses. Built with reinforced concrete by the Luther T. Mayo construction firm, it included much more than storage lockers. The LA Times reported that it boasted a roof garden, radio broadcast station, a rug cleaning establishment, and huge bank vaults for jewelry and bonds.

Architect Arthur E. Harvey designed the storage building, and a number of other ornate landmarks, including the Los Altos Apartments.
Harvey, Arthus E. American Storage Building Warehouse (2 Views). Los Angeles, Calif: The Mott Studios, 1929.

The American Storage Building opened in early 1928. Within no time it was making news, not for its ample storage facilities, but for its nocturnal activities. It was the era of Prohibition, and illegal speakeasies, where Angelenos could drink and party away from prying police, flourished.

These speakeasies were such big business, Los Angeles Public Library librarian Kelly Wallace told Downtown Los Angeles, that by 1927, “there were twice as many speakeasies as there had been bars before prohibition had been enacted… [prohibition] increased the number of drinking establishments.”

While most speakeasies were underground in former basements or cellars, club owners saw in the American Storage building the novel opportunity of hiding out above ground rather than below.

In September of 1928, E.W. “Curley” Bordwell opened The Roof Garden Nightclub in the building’s penthouse clubrooms. Bordwell had previously been the manager of Cliff Dwellers, a club on Beverly Boulevard “modeled” after a “Hopi Indian Dwelling.” Bordwell promised that this new club would be a “nite club deluxe” with live jazz music peformed by George Redman’s orchestra and “an unusual panorama view of Los Angeles,” the LA Times reported.

Redman’s band was a fixture during the Roof Garden’s brief existence, having already been in residence at the legendary Cabrillo Ship Café in Venice. According to LA Heyday blogger Tiffney Sanford, live broadcasts of local jazz bands were also broadcast from the club on the radio station KMTR during the day and evening.

But it seems Bordwell quickly fell out with the owners of the building and The Roof Garden closed. On December 22, 1928, “Thirteenth Heaven,” billed as the “smartest cabaret in the West,” opened on the storage building’s rooftop.

The American Storage building was becoming an increasingly lively place. That same month, radio station KTM celebrated a new 1000-watt transmitter from its studio within the building. From 9 to 11 p.m. Angelenos tuned in to listen to a cavalcade of local celebrities.

Bud Murray, a self-styled theater impresario who came to Los Angeles from New York to direct the play Good News at the Mayan Theater in Downtown soon turned his attention to Thirteenth Heaven, directing the club’s showgirls, who he called “angelic maidens in songs and dances.” He also hired colleagues, including comedian “Sunkist” Eddie Nelson, who had starred in Good News, to perform at the club. On New Year’s Eve, Murray arranged a special dance revue at the club, with gifts and noisemakers handed out to revelers as the clock turned to 1929.

Murray’s profile in LA was on the rise. In addition to his work at Thirteenth Heaven, he also began stage directing for the legendary Grauman’s chain of theaters. In early 1929, he opened the Bud Murray School of the Stage on the sixth floor of the American Storage building.

The theater school (now known as the Bud Murray School for Screen and Stage) flourished, but Thirteenth Heaven didn’t have the same success. By early 1931, the penthouse space had been taken over by a social organization called the LA Press Club. During Prohibition, these private clubs were often havens for illegal drinking and bootlegging, and it seems the “Press Club” was no exception. On March 19th, the LA Times reported:

Federal prohibition agents yesterday raided the quarters of the so-called Los Angeles Press Club at 3636 Beverly Blvd. and reported the arrest of five Negro employees of the place and seizure of a quantity of beer, a brewing plant and other apparatus. The five employees appeared last night before United States Commissioner Head and were released on bail of $500 each on charges of possession of illicit beer.

Not only did the feds find 203 bottles of beer, they also found 21-gallon crocks of beer mash. It appears this was the end of the dubious press club. But the penthouse rooms were quickly taken over by the slick Forty-One Club. The club was operated by Marco Sheffield, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer. According to members, the purpose of the club was to “promote the social and intellectual welfare of members, to provide general headquarters for the accomplishment of this purpose, and acquire property to attain these ends,” the LA Times reported.

Today, the storage building sticks out among bungalows and gas stations.
Liz Kuball

Special agents began to hang around the club trying to suss out what was really going on, annoying members to no end.

In October 1931, the Forty-One Club filed suit against the government, in an effort to stop the LAPD and District Attorney for repeatedly bursting into the club and patrolling the floors. “It spoils the atmosphere,” an attorney hired by the club told the LA Times. “Naturally, when a gentleman isn’t used to associating socially with policemen, it takes his mind off his bridge game. Instead of using the Whitehead or Culbertson system, he worries over whether he shall use the Steckel or Fitts [law enforcement agents] system.”

The Forty-One Club went even further. Warning buzzers and an elaborate series of alarms were installed to alert operators of the vice squad’s presence. The club won in court, although the police chief claimed the ruling did not disallow all police monitoring.

In retaliation against the club and courts, the police posted two uniformed guards at the club’s entrance who asked everyone their reason for entering. It also seems they were in contact with forces with more manpower than themselves. On December 15, 1931, a sophisticated sting caught the Forty-One Club operators unaware.

That afternoon, Col. George Seaver, assistant federal Prohibition administrator in San Francisco, flew to LA and traveled directly to the American Storage building. There, he was met by federal Prohibition officer Thomas Noe, and undercover Santa Monica police officer Tommy Carr, “detective of many disguises.” After arrests had been made, the team searched high and low for the clubs numerous hidden liquor stashes. They discovered around $10,000 worth of illegal booze.

The feds didn’t just confiscate booze. The next day, a feast from the Forty-One Club’s kitchen, including steaks, avocado salad and oysters, was donated to the Salvation Army. The club’s furnishings were also confiscated and tagged.

Fourteen employees of the club would eventually stand trial for violation of the Volstead Act. At the closely covered trial in November 1932, several prominent Angelenos were compelled to testify, though they all seem to have only offered half-truths. “I kept a case of near Scotch in my office, and when I planned on visiting the club, I filled a flask and took it with me,” attorney Griffith Jones testified. “I never purchased any liquor at the club, but I was treated on several occasions by a client who I met there.” Another visitor, the film actor Roy D’Arcy, testified that there was a large crowd when he visited, but conveniently he had never seen the defendants before.

According to reports, several Forty-One Club employees were convicted. George Hill, the owner of the building, was also convicted. Sentences were lenient, ranging from three months in the clink for Sheffield to three years of probation for cashier Helen Jefferson. A year to the day of the raid, several thousand dollars worth of pool tables, china, glassware, and furniture were auctioned off in the old club rooms on the 13th floor.

It was not the only auction held at the American Storage building. For several years the Dan Feldman Auction House was located in the building, and many auctions were held in the structure’s ample storage spaces. On December 18, 1934, all of the furnishings from the legendary Alexandria Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles were auctioned off.

With the repeal of prohibition in 1933, it seems life in the American Storage Building calmed significantly. During World War II it was transformed into a procurement building for the Air Crops, its storage lockers and rooms used to safely secure military supplies. After the war, veterans came to the building to buy surplus supplies, everything from asbestos packing and power saws to airplanes. Members of the 409 Engineer Special Brigade Reserve met in the building to practice maneuvers.

By the late 1940s, the American Storage building had returned to civilian life. Pacific Telephone Co. moved in. Its directory delivery department, directory sales office, the yellow pages sales office, and the yellow pages customer service office were all housed in the building. The company was there until at least the late 1960s.

Today, the building is once again used for a boring but necessary purpose. It is owned by the self-storage company Public Storage. Units range from $40 a month for a small locker to $326 a month for a large upstairs room. It seems nothing illegal or illicit goes on anymore, but who knows. If you crack open some long-locked lockers, you might find a fortune in booze worthy of a Storage Wars episode.

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