Cultural and architectural richness distinguish the old Spring Street financial district

I took a guided walking tour of the old Spring Street financial district the other day, and was reminded that Los Angeles was never the cultural wasteland it was alleged to be.

The financial palaces of south Spring Street were a solid architectural achievement, and to this day the buildings that remain give the street beauty, strength, unity and dignity.

It was a fine day, bright and wind-washed. We gathered in the lobby of the old Subway Terminal Building in the 400 block of South Hill--which in itself was a revelation to some of our group.

Our guide, Janet Marie Smith of the Los Angeles Conservancy, took us downstairs into a large room that had been part of the grand concourse, where the streetcars arrived after running the subway tunnel from Glendale and Beverly boulevards. Most Angelenos today probably don't know we had a subway.

Though it ran for little more than one mile, the subway avoided heavy traffic for Pacific Electric trains coming into the downtown area from Glendale-Burbank, Santa Monica-Beverly Hills via Hollywood, and the San Fernando Valley. It was a thrill, suddenly to be swallowed up in that dark tunnel under Crown Hill and Bunker Hill, and to emerge at 4th and Hill streets, a block from Pershing Square.

We walked two blocks over to 4th and Spring and looked into the old Hellman Building, which was the cornerstone building of the street.

Hermann W. Hellman, a pioneer Jewish merchant and banker from Bavaria, had torn down his Queen Anne home to erect the eight-story office structure in the restrained Beaux Arts style that was to dominate the street for two decades. Today the lobby is still lighted by the beautiful stained-glass dome.

Though a six-story sign identifies it now as the Banco Popular (de Puerto Rico), Hellman left his initials permanently on his building in the stained glass, in marble carvings at the foot of the double stairway and in ornate cartouches on the lower floors.

Across the street on Spring is the Continental Building--richly ornamented in pediments, garlands, lions' heads and columns. It was designed by John Parkinson, who, either individually or in partnership with his son, Donald, or his partner, Edwin Bergstrom, did 18 of the surviving buildings on the street. Built in 1904, before the city's height limit was imposed, it rose 175 feet and was considered the street's first skyscraper.

In 1905 the city adopted the building height limit of 150 feet; thus, the street developed its look of unity in the Beaux Arts commercial style, with its matching cornice lines and belt lines. It was not until the First Interstate Bank built its skyscraper at 6th and Spring in 1959--turning inward instead of outward to the street--that the style was abandoned and the city's financial district began to move west.

The zig-zag Moderne style, which originated in France and adapted well to Los Angeles in the 1920s, is seen in the former Title Insurance & Trust Co. Building at 433 S. Spring--now the Design Center of Los Angeles.

Spring Street has been declared a National Register Historic District, and the efforts being made to preserve it and turn it to contemporary uses are admirable and exciting.

What once was the Security National Bank Building--the very symbol of security with its massive marble Classic Revival facade--is being renovated as the home of the Los Angeles Actors' Theater, which is promised for this fall.

I am of two minds about the Alexandria Hotel at 5th Street. It was saved from utter decay or destruction by an expensive renovation in 1970; but at the cost of much of its former grandeur. It was once our finest hotel; among its many famous guests were Theodore Roosevelt, Enrico Caruso, King Edward VIII, Jack Dempsey and Sarah Bernhardt. I once met the late Claire Windsor at a party in the hotel and she told me that when she and Rudolph Valentino were $75-a-week extras they had taken a streetcar from the Westlake (MacArthur) Park district to dance in the Palm Court.

The lobby has been cut in height with a false ceiling and redecorated in a psuedo-Victorian style, and the mezzanine floor created by the false ceiling is used for banquets, though its revelers must feel threatened by that ornate Beaux Arts ceiling hanging just over their heads, and the massive Corinthian capitals at eye level.

However, the Palm Court has been restored as it was. It is a room of excellent proportions, and, softly lighted by its lovely oval skylight, it is surely the most beautiful room in Los Angeles.

We also looked into the Pacific Stock Exchange, for which ground was broken in an atmosphere of economic euphoria one week before the stock market crash of 1929. Despite the crash, its classical Moderne facade imparted an image of solidarity and strength to the street and to the city.

We climbed stairways to the gallery and looked down into the floor. There, squeezed in together at their banks of tiny desks, the members spend their mornings in frantic trading, buying and selling, keeping the economic system's money in constant flux.

Now, I am told, the exchange will soon follow the financial establishment to those new temples to the west, where the skyline is rising.

What will become of that enormous room?

I don't have space to mention all the splendid buildings on the street; but they are worth seeing. For a date, call the Conservancy, at (213) 623-CITY; and pick a clear, windy day.

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