For years, the abandoned Uniroyal tire plant alongside the Santa Ana Freeway was a shabby monument to an era when a rapidly growing Los Angeles attracted the nation's major tire producers.
The plant was boarded up in 1978 after tires were manufactured there for nearly half a century. Its windows were broken and its facade was dingy from exposure to years of freeway exhaust fumes.
But the imposing factory, built to resemble an Assyrian palace complete with turrets, never ceased to turn the heads of the tens of thousands of motorists who pass each day. Its stylized facade had done a good job of concealing a collection of steel buildings in the City of Commerce, five miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
Now the freeway Goliath is being resurrected as a $120-million complex of office buildings, retail stores and a hotel. Some of the stores opened for business earlier this month.
Preservationists laud the work done by developer Trammell Crow Co. to breathe new life into the structure. Its six-story administration building is intact, as is all but about 150 feet of its massive wall. Even a portion of the tire plant's original metal-truss ceiling has been retained as a decorative cover for a food court.
"There was a question of whether it was going to survive in the long run," said Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "It's a very important reminder that Southern California was second only to Detroit as a center of the automobile industry for a good part of the century, and second only to Akron (Ohio) in producing tires.
"Those industries associated with cars had a great impact on the development of the city."
The human-headed, winged bulls surrounding the entrance to the administration building have been spruced up, as have the winged genii and kings who grace the turrets along the massive wall. Steel reinforcing beams have been added to make the building and wall earthquake-safe. A fresh coat of paint covers the royal facade. The firm that designed the colors for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles produced the paint scheme.
Newly cast friezes depicting Assyrian warriors in horse-drawn chariots adorn the lobby of the tower, which served as the administration building for tire manufacturer Adolph Schleicher in 1930.
Offices in the tower are being leased, as is space in newly constructed office buildings. Construction has not yet started on the hotel. The entire project will not be finished for more than a year, a Trammell Crow spokesman said.
But for the last decade, the plant had been a tombstone marking the death of Los Angeles' robust tire industry that sprung up in the 1920s and '30s.
The nation's tire manufacturers were entrenched in Akron in the early part of this century. Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber, established his factory there in 1871.
But Southern California was growing, and its longstanding love for the automobile made it increasingly attractive to the tire industry. Akron was a long way from the growing Western market.
Schleicher had started his Samson Tire and Rubber Co. in a tiny wood-frame factory in Compton in 1918. Schleicher chose the name because it symbolized strength and endurance, and his future factory would symbolize the same.
In 1920, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. became the first of the four major tire companies to open a plant in Los Angeles. The B.F. Goodrich Co. opened its factory in 1928, the same year the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. opened shop.
Schleicher decided to make his push for a bigger share of the market, and in 1928, started developing his new factory, according to Martin Weil, a restoration architect who wrote a brief history of the old tire plant. He hired the prominent Los Angeles architectural firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements to design the plant.
The local tire manufacturer had named his company after the biblical Israelite judge, noted for his great strength. His building would embody the same qualities.
But apparently there was one problem: Little archeological research had been done in Palestine at the time, and there was virtually no information about the architecture of biblical Israel, Weil said. So the designers turned to Assyria for architectural style.
Assyria was an ancient empire in Southwest Asia, in the region of the upper Tigris River, that reached its height in the 7th Century BC.
Architectural detail in the old tire plant is from three Assyrian cities: Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh, Weil said. The administration building and walls were based on the ziggurats and fortified walls of Khorsabad.
The plant's groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 23, 1929, was marked with a parade and other festivities. One Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce official declared: "Los Angeles now is known as the Akron of the West."
The plant would cost $8 million to build and employ 2,500 people. It would churn out 6,000 tires and 10,000 tubes a day.
Schleicher and the rest of the tire czars were looking forward to banner sales when the stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929.
Because of that, the plant opened in May, 1930, with little celebration. Schleicher did not weather the Depression for long; in five months, he had concluded negotiations to sell his firm.
United States Tire and Rubber Co. took over the Samson Tire factory in 1931, becoming the last of the Big Four tire manufacturers to move into Los Angeles. U.S. Tire later became Uniroyal.
The plant continued producing mostly tires and tubes. For a short time during World War II, the plant made self-sealing rubber gas tanks for military aircraft, said Charles Elliott, who was hired by Commerce officials to write a city history.
The area's tire industry was thriving, but things began to change rapidly in the 1960s. The emergence of foreign-built cars in the United States meant there was less demand for new, American-made tires. The Los Angeles factories had aging equipment that needed expensive updating.
For those and other reasons, the last of the Big Four tire manufacturers left the Los Angeles area in 1980. The Uniroyal plant had shut down two years before.
The 35-acre Uniroyal site was then owned for several years by fireworks magnate and convicted political corrupter W. Patrick Moriarty. Commerce bought the property from Moriarty in 1983, and now leases the site to Trammell Crow.
Commerce officials designated the old factory a cultural and historic landmark years ago. The site was never included in the National Register of Historic Places even though state officials determined it was eligible.
Trammell Crow won the right to develop the project after assuring city officials that it would tread lightly on the landmark. It has spent $6 million to restore and renovate the administration building and wall, said Trammell Crow partner Hayden C. Eaves III.
"I was born and raised in Los Angeles," Eaves said. "To have done anything less than we have done would have been a disaster to the community."
Trammell Crow hired various restoration and design experts to work on the project.
The administration building and wall are designed to look as if they were constructed from huge blocks. But the structures are made of reinforced concrete, mostly eight inches thick, which was poured into molds at the site.
Structural engineer David L. Houghton came up with a system to reinforce the administration building and wall to resist earthquakes. Almost all of the original metal manufacturing buildings to the rear have been razed and new construction has gone up in their place.
A Gardena firm, which has done work for movie studios, was brought in to replicate the friezes and other ornaments that had been damaged over the years. Sussman/Prejza and Co. Inc. of Culver City was hired to develop the color scheme.
An analysis indicated the wall had been painted before, a Sussman/Prejza spokeswoman said. It was covered by dark, greenish colors that led some to speculate that the factory had been camouflaged during the war. But Elliott, who is writing the history of Commerce, said he has not encountered any evidence of that.
The landmark has been brightened with a subtle combination of ivory, salmon, amber and grey-green. The relief work was left unpainted. The Los Angeles Conservancy approved the treatment.