19th Century Mill Gets New Lease on Life for the 21st
There are neon signs that are landmarks in Los Angeles. There are antique stores that sell lava lamps. We read Raymond Chandler as if he were describing Elizabethan London--a place we are thrilled to recognize at all, so remote does it seem from modern life.
So there is a time-bending sense of exhilaration about strolling the ghostly floors of the Capitol Milling Co.--to smell the musty odor of stale flour, to see the view from windows that, from just the right angle, frame a sylvan hillside that looks much as it must have when the building was new.
That was a long time ago.
The mill, in modern-day Chinatown, is believed to have been founded in 1831. As recently as two years ago, it was still grinding wheat into flour, a living symbol of the agrarian past in the heart of the city. From the broad wall of its main, six-story tower, its sharp-eyed eagle logo keenly eyed Hong Kong-style dim sum restaurants and Chinese souvenir shops.
But time caught up with Capitol Milling. Last year, the company was sold to food giant Conagra and the property sold to another landmark local company, San Antonio Winery. The property sale entwined two of Los Angeles’ oldest mercantile families, whose businesses represent two of the most ancient and primal crafts, winemaking and milling.
Now, the new owners have plans for the old mill that would place it firmly in an urban future.
When the giant timbers of the mill were raised, Los Angeles was still a rough Spanish outpost with a population of about 800. The factory’s founder, a man who would become L.A.’s richest citizen, was a merchant from Massachusetts whose given name was Abel Stearns but whose nickname was “Horseface.”
The mill rose on what is now North Spring Street but then was just a patch of open country north of the pueblo. Past it flowed the zanja madre--the “mother ditch,” an irrigation channel of the Los Angeles River that has long since ceased to flow.
Long gone, too, is the creak of a waterwheel that once turned giant millstones. Less distant is the roar of modern industrial machines that turned out more than 100,000 pounds of flour a day.
In their place today is the rhythmic clicking of a lone pigeon prancing about on fiberglass that covers an original wood floor. The bird’s tap dance sounds like an old-fashioned telegraph--something that Samuel F.B. Morse hadn’t yet invented when parts of the factory were new.
The last bag of flour came off the assembly line in August 1998. There was no grand ceremony. By then, “it was anticlimactic,” said Douglas Levi, the last president of Capitol Milling. The company was already milling most of its flour at a satellite plant in Colton. The economics of scale, and the vagaries of urban transportation patterns, had finally rendered the downtown factory obsolete.
The last straw, Levi said, was the plan to build a new Blue Line train line north to Pasadena on a route that passes directly in front of the factory. Construction, he feared, would have seriously disrupted the mill’s delivery trucks.
“It just seemed that it was a losing battle to stay there,” said Levi, whose family had operated Capitol Milling since 1883, making it the city’s oldest family-run business. That distinction ended, too, when Capitol was sold to Conagra last year and reconstituted as Capitol Distribution Co.
The sale obviously saddened Levi, who grew a bit misty-eyed as he thumbed through big leather scrapbooks in his Westside dining room. The books chronicle the history of not only a business but of a city, and of a pioneering German Jewish family that helped shape it.
The scrapbooks list the entire contents of the first Los Angeles telephone directory, issued after phone service began in 1880. It contained seven names: Hellman-Haas Grocery Store, J.M. Griffith Lumber Co., M.A. Newmark Grocery Co., Kerckhoff-Cuzner Lumber Co., the Fred Barman cigar company, the Eugene Germain seed firm and Capitol Milling Co.
There also is a 1916 guarantee for some Edison batteries, personally signed by the company’s president, Thomas A. Edison.
And this bit of doggerel by some employees, written just before Christmas 1919: “ ‘Twas the day before Christmas, when we girls at the mill, were so very elated, we could hardly keep still.”
Today, workers tramp through the old mill, stripping it of its machinery, cleaning up debris, beginning the transition to something new. With most of its machinery ripped out, some of it still heaped in front of the building, it is a cavernous place of interlinked buildings of varying ages.
Wooden columns the size of large trees--which, in fact, they were--rise in some sections. The old office is a museum piece of beautifully burnished oak woodwork unchanged since its installation just after World War I. Behind the buildings, incongruously, rise the curved-up Chinese eaves of the East West Bank, blocking the view of Capitol’s eagle logo.
The new owners, the Riboli family that runs San Antonio Winery, plan to turn the building into residential lofts and chic offices for techno-geeks, a true melding of the 19th and 21st centuries.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” said Steve Riboli, vice president of the winery, which was started by his great-uncle in 1917. “We’re from the neighborhood here, and we realize what we’re working with.”
Riboli actually grew up in the neighborhood--or, at least, in the next neighborhood over, Lincoln Heights. That is where his family’s winery was founded, back when grapes as well as wheat were grown within the boundaries of what is now Los Angeles.
He remembers accompanying his grandmother on trips to Chinatown as a child--not for the Chinese food, but to shop in the Italian grocery stores that were remnants of the neighborhood’s past.
Today, San Antonio still produces 300,000 cases of wine a year in Los Angeles, albeit with grapes from Central and Northern California. Riboli sees no reason why clean, light industry like his family’s winery can’t remain in the central city. But he agrees that it was time for the old mill to close.
In its place, he envisions Soho-style lofts and offices, with exposed brick walls, original maple floors, high-beam ceilings, fiber-optic lines and easy pedestrian access to the planned Blue Line trains.
“It’ll have a rustic look, but it will clean up very nicely,” he said.
And who will live there? Riboli said his family has already turned an old cigar factory on the Los Angeles River into lofts, and he sees a growing demand for downtown housing. “We strongly believe that the city is coming this way,” he said.
It is, he admits, a slightly wacky vision. But Riboli seems to have fallen in love with this strange industrial relic of old California.
“My brother thought I’d drunk too much . . . when I told him we were going to buy this,” he said. “But sometimes you have to be a little bit nuts.”
The view from Sacramento
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