'Wall Street of the West' Had Its Peaks, Crashes

In Northern California, they found gold in the mountain streams, but in Los Angeles there were fortunes to be made in the concrete canyons of Spring Street.

In the 1920s, as Los Angeles flexed the muscles of its new urbanity, its sturdy heart was on Spring, "the Wall Street of the West," where banks and financial institutions prospered along with the growing city.

In those days, burgeoning Los Angeles' most vital organ was the five-story stock exchange, for which ground was broken a week before the stock market plunge in the fall of 1929.

Its trading floor was modeled on New York's, and its facade still is adorned with three panels, the central one showing an enthroned figure of Finance flanked by a bull and a bear. In 1957, San Francisco's exchange merged with Los Angeles' to create the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, which in 1986 joined other businesses in moving to the western edges of downtown, part of the exodus that emptied the "old" downtown's central core.

Still, the 1920s optimism is visible in Spring Street's exuberant Beaux Arts architecture, which still can be glimpsed in the former headquarters buildings of the Merchants National Bank, Union Oil, Mortgage Guaranty, Banks Huntley and the venerable Title Insurance and Trust Co.

Many of the facades of those firms' office buildings remain virtually intact, which accounts for Spring Street's popularity with movie studios and television companies hoping to capture authentic period cityscapes.

More than a score of the buildings were designed by architect John Parkinson, whose Braly Building, built in 1904, started it all. At 12 stories, it was the city's first skyscraper, and except for City Hall and the gorgeous black-and-gold towers of the now-demolished Richfield Building, it remained a giant until 1957, when a law prohibiting buildings taller than City Hall was repealed.

The Braly Building was still new when the city's most elegant hotel--and its first class-A, fireproof building--opened its doors a block away, in 1906. The Alexandria, eight stories tall, with 500 rooms and suites, was the must-see, must-stay hostelry where the famous and titled danced under the stained-glass dome of the Palm Court.

Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso and Jack Dempsey were guests. The Alexandria's roster of visiting presidents, present and future, was impressive: William Howard Taft; a young Theodore Roosevelt; and Woodrow Wilson, who sought local for support for the League of Nations from a suite in the Alexandria.

The Alexandria played host to Hollywood's earliest stars and geniuses. Charlie Chaplin kept a suite in the hotel; D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks met in 1919 to form their own filmmaking company, United Artists.

The hotel soon was supplanted by more modern and luxurious hotels. The Alexandria closed, was remodeled twice, but never recovered its luster. Indeed, by the late 1980s, it had acquired another reputation altogether: City Hall was calling the Alexandria downtown's "worst spot for drug trafficking" and moved to tidy it up.

By the 1920s, City Hall was built on North Spring Street, defining the downtown silhouette for decades, even being depicted on the city's police badges. City Hall's 26 stories were topped by a beacon named in honor of Charles A. Lindbergh, who made his historic transatlantic flight the year the building opened. Its public arcades and galleries--like the rest of the structure, which is currently undergoing restoration--are highlighted in gold leaf, marble and teakwood; the exquisite rotunda's floor is a geometric mosaic of 400 pieces of marble.

Hollywood film crews are almost as omnipresent as civil servants: the building served as Superman's newspaper, "The Daily Planet;" Martians death-rayed it in "War of the Worlds;" and giant ants scaled its California-granite facade in the sci-fi film "Them!"

Yet its reality has been even more vivid. City Hall has hosted kings and queens, presidents and generals. Sports champions have been celebrated on the same steps where the homeless have slept. In June 1945, thousands gathered to acclaim the World War II hero-generals George S. Patton and Jimmy Doolittle.

Spring Street never again became as prosperous and bustling as it was in the 1920s. In the 1980s, in a burst of hopeful bravura, more than $20 million was invested in creating the Los Angeles Theater Center as a linchpin for the street's revival. The effort lasted half a dozen years.

The only new edifice on Spring Street is the 1990 Ronald Reagan State Building, which was originally named the Reagan State Office Building until the unflattering acronym occurred to someone. Alongside the lobby's reflecting pool are sculptures of California cougars and of the extinct California grizzly, the bear on the state flag.

The real animals most closely associated with Spring Street were by no means native. In 1857, the young state of California seemed the ideal place to test the usefulness of those "ships of the desert"--camels. But the Army's camel experiment failed, and after the Civil War, the surviving camels were stabled at Second and Spring streets. Later they were auctioned off or simply turned loose in the desert, where, until the turn of the century, they managed to breed both offspring and an enduring legend of California camel sightings.

In the 19th century, wild shootouts were common in front of the courthouse on dusty Spring Street. In 1870, a violent gunfight--which included the assailant's taking a Mike Tyson-style bite out of the police chief's ear--left half the city's eight-man police force dead or wounded.

One of those killed was William Crossman Warren, the only police chief in Los Angeles history to die in the line of duty. And when the legal smoke had cleared, the gunman who had shattered the young LAPD over his failure to split a $100 reward three ways would go free--in part, because he was one of the department's own.

Later, the street was the birthplace of what has since come to be called locally simply, "the industry." Inventor Thomas Edison arrived in 1898 and filmed "South Spring Street Los Angeles California," as one of his 60-second films, which were viewed by one person at a time for a nickel at Edison Kinetoscope Peep Shows, coast-to-coast.

Entertaining Angelenos who lined Spring Street, he mounted his giant camera on a horse-drawn wagon and in wonderfully speeded-up motion, shot the real bustling life on Spring Street.

And just how the street ended up with the name "Spring" had to do with the heart, not hydraulics. E.O.C. Ord, the surveyor charged with laying out and naming the city's early streets, was wooing a young woman named Trinidad de la Guerra, and he had given her a nickname he later abbreviated and, in her honor, bestowed on the thoroughfare: "mi primavera, my springtime"--Spring Street.

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