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Higgins Building was a shining showpiece

Times Staff Writer

In the early 20th century, part of Los Angeles’ golden era was founded on copper.

Take the Higgins Building at 2nd and Main streets. The 10-story showpiece was built in 1910 by copper tycoon Thomas Higgins. Its marble walls and brass fittings mirrored the glamour of pre-World War I downtown. Tenants included Clarence Darrow, General Petroleum, the chancery office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and noted architect Albert C. Martin Sr.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 22, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Higgins Building: The L.A. Then and Now column in Sunday’s California section about the Higgins Building in downtown Los Angeles incorrectly said that Andrew Meieran was applying for National Historic Landmark status for the building. The Higgins Lofts Home Owners Assn., of which Meieran is a member, will submit an application for historic landmark status.

Main Street’s golden era didn’t last long, as homeless shelters displaced thriving businesses. But now, as decrepit commercial buildings gentrify, glamour is making a comeback.

In recent years, the Higgins was renovated and converted to lofts, then condos. Now, its two-story basement is adding another notable to the building’s roster: Thomas Edison. The Edison Bar is scheduled to open in early December.

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The man whose name is on the building was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, during the potato famine in 1844, according to a pending application for the building to be designated a landmark. At about age 20, Thomas Patrick Higgins immigrated to New York, where he mined for iron ore upstate, before heading west to do some lumbering in Wisconsin. He reached Bisbee, Ariz., in 1877. Only five other prospectors had staked copper claims there.

Copper, unlike gold, cannot be extracted by panning in a river. Higgins couldn’t afford mechanical drilling equipment, so he dug a tunnel 650 feet into a hillside -- by hand. His labors paid off: When he left Bisbee about a quarter-century later, he’d made a fortune.

In 1902, he invested $750,000 in Los Angeles real estate. His first building was the brick-and-mortar Bisbee Hotel in 1903. Now called the St. George, it’s on 3rd between Main and Los Angeles streets. Designed by architect Arthur L. Haley, it was originally named for Higgins’ mining stamping grounds.

That same year, The Times reported, Higgins paid $200,000 for a two-story Victorian commercial building on the southwest corner of 2nd and Main. Across the street was St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which anchored the cultural spine of the growing city. Here, in 1910, Higgins built his office and retail building for the princely sum of $500,000, or $10.6 million in today’s dollars.

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New office buildings were going up one block away on Spring Street, dubbed the “Wall Street of the West.” Higgins was confident that Main Street would remain the vibrant commercial and cultural core of the city.

Architects Haley and Martin made the Higgins Building a reality and created an alley alongside that stretched from 2nd south almost five blocks. In 1917, the alley became known as Harlem Place, the center of L.A.'s early 20th century music scene. (In the 1920s, jazz shifted south to Central Avenue.)

The elegant Higgins Building towered over surrounding structures and was said to be “absolutely fire- and earthquake-proof.” Embracing modern technology, Higgins installed one of the city’s first electrical generating stations in the basement -- six years before L.A.'s first power pole was erected in Highland Park.

The Higgins was designed with natural air conditioning, using a ventilation shaft that allowed sunshine and fresh air to filter into offices.

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The building’s grand size, marble-lined hallways, zinc-lined doors and window frames, black-and-white mosaic tile lobby and “wholesome and healthful” water -- purified through filters in the sub-basement -- attracted prominent businessmen. Martin, who would emerge as one of the most successful architects and structural engineers in Southern California, based his company there for 35 years.

Other notable tenants included tubercular preacher turned socialist labor attorney Job Harriman and legendary Chicago lawyer Darrow. In 1911, the attorneys shared a ninth-floor office while they planned the McNamara brothers’ defense in the bombing of the L.A. Times. (The brothers wound up pleading guilty.)

Retail and wholesale liquor dealers banded together to do business years before Prohibition. The Women’s Progressive League held luncheons at the rooftop cafe. The archdiocese put its chancery office on the eighth floor, overlooking St. Vibiana’s. General Petroleum rented Room 402 and eventually took over almost the whole building, becoming its star tenant. Former chain stores such as Karl’s Shoes and Owl Drug leased retail space on the ground floor.

On Sept. 28, 1911, tenant J.A.S. Furlonge was hailed as the first Angeleno to receive an airmail delivery from London. His mother had sent him a 13-cent postcard, postage included.

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Thomas Higgins, who never married, died in 1920. A quiet philanthropist, he supported Irish and Catholic causes, including the building of Loyola High School and College, now Loyola Marymount University. Deprived of a college education himself, he bankrolled college tuition for those he deemed “deserving young men” and supported his Irish relatives who settled in California.

Higgins is buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, alongside his sister and other family members, in a mausoleum designed by Haley.

Higgins’ death coincided with Main Street’s long decline. In 1926, the Union Rescue Mission moved next door to the cathedral and the city’s cultural center moved west to Broadway, where new movie palaces opened. Boxers drifted to the grimy Main Street Gym at 3rd Street where, at various times, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Joe Frazier, Jim Jeffries and Sugar Ray Robinson trained. Fashionable stores became pawnshops, and run-down theaters served as striptease joints.

In 1949, in search of convenient parking, General Petroleum and its signature symbol -- a flying red horse -- fled to a modern structure at 6th and Flower streets.

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The same year, Higgins’ heirs sold the building for almost $1 million to the county of Los Angeles, which used it to house the Bureau of Engineering. The county pulled up stakes in 1977 and, for more than two decades, the old dinosaur sat empty, a decaying reminder of a former age’s optimistic elegance.

Then, in 1998, designer and preservationist Andrew Meieran and a partner bought the Higgins for a little more than $1 million. Meieran is applying for National Historic Landmark status.

He and another partner, Marc Smith, owner of several downtown bars, are creating the Edison Bar, trying to evoke the age of industrialization.

“I want customers to recognize the past, while keeping that industrial feel,” Meieran said.

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The basement’s original steam generators are illuminated by Edison-era lightbulbs, and the music comes from an Edison cylinder player with a traditional morning-glory horn as a speaker. But that’s just for looks; there’s modern lighting and a modern sound system. The owners also brought in 1890s necktie-making machines to add to the sense of an industrial space.

On large screens in various nooks and crannies, snippets of Edison’s original news films repeat: films of logging, elephants, dancing girls. Patrons will be able to order high-class bar food including oysters Rockefeller and Waldorf salad.

The basement has come a long way from the era of neglect it endured before the 1998 sale.

“The basement was literally under 8 feet of water,” Meieran said. “It was like walking into something created by Jules Verne, full of mystery and inventions.”

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Mystery and invention remain.

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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