Another long-neglected Los Angeles landmark — the massive, century-old former May Co. flagship department store in the old movie theater district on Broadway — has hit the market as investors continue to bet on the comeback of downtown’s historic center.
The gritty blocks around it sport a growing number of upscale apartments, restaurants and boutiques in once run-down buildings, but most of them are small fry compared with the 1.1-million-square-foot Moby Dick that is the former May Co. store.
“It’s probably the largest conversion opportunity currently available on the West Coast,” said real estate broker Phillip Sample of CBRE Group Inc., who is tasked with finding a buyer for the property surrounded by Broadway, Hill Street and 8th Street.
Interested investors would need to have deep pockets. Although no official price has been set, downtown real estate observers expect the seller to seek $120 million or more. The new owner would then have to really start spending money to make the property into something in keeping with the reviving neighborhood.
The Beaux-Arts-style building owned by Beverly Hills investors covers much of a block and is so vast that Sample envisions it housing multiple uses, including shops, residences, offices and a hotel. Nothing quite like that exists downtown.
Historically, however, the structure has been many things simultaneously. It opened in 1908 as the Hamburger department store, and in addition to selling clothing and home furnishings, it had an 80-foot-long soda fountain, a restaurant, a grocery store, a post office and a roof garden. The third floor housed the Los Angeles Public Library for a few years.
There was a house physician’s office with a fully equipped operating room ready for emergencies “and a corner where a fainting woman can rest and be restored to strength,” The Times reported at the time. There was also a theater where an audience of 1,000 could watch a moving-picture show or a vaudeville act.
The department store grew even bigger after its 1923 purchase by the May Co., a St. Louis department store chain that went on to build many Southern California locations. Among the downtown additions by May Co. was a nine-story tower connected to the original five-story structure and a stately garage at 9th and Hill streets that was one of the nation’s first parking structures when it opened in 1926.
The elegant May Co. logo can still be seen in the terrazzo floors at entry points, but glamour has otherwise left the building that ceased being a May store in 1986. Today it is known as Broadway Trade Center.
“No public restrooms. Please don’t come in,” says a prominent sign over a Broadway entrance to the thin assortment of stalls selling inexpensive merchandise, such as T-shirts and toiletries, on the first floor. Outside, white paint is peeling off the fire escapes, and the awnings over the entrances are faded and shabby.
The main elevator bank is closed, and the once stately escalator is blocked with a plywood barrier. Upstairs, however, are floors filled with rows of laborers sitting at sewing machines and stitching together brightly colored clothes.
The low-rent shops and garment-making operations are typical of South Broadway during the last few decades, when the street predominantly served the Latino immigrant community, but signs of an economic turnaround are growing around the neighborhood.
The historic Orpheum Theater across Broadway from the old May Co. has been restored, and another former department store next door called Eastern Columbia has been converted to luxury condominiums. A $100-million, 32-story apartment building is under construction across Hill Street, and the former United Artists theater and office complex about a block away on Broadway is being turned into the 180-room Ace Hotel, set to open this year.
An anticipated $125-million downtown streetcar line would connect Broadway with Staples Center by 2015.
The May Co. building “is a critical piece of the revitalization puzzle,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose Bringing Back Broadway initiative is focused on the Broadway district. “We are committed to working with the future owner to ensure this historic property is as important to our city’s future as it is to our past.”