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How John Lawson helped build the city

The Lawson name is an important one in Glendale’s history. John William Lawson arrived here from Michigan in 1907 and became a prominent builder.

Those who knew him saw Lawson as a man willing to take chances and as a man with a gift for making money.

But when he lost all his money after 1910, he had to start all over again. He began operating a small bus service between Hollywood and Universal City and by 1918 he had enough capital to start buying, renovating and reselling old houses, increasing his holdings until he could embark on greater projects.

One of his best known works was a four-story office building (which later became Webb’s Department Store) that went up in 1922 at the southwest corner of Brand Boulevard and Wilson Avenue. At the time, the business district was an entire block away at Brand and Broadway and the site Lawson selected was out in the country.


Many of the building materials were furnished locally by companies such as Bentley Lumber, Wilson-Bell Hardware, Glendale Hardwood Flooring and Glendale Mixed Mortar. The tile work, including the mosaics around the entrances, was done by Glendale Tile & Mantel Company.

The building had everything that Los Angeles’ new buildings had, including a barber shop and rest rooms, as well as a passenger elevator.

The street and the basement levels were leased to S.H. Kress & Company. (It was the 160th store for the rapidly growing Kress chain.) The upper floors held offices.

When his four-story building was completed in 1923 at a cost of $225,000, it was lauded as the “largest and finest of its kind in Glendale.” All but 10 offices were leased when the building, designed by Alfred Priest, opened. The demand for office space in Glendale was so great, Lawson told the Glendale Evening News of August 3, 1923, that he regretted not adding two more stories.


“We could have rented every office in them,” he said. “Glendale is growing faster than our foresight. We plan something that at the time appears radical to many — and in six months it is evident to all that we have been conservative.”

Lawson’s vision for Brand was acknowledged when the Chamber of Commerce threw a party in his honor well before the building was completed. The Glendale Evening News, reporting on the event on November 4, 1922, said that his wife Margaret and daughter Edna, who later married legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel, were there to hear Mayor Spencer Robinson recount Lawson’s roots.

“He was born in New York state, but when a boy of 16, he moved to Michigan because he had won all the other boy’s marbles and tops and roller skates and jackknives. John was a natural born trader,” Robinson said. “He did not have to be educated at Harvard because God gave him the gift of accumulating money.”

Chamber president Val M. Hollister said, “We will not realize the importance of this building until we see the skyline change along Brand.”

Owen C. Emery said Lawson¹s building would be the forerunner of many six, eight and 10-story buildings in Glendale.

John Usilton presented Lawson with a picture of the new building on behalf of the architect and added that Lawson had already built a total of 218 bungalows and buildings in town.

Lawson also built the first Holy Family Church and, after the 1933-34 flood, bought up and rebuilt properties in Montrose.

He and his wife Margaret had four children — Lawrence, Mae, Edna and John M. “Jack” Lawson. John W. Lawson died in 1944, just a year after his wife passed away. His son John took over the family business.