Los Angeles’ Jewish architects built palaces and shrines, and temples, too, and not just the kind you pray in. Downtown, many of these structures still stand, and are close enough together that you can easily stop by and pay homage.
In the 1920s, if you wanted to sink into your seat at a downtown movie palace and see the historic premiere of Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer,” or catch an evening of vaudeville, Los Angeles’ early Jewish architects had you covered.
S. Charles Lee designed hundreds of movie palaces throughout the Southland. Samuel Tilden Norton created the Greek Theatre, and he with another Jewish architect, A.M. Edelman, along with David C. Allison helped design Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where Norton had been a trustee. Edelman, working with another Jewish architect, G. Albert Lansburgh, as well as John C. Austin, came up with the plans for the Shrine Auditorium.
Note: Both Allison and Austin were not Jewish.
Putting up buildings in the early decades of the 20th century, and creating work for Jewish architects were the Hellman brothers, Herman and Isaias, who both were fans of another Jewish architect, Alfred F. Rosenheim.
Alan Michelson, developer of the Pacific Coast Architecture Database, said he was surprised during his research by the number of Jewish architects he found for many of the earlier buildings in Los Angeles. “It was fairly open to people of different persuasions,” he said recently from his office in Seattle, where he is the Built Environments librarian at the University of Washington.
“Early on, Jews looked to their own,” he said, explaining the connection between structures like downtown’s Hellman Building and Hamburger’s Department Store, both of which were owned and designed by Jews. In other growing businesses there was a similar affinity. “The film business was a mecca for Jewish designers,” he said.
Nonetheless, Jews ,like other minorities in architecture, “had their struggles and paid their dues,” said Michelson, who holds a doctorate in architectural history and attended UCLA as an undergraduate.
Indeed, buildings designed by Jewish architects are not just history. Today, the buildings constructed in the early decades of the 20th century, many of them protected with historic designations, have found a variety of reuses amid an evolving urban scene.
In an easy downtown walk — between one and two hours — you can revisit a few of them.
842 S. Broadway — Begin the tour by visiting The Orpheum Theatre, which opened in 1926 and was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, a San Francisco architect who, in addition to Oakland’s Sinai Temple, also designed the El Capitan and the Wiltern theaters in Los Angeles. In the days of vaudeville, both Judy Garland and Jack Benny performed here. The theater, which features a Beaux Arts façade, is still used for concerts and screenings as well as a broadcast of “America’s Got Talent,” has an opulent, restored interior, complete with a Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Check out the neon sign on the roof.
802 S. Broadway (southeast corner of Broadway and Eighth Street) — The Tower Theater, which opened in 1927, was designed by S. Charles Lee (born Simeon Levi in Chicago in 1899).
According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Tower, Lee’s first theater, was where the creative designer was challenged “to fit 900 seats and ground floor retail onto a tiny corner lot.”
Perhaps best known among his movie houses are the Alex Theatre in Glendale and the Bruin Theatre in Westwood. Lee’s approach to theater design — that the show starts at the sidewalk — begins here.
Staring through the gated front windows, where you can see the lobby and staircase, I was startled to see someone inside. My curiosity getting the better of me, I walked along the side of the theater and, finding a side door propped open, slipped inside.
A film crew was readying for a shoot — many of the mostly closed Broadway theaters are used for filming — and they hardly seemed to notice as I walked around. The floor-level seats had been removed, but above and extending far back into the darkness, the balcony seats remained. Up front, in the lobby, I looked up and saw the wonderful semi-circular stained-glass window — which, from outside, you can make out by its shape.
801 S. Broadway (across from the Tower Theater) — Stop for a second and take in the enormous Beaux Arts structure erected in 1906 from a design by Alfred F. Rosenheim. Originally, Hamburger’s Department Store, the building takes up most of the block, and at one point even had a theater on the fifth floor. Eventually it became a flagship store for May Co., which I remember visiting as a child with my grandparents.
615 S. Broadway — Built in 1931, the Los Angeles Theater and adjoining building was designed by Lee and S. Tilden Norton (the S. stands for Samuel). The theater has a French baroque design that features a cry room for babies and a glassed-in smoking room. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Walking to the next stop, we spotted a shop selling kosher wine from the Golan Heights, and in the window of an appliance store on Spring Street, we found a kitschy metal sculpture of a Chasid. A snack and souvenir of our journey? Or were they a sign that Jews are returning to the streets of our tour?
354 S. Spring St. (northeast corner of Spring and Fourth streets) — The Hellman Building was constructed in 1903 on the former site of the one-story home of Herman W. Hellman and his wife, Ida. According to a piece in the Los Angeles Times, Hellman hired St. Louis architect Alfred F. Rosenheim, an MIT graduate, to come to Los Angeles to design the building, featuring “new steel construction, stained glass and marble.” Walk around to the Fourth Street entrance (Hellman’s and Rosenheim’s names are carved in stone on the corner), and you can see the remaining staircase. Most recently a Banco Popular, the building is now undergoing conversion to apartments.
401 S. Main (southwest corner of Fourth and Main streets) — What a solid place to keep your money. Isaias W. Hellman was not an architect in the formal sense; he was a builder. Built in 1904, the Farmers and Merchants Bank Building, designed in the Classical Revival style by the firm of Morgan and Walls, was an imposing “temple of finance.”
Writer Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great granddaughter, in her book “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,” recounts how Hellman went from “being a poor immigrant to being one of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the West.” She also relates how Hellman led the building of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and donated the land for the University of Southern California.
After we finished peering through the front window, where you can see much of the original interior — that day it was also home to an art exhibit — we noticed a sign across the street advertising a sports fitness studio offering “Krav Maga,” the martial art system developed in Israel.
Speaking with Jarret Waldman, the owner of Krav Maga studio Unyted Fitness, who as it turns out originally was an architecture major, I asked if he knew that he had moved his workout studio into a “Jewish neighborhood.” “Not really, I’m just finding out about it,” the black belt told me. Yet, since opening, he noted, “There is a great vibe here,” he said.
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