Robert Frank Goes to Bunker Hill

Europeans invented photography; it took Americans to perfect it, of course. It is therefore appropriate that a European immigrant/naturalized American produced a defining work in the medium, with a book titled, appropriately enough, The Americans.

Robert Frank criss-crossed the United States in 1955-57, shooting some 27,000 images, famously capturing tensions of race and class against the backdrop of wealth and patriotism in mid-century America. Of all the images Frank shot, eighty-three made it into the book; some are bone fide classics you’ll likely recognize, like these:

Trolley—New Orleans
Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey. Good summations of The Americans can be had here and here.

For my money, the best photo from the book is this one:

This one being simply titled Los Angeles

See how it contrasts a big happy neon arrow that connotes progress! forward! with the man trudging toward an aimless future. The neon sign also an innate touchstone of noir, is it not?

So, being merely titled Los Angeles, through the years, have you not wondered, where was this image shot? Glad you asked!

Frank was standing at the yellow X, peering over the four-foot parapet from the top of this retaining wall, looking down at the neon arrow, attached to the Hope Street side of 701 West Third Street.

701-09 W. Third St. was designed by Dennis & Hewitt and built in 1914. Oliver Perry Dennis, with Dennis & Farwell, designed Bunker Hill’s famed Moore Cliff, and the F. P. Fay building at Third and Hill. Dennis designed Almira Hershey’s Châteauesque home (which went on to become the Castle Towers), and, again for Hershey, a matching Châteauesque commericial/residential structure across the street. Henry Harwood Hewitt, Dennis’ partner from 1913-1916, is known for many important Los Angeles structures. USC Library

Between Second and Fourth Streets, Hope Street split into an “Upper Hope” and “Lower Hope.” Frank stood on Upper Hope, just south of Third Street, looking down onto Lower Hope. From above:

The large white structure is the Alta Vista apartments, which fronts on Bunker Hill Avenue; Frank stood on Hope Street with his back to the rear of the Alta Vista, and peered down to Third & Hope below. The Alta Vista is famed, in part, as the home of John Fante; it is covered liberally in both my books. USC Library
Visualize Upper Hope continuing on to the right; X marks the spot about where Frank was peering over the concrete railing. Getty/Nadel

And a map:

From the 1953 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, courtesy Library of Congress

A great image by William Reagh, shot in 1956, the same year Robert Frank captured his:

California State Library

Frank was peering down at the neon arrow, which told drivers coming out of the Third Street tunnel they should make an immediate right turn so as to get to the Hotel Elmar a half-block up Hope.

See? You’re driving west through the tunnel looking for a cheap place to flop. There’s that “Hotel With Bath $1.00” up ahead but the Hotel Elmar neon says No! Hang a right and the magical neon arrows will direct you to us!

Now it’s time to fly in real close, because here’s something you wouldn’t know unless you really looked—there were THREE of these neon arrows hanging off the side of the building!

Incredible, right? I’m obsessed with the idea that they flashed in sequence.

Given its position vis-à-vis the stairway structure on the roof, we conclude Frank’s arrow is the center arrow of the three arrows:

About the three arrows: on July 3, 1946, the Hotel Elmar, 235 South Hope, pulled a permit to install some neon signage. They called up Pacific Neon Maintenance Company.

And these were there plans:

This projecting blade sign was, unlike the arrows and other sign, actually on the Elmar, as can be seen in the Reagh photo below

Now then, lets take a look at another shot by Reagh, shot from the other direction, captured four years later, in 1960:

California State Library. Oh, and I bet you’re just itching to know more about that retaining wall! Well, it was built by the California Ornamental Brick Company in the summer of 1909, that’s right, the same outfit that built Train & Williams-designed Angels Flight’s upper and lower stations in 1910.

It would seem we have lost Frank’s arrow. A close examination (very bottom left) reveals what appears to be the tip of the first arrow, but the second two arrows appear to have disappeared:

You know, just up Hope at Second Street was the Bunker Hill playground and youth center. One wonders if a collection of young miscreants didn’t delight in tossing rocks at the things.

Mind you, the “arrow” image was not the only Los Angeles image to appear in the The Americans; it wasn’t even the only Bunker Hill image. Frank shot a few rolls around Los Angeles (producing eight that ended up in The Americans, including this and this and this and this) and this one, titled Rooming House–Bunker Hill, Los Angeles:

Another iconic Frank shot. Half-a-pensioner in a decaying world.

And where was this one shot? I’m sorry and frustrated to say, I don’t know. Let’s see if its contact sheet provides some answers. It looks like this:

First off, 1-13, not Bunker Hill (the arched structure, that you see upside-down, upper left, is the entrance to the Castle of Enchantment on Melrose). Then, 14-17:

#14, a Black woman labors at the carving station under some heat lamps, and then we’ve got the entrance of the Town Theater, 444 South Hill St. (only place Land of the Pharaohs and Naked Alibi ever double-billed; also conclusively pegging this shot to the first week of January, 1956), and then a lady passes under the canopy of Zeemans, immediately north of the Town, and then there’s negative #17. It’s very dark—looks like light at the end of a tunnel in the distance, and a car, and a couple electric globes up top; unless I miss my guess, he headed west into the Third Street tunnel.

And then, curiously, negatives #18-23 are missing. My supposition being Frank shot those inside the tunnel, and they didn’t turn out, so that strip was simply tossed. This theory is given some credence when we look at #24-28 and the first three shots are folk emerging from the tunnel.

Then we’ve got 27 and 28.

The Bishop Apts at 338 South Figueora at right. The tripartite back-end of the Lennox, 315-19 South Flower, left. The small structure next to the palm tree, the back of a duplex at 327 Flower. The white boxy structure in the distance is the Westmund Apartments, 322 South Flower.

Above, #27. Frank is standing here:

The X at right is where he came from, the mouth of the Third Street Tunnel. He made his way to the X on the left, standing next to the Bishop Apts, at 338 South Figueroa (which in this view is obscured by the ill-fated Vanderbilt Apts at 334), and shot east (arrow) toward Flower Street.

And the next shot is his rooming house shot(s). Frustratingly, it’s not a structure I instantly recognize. As I said, he shoots it from 28-32, and then come 33, he’s here:

The back of the Barbara Worth, 427 South Hope, at far left; the west side of the Sunkist on Fifth Street, far right

That is, the “Rooming House” from Frank’s famed “Americans” shot is somewhere between these two points:

He was now here, in the parking lot bounded by Fourth, Figueroa, Fifth, and Flower. Frank walked down Figueroa, and again stood with his back to it, about midway between Fourth and Fifth, and again shot facing east toward Flower and beyond.

I’m pretty sure our mystery roominghouse is 331 South Flower Street, which was here, immediately east of where he stood for image #27.

As in, over there

This assertion I base on the following. Old Man Hat is standing at a structure with two bays on either side, sheathed in battenboard, with and central porch.

Note that to the right there’s another structure. When Frank shot, that strip of Flower looked like so:

Note 331, with the two side bays, and the projecting central porch, and the structure to the right (325/27).

331 was the General Miller Hotel. I wish we had a decent picture of the thing, showing us those central stairs to really clinch the location, but unfortunately the extant shots from ca. 1963 have enormous amounts of foliage in front:

General Miller Hotel, ca. 1963. The Stewart Apartments to the north at 325-27, as glimpsed in Frank’s photo, were demolished for this auto park seen at right in the summer of 1957
The Westwood Apts over on the left there at 345, that ain’t it. The two crossed out, 333 and 337, were demolished in late 1952/early 1953 for a parking lot.

I wish the 1940 WPA drawing provided more concrete confirmation about those stairs, though. That said, the stairs also look like a later addition, possibly postdating 1940. So, the search continues. (And yes, I checked around 4:46 on the world’s greatest movie.)

Then, just to round out that roll, the last few shots—

Tough to gauge what 35-on are

#34, the Bur-Mar Hotel, was a half block from where Frank shot #33, at 514 South Figueroa St.

The Bur-Mar, originally the Mecca, was built by Mrs. E. P. Stone at the end of 1903; W. H. Enders was architect/builder/contractor. It had 45 rooms arranged into two and three-bedroom suites, all furnished, and was at the time of its completion one of the finest apartment hotels in the city. The colossal order of columns, the big French swags in a Roman pediment; you could not get more de rigueur in post-White City America

Oh, right. I am actually not here to talk about Frank’s “Rooming House-Bunker Hill” shot, though I seem to be doing a lot of that. You may remember I came here to talk about his “Neon Arrow Shot,” and it was acquiring that contact sheet and having it in had that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place:

In 2009 Kazuhiko Motomura of the esteemed Yugensha publishing house thought it would be a cool idea to put out a limited-to-300 deluxe set of Frank’s contact sheets. They are rare in the wild and rarer parted out, but I still managed to get my hands on this sheet, without having to buy the whole set, which would have set me back about five grand.

Maybe it’s the same day in that first week of January 1956 like the roll discussed above. Maybe not. In any event and for whatever reason he’s on Hope above the tunnel. He looks around.

Right out of the gate, fresh roll of film loaded into his Leica, Frank gets lucky. He peers over the retaining wall and sees the fellow walking past and snap, shot #1, and it goes into the book.

Then, in shots #s 2-7 he shoots some more of the rooftop and the arrow. Then he turns to his immediate left and shoots #8 up a lonely Hope Street, one car headed his way. Then he turns his camera around and gets a couple shots, 9 and 10, at the looming backend of the aforementioned Alta Vista, which fronted on Bunker Hill Ave.

Then, in next strip, he shoots down the steps to his right, those steps built into the retaining leading from Upper Hope to Lower Hope—

Now note that he liked this one, and gave it a circling with the ol’ grease pencil, as it has our Lonely Fellow still trudging his way along Hope St:

The lonely trudger is headed past the Hotel Elmar at 235 South Hope Street; read all about the Elmar here.

Now on this next strip he gets another couple shots down the steps, then makes his way up the steps alongside the Alta Vista, to Bunker Hill Avenue. There he turns and nabs a shot of the side of the Alta Vista with its palms alongside and city in the west; he liked this one too, giving it a circle of the pencil but it also didn’t make the book. Then the next shot he attempts a snap of the facade but bungles it; looks like he got his camera strap in the way.

That shot alongside the Alta Vista reminds me of this

Then, he crosses the intersection at Third and walks a half-block down Bunker Hill Avenue to 315 and gets a couple snaps of the Foss/Heindel house.

It’s a Frankian shot—”neglected rocking chair peers pensively at untended flower bed”—but an unusual composition in that more often than not those who photographed the house included its weather-beaten boards and distinctive tower

Therefore, thus far, his trek on this roll has been from Third and Hope, to Third and Bunker Hill Ave, to 315 South Bunker Hill:

And then the next two on the strip, “Lonely Walking Guy”—

Note between the pointed tower of the library and the Richfield there’s some open girder construction. That’s the Superior Oil Company Building at 6th & Flower; it’s at bottom right in the aerial below.

Frank has walked south on Bunker Hill Avenue to where it dead-ended. There was a deep trench where engineers were cutting in the Fourth Street Viaduct. The fellow is walking down in it; if Frank really wanted folk trundling along in pits and among demolition he should have made the short hop north to the Fort Moore area of the Hill where land was being razed and prepped for the Civic Center expansion and Hollywood Freeway incursion.

Then #s 26-28 Frank has crossed over the trench and has shot a woman who has taken her dog off leash.

Could be a wintry Muscovite and her sabacka
Most touchstones are gone of course, but at least the distinctive roofline of the Subway Terminal in Frank’s “Woman & Dog” image can still be seen, if one looks east from Fourth and Grand

Then he walks over to the Fifth Street stairs and shoots south:

Frank is atop the retaining wall along Fifth Street. In #29 he gets a corner of the Sunkist bldg; the other two prominent structures are the Jonathan Club at left, and, with the Earl Times ad, the Architects Building. In #30 Frank turn a bit south and captures a corner of Central Library and one can spot the tower of the Richfield poking up behind. As long as we’re on the subject of the retaining wall and its steps up onto Bunker Hill, were you aware there were plans for a bridge from the other side of the street?

So Frank trundles down the fabled Fifth St steps and makes his way to the library, where he shoots this fellow—

Did he carry that baby with him the whole time he dug through the stacks for those books?
Note how the bench has “stretched” vertically like the Haunted Mansion foyer. Unless I’m mistaken, they dug out and dropped the sidewalk in conjunction with the 1993 addition.

Then, the final strip from that roll:

Another of the fella and his baby and library books, also circled, but also didn’t make it into the book

He continues on Fifth, hangs a left on Flower, heads south. Across the street is the recentish-built State Department of Employment at 525, so he shoots that:

A fascinating Late Moderne building; another view of it here. It opened April 22, 1949. Who was its architect? The best I can ascertain it came out of the office of the State Department of Public Works Division of Architecture; however for reasons I won’t go into I have my suspicions that Austin, Field & Fry were involved. USC.

Suitably joyless shot of a blank wall, but sans human element it doesn’t tell a story, does it? Not much of a Frank photo without the requisite dispossessed American. So Frank trotted another hundred feet down the sidewalk, to 555 South Flower, for the final three shots on his roll:

Aha! There’s a forlorn fellow! Oy, but where’s the pathos? Trouble is, you can’t sell America’s doleful descent into disenfranchisement when you’ve got the wonder and beauty of the Richfield Building, and your shlub is protected by Haig Patigian’s angels!

So Frank’s final three stops on this roll were:

The Architects Building (bottom left), the Employment building, and the Richfield, all demolished in 1969-70 for the block-square ARCO complex

And that, then, was that roll. We know said roll from its contact sheet; and we only know that contact sheet because one of the images from that roll/sheet managed to make it into the book. But Frank shot 757 rolls of film on his cross-country trip and only 81 contact sheets were put into the 2009 Yugensha book. I’m at a loss to discover where the negatives for the other 676 rolls of film reside, for there are certainly more Los Angeles and likely more Bunker Hill, and thus more fun trips to be taken along with Frank as he navigates the place.

Gauged only by these two rolls, it’s curious that Frank traversed the Hill, and its most picturesque part, and yet barely shot the place. He had a terrific opportunity to capture its vanishing architecture and that Hillian mixture of nobility and poverty in its denizens.

But maybe that was the problem wiht the Hill; it just didn’t fit Frank’s narrative. There was too much nobility up there. Other photographers certainly captured it. There was the prolific Theodore Seymour Hall:

See? These fellas, sunning themselves on the benches next to the Alta Vista where Third Street dead-ended at Bunker Hill Avenue in 1955, are far too devoid of dark irony for Frank’s taste (despite the encroaching modernity of Unocal rising in the distance). Huntington Library

And the ever-present Arnold Hylen:

Another of the “lone guy walking” school—but rather than a trudge toward a bleak and desolate future, Mr. Hat is sauntering off to Grand Central Market to buy some stew meat. The beloved bleakness of Frank’s America would have worked better in May 1964 when 512-14 West Second St. was undergoing demolition…

And even Leonard Nadel, tasked by the Powers That Be to make the Hill look crummy, even he couldn’t help but infuse its enfeebled residents with dignity:

Walking north on Clay Street from Fourth, 1955. CRA/LA

That being said, I still dig Robert Frank something fierce, and at some point will locate and sit down with all those other negatives, and report back.

If you like these sort of images, perhaps I should mention the Hall, Hylen and Nadel above are all reproduced in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles—along with another 250+ shots that’ll tickle your fancy. Pick up your copy at any fine bookstore. I would also heartily recommend Bunker Noir!, a little tougher to find, but I do know you can waltz into Vroman’s Pasadena and grab one off the shelf.

Postscript: On a similar note…in 2008 I composed a post for OnBunkerHill called Walker Evans visits First & Flower. It recounted how Life magazine sent Evans around America to document its threatened built landscape, and while in Los Angeles, he did a nice job shooting Bunker Hill for the piece, appropriately-titled “Doomed…It Must be Saved.” Although only a single Hill image appeared in that July 1963 Life magazine spread—in black and white—Evans shot an impressive array of Hill structures in color, which sit unannotated at the Met, but which I have identified and compiled for you here and here.

Postscript II: This post was updated December 29, with the addition of information from the WPA drawings and the DBS neon permits. Much thanks for the kind and generous help of Mike Callahan and Rick Mechtly.

3 thoughts on “Robert Frank Goes to Bunker Hill

  1. Nathan, you may not have meant it as such, but this is the very best Christmas present I will receive this year. You are the most amazing Bunker Hill sleuth. Thanks for the walking tour of Bunker Hill. I have actually walked all the streets and visited all the buildings you took us to. I look forward to more revelations.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love a brilliant obsessive blog post! Bravo. Thank you. Just watched UNFAITHFUL 1948 a movie with locations of 3rd street tunnel and Hotel Elmar. I was looking up the hotel location and came across this post. But you have probably seen it. Look forward to finally getting your book and glad I landed on the blog. All the best.


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