The Great Wall of Bunker Hill

While Bunker Hill was famously wiped clean, it does contain a small quantity of interesting archaeological sites. The telling soil contours at Second and Hill. A remaining bit of retaining wall at Fourth and Olive. Less known (or at least not as yet mentioned by me) is the retaining wall at Fourth and Hill.

You may be familiar with this wall; let’s say you’ve gone to Angels Flight and on your stroll back to the car parked beneath Pershing Square—you passed by, glanced over and wondered hey, is that, something?

It most certainly is. Today our wall hides behind chainlink because once, it was part of a park, but the City couldn’t figure out how to keep the park clean of needles and human feces, so they closed it off for all and sundry. It’s still filled with needles and human feces, of course—the only difference being regl’ar folk are kept at bay.

To understand our wall, we have to go way back, to Old Hill Street. It was once quite residential—

Left to right, 337, 333, 331/329, 325, and 321 South Hill Street, ca. 1890. Huntington Library. A similar image may be found in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.

Hill Street grew increasingly commercial. During the uptick of building that occurred after the fallout from the financial crashes of 1893 and ’96, but before the next downturn of 1907, there was a good bit of construction. Note in the comparison between the 1894 and 1906 Sanborn maps, how the area has much of its yellow (wooden) street frontage removed, and replaced by pink (brick) structures.

Sanborn Maps at the Library of Congress

And note, for our purposes, the STONE WALL 20′ that come 1906 (I believe the wall was built ca. 1903) runs from 343 South Hill, to the north. That stone wall still exists, here:

The Sanborn map of 1953. The Sanborn folk have it a bit wrong; the wall extended to the end of 329
From the air, August 1941. UCSB

So: you say, Nathan, there were once buildings lining Hill Street, north of Fourth? Really? What did they look like?

Left to right: Mary Doran Block, AKA Pembroke Hotel, 339-343 S Hill (Austin and Brown, 1904); Anna Higgins Steere Block, AKA California Eclectic Medical College/Los Angeles College of Osteopothy, 333-337 South Hill (Robert Brown Young, 1904); and the Dunn-Albright-Ames Block, 331-329 South Hill (Albert C. Martin, 1913). Note the Nick Peters neon boxer on the Steere Block! Boy I wonder if he had animated boxing arms. The signage was fabricated by Interstate Neon, an outfit in Van Nuys, and installed in early 1954.
The larger image. From left, Roberts Block, 353-355 South Hill (Robert Brown Young, 1904); the Gilbert S. Wright Block, AKA the University Club, 349-351 South Hill (John Parkinson, 1904); the Wright & Callender block, 354-347 South Hill (Parkinson & Bergstrom, 1905). This image was shot by Leonard Nadel in November 1955. Getty
Looking from the other side, in an image by Hall at the Huntington. Between the previous image and this one, notice the removal of the cornice from the Pembroke Hotel; owner David Rissman shed the structure of John C. Austin’s wonderfully ornate corbeled cornice in February 1956 to conform with the City’s parapet ordinance (similarly, see here for a 1939/1963 comparison of the Steere and Dunn-Albright-Ames block—remember, whenever you feel underwhelmed by a building, consider what may have been done to the parapet). This image gets a full page in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles—plus there’s a nifty shot of the Pembroke’s pool parlor (note Larby looking at it here). This image was shot by Hall in 1962; the structures, purchased by the CRA, were demolished in 1963.

So the block went on minding its own business, surviving through the decades—heck, few if any people knew that stone retaining wall lurked behind…until the structures were demolished via the Community Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozer policy, leaving and revealing the wall once hidden behind 329-343 South Hill St. If you really wanted to crawl behind there, you’d see this:

Behind the Pembroke during its demolition, May 1963. CRA

Here for example is the void left by the removal of the Steere Block, leaving A. C. Martin’s Dunn-Albright-Ames all on its lonesome:

Note the jutting retaining wall buttress at far left.

And soon all the structures were at the bottom of a landfill, leaving only our wall:

A slide from my collection, ca. 1975
Side note: the area was used to great effect in 1978’s Escape from Witch Mountain. That large Moreton Bay Fig tree looming over Clay Street was supposed to be saved and moved down the block to Angelus Plaza; from what I can tell it never made that trip… Compare the tree on Clay in this shot to it on its lonesome two images above
Another mid-70s slide from my collection
Did I call these buttresses? Strictly speaking this type of engaged buttress would be called a counterfort.
Compare to today. Via Bing Maps.
Top, “Retaining Wall Park” in its glory days. Middle and bottom, its degeneration after ten years of being fenced off.
Much of the time the Hill Street retaining wall lies hidden behind foliage, but WE know it’s there, lurking, reminding us of Hill Street’s urban past…

My pressing need to write about/share photos of this wall stems, of course, from the wall’s fate: imminent destruction. Of course, that corner of Fourth and Hill has long been the proposed site of…something.

In this curious rendering, the new track of Angels Flight spans Hill Street; one boards from atop Grand Central Market?
Note the placement of Angels Flight near the corner of Fourth and Hill, rather than further north up Hill Street

Then, when the California Plaza project got underway, there were plans for three matching towers, with one on the Fourth and Hill property:

Office Tower I being One California Plaza; Office Tower II being Two California Plaza; Office Tower III, unrealized.
Members of development team Cadillac-Fairview, and Shapell Government Housing, Inc., admire their model in the early 1980s. The proposed lower third tower, behind pointing guy’s shirt cuff.

That third tower, however, fell victim to the economic downturn of the early 1990s. Downtown Los Angeles, especially, through the 1990s, experienced an office glut and high vacancy rates. Despite eventual recovery from the 90s recession, the property went undeveloped and became a park (briefly famed as a location in 500 Days of Summer). Finally, about six weeks ago, the City rubberstamped the Angels Landing development.

Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2022

Thus, at some point in the near future, expect a vast number of demolition crews with earth movers to begin tearing up the parcel, and, in time, it will look (presumably) something like this:

Note in the rendering the vast shadow our new tower will cast over the hundreds of elderly in Angelus Plaza

Thereafter, this remaining remnant of Edwardian-era Hill Street will be gone. Of course, we still still have our beloved Angels Flight clattering adjacent, but, that notwithstanding…I for one will be sad to see this piece of vintage Bunker Hill erased.

9 thoughts on “The Great Wall of Bunker Hill

    1. Ah! The Angels Flight pillars. Those are the *original* front pillars of the lower entrance of Angels Flight. When they were restoring the Flight in the mid-90s they realized the columns at the entrance weren’t going to be strong enough, so they made a cast of them. The two columns at the bottom entrance of AF today are copies! These are the originals.

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  1. It was Robert Frost who said, “Something there is that does not love a wall.” But who can deny that this wall is the most loveable of walls? It has quietly, and for much of its life anonymously, done its duty holding up the flank of Bunker Hill. Thank you, Nathan, for giving it the recognition it deserves before we lose it.

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  2. Thank you for the love letter to the underappreciated and hard working retaining wall. While the real estate booster websites trumpet the supposed start of work on the Angels Landing project that would require its destruction, we’re skeptical that the site will actually be redeveloped.

    Developer Victor MacFarlane is closely tied to indicted former councilmember Jose Huizar and his dissolved non-profit Pershing Square Renew, and in what appears to be a bait and switch, the project has shrunk significantly since Huizar selected it as the winning scheme. The project is years late to break ground, and the developers have yet to even purchase the site from the CRA successor agency.

    We’re tracking the situation on the Restore Pershing Square blog, and remain hopeful that Angels Knoll (not Landing!) might yet become the public garden space and monument to old Bunker Hill retaining wall technology that Angelenos want it to be. https://restorepershingsquare.blogspot.com/2018/12/after-fbi-raids-big-questions-for-jose.html

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    1. That was a question I put to some semi-higher-ups at Angelus Plaza years ago; they looked at me like I was crazy (they’re probably correct). I need to go back to Angelus and really press them and make them look through their records. The tree was moved (or, was to be moved by, depending on what happened) under the aegis of landscape architects Emmet L. Wemple & Associates, and they went out of business in 1995. They did some important stuff—the Getty Villa and Center, and the Annenberg compound at Rancho Mirage—so I like to think their archives are somewhere. However, I just realized I haven’t contacted Valley Crest Tree Co., who did the actual physical moving, and they’re still in business in Calabasas. Tomorrow’s work!

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      1. Oh I’m glad Valley Crest is still around. I’m curious to hear what they say. I was at Angels Knoll last week and tried to look for it, but there are several trees there now that look full and green so I wasn’t sure which one the Fig tree is. I know it’s on the NW part of the hill. There is this beautiful majestic Palm Tree on the SW corner on the Dirt Patch sitting above the Athena Parking and it would be amazing if that would be relocated too (wishful thinking I know) because the parking attendant told me that the area (2nd and Hill) is going to be developed. My heart felt like it got ripped out at that moment hearing that. The Palm Tree (Mexican Fan Palm) is extremely tall so I’m wondering if it is old.

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