Bunker Hill—Home of the Stars!

Quick, how many former residents of Bunker Hill have appeared on United States currency? I can hear you now yelling “ooo! ooo! DeWitt Clinton!” but sorry Horshack, no, and you’re way off.

We’re talking about a woman, and on a coin. At which point you wise up and say “ahhhh, right—because I read this, I know that Susan B. Anthony was on Bunker Hill!” and while I’m impressed you remember that, strictly speaking Anthony was a houseguest on the Hill, not a resident.

The answer, of course, is Anna May Wong, of 351 South Flower and 241 North Figueroa Streets. She, who dons a new twenty-five cent piece:

As part of the American Women Quarters Program
Designer: Emily Damstra, AIP Designer — Sculptor: John P. McGraw, Medallic Artist
Damstra’s striking concept of AMW gazing directly at the viewer is lost in McGraw’s translation of the reflections in her pupils; on the coin she appears to be looking up to her right

At which point you ask, well now, was she ensconced in one of the famed Bunker Hill mansions? The answer would be no: she was born in a modest gabled structure on Flower, and where she grew up, 241 North Figueroa, was a simple, small, two-story wooden structure. I’m yet to find a decent photo of it, but we do have a drawing—

Los Angeles Times, 20 January 1936

This image appeared in one of the “Rediscovering Los Angeles” features in the Times, as penned by Timothy Turner and illustrated by Charles Owens.

Open air drying?
Woman in a cloche with her package of dirty shirts

How and why did Anna May live in this laundry?

Wong Sam-sing, 41, married Lee Gon-toy, 15, in San Francisco in 1901. They moved to Los Angeles, 117 East Marchessault Street, and had a daughter, Lew Ying (whom they called Lulu) in December 1902. About 1904 they moved into the thick of Bunker Hill, to 351 South Flower Street, where Wong Liu Tsong, whom they called Anna May, was born in January 1905.

Demolished in 1928, so, irritatingly difficult to find a photo of. Now the site of the World Trade Center. USC

The Wongs move into 241 North Figueroa in late 1907 (some sources state the Wongs moved into 241 in 1910, but they appear in directories at that address in 1908).

The 1910 Federal Census

The Wong family owned a laundry, as was typical of Chinese-Americans at the time, laundries being one of the few professions open to their race.

Like I said, we don’t have a decent photo of the structure, but at least we have a photo—

This shot, from 1938, was captured four years after the Wongs and their laundry had departed
Looking south on Figueroa across Temple, before the PWA-Deco grade separation built in the spring-summer of 1939

Liu Tsong/Anna May labored at the laundry with her siblings and attended the California Street public school on Fort Moore. When she and Lulu were bullied at that school, her parents pulled them out and placed them in the Presbyterian Chinese Mission School, 766 Juan Street, in Chinatown.

Anna May became enamored of the motion pictures. When she was 14, she got a bit part in The Red Lantern. A couple years later she had dropped out of school, landed the lead in The Toll of the Sea, and the rest is history.

Turner’s predictably pre-PC depiction of the laundry runs like so:

The structure at 241 N. Figueroa was built in the summer-fall of 1907 by covered-wagon-pioneer Aurelia Jane Hargrave Corker (widow of John Roden Corker; Aurelia’s legal battle with her stepson over Corker’s estate made the papers in the late 80s-early 90s ) who lived at 139 South Figueroa. 241 was 20×70, and had a 200sf bedroom addition to the back in 1911.

Aerials and maps give us a sense of where this was:

August 1941. FrameFinder
X marks 241 South Figueroa in both images. The yellow lines on the bottom image indicate where Flower Street used to go
The 1950 Sanborn map shows 241 as “Vacant and Boarded”
241 in the 1953 Sanborn—now site of the “Los Angeles County Health Department Office Building”

As can be seen, 241 became the site of a large office building, designed by Novikoff Engineers and built in the spring of 1952.

Civil engineer George Victor Novikoff primarily designed warehouses and industrial tracts in 1950s Los Angeles, although his repertoire included banks and shopping centers. USC

And now you’re wondering, well why doesn’t that perfectly serviceable Late Moderne building look like that now? Because in 1972 it was remodeled so as to visually conform with the 1970 Arthur Froelich & Associates-designed County Health Department Central Administrative Offices at 313 North Figueroa.

Its 6000 square foot public health laboratory was touted as the most modern in the United States. Getty/Nadel
On another note, have you been to the gardens that flank the fourteen-story Health Dept HQ? They are by Raymond Elwin Page. Known as “the first landscape architect” (he initiated licensure for the profession) Page was famous for designing large swaths of Beverly Hills.  The Health Department gardens are an absolute treasure, remarkably intact and deserve better looking-after.

In Bunker Hill, Los Angeles there’s a whole section on famous folk who bunked on Bunker (I recently added James Oviatt to the list) including pioneering woman like Edith Head and Margrethe Mather. I didn’t make the Wong connection in time and it breaks my heart she didn’t make it into the book.

So while we rejoice that this groundbreaking icon, a trailblazing stalwart for representation, is honored on American currency, just remember…Bunker Hill!

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