So I’m on the Instagram, when there on the page of forgottenmadness_la, was this post. FMLA noted that the nifty image was part of a LIFE magazine feature titled “Ugly America,” shot by Walter Sanders. I flew immediately to the greater collection, archived at Google Arts & Culture, here. I am deeply indebted to FMLA for hipping me to this hoard, so, please go over and follow their IG page; it’s great work.
From what I can tell, none of Sanders’ images from this shoot, nor any “Ugly America” feature, ever actually ran in LIFE magazine. I certainly would like to read said piece, so I may see what actual arguments LIFE attempted to make.
Basically, Sanders went to Los Angeles and San Francisco in November 1945 and shot those intricate and ornate (read: ugly) structures found in their urban cores, along with some opposing shots of the new, orderly suburban developments popping up as part of the beautiful postwar world. In San Francisco, Sanders shot mostly in Chinatown, and when in Los Angeles, on Bunker Hill; those being the two most photogenically timeworn neighborhoods whose structures exhibit the greatest superfluity of ornament—which to the mid-Century mindset was not just ugly, but positively gauche, and vulgar.
Sanders’ shots on Bunker Hill include many of the “usual suspects” but also a number of rare and unusual images. I’ll begin with some of the more oft-photographed:
The Majestic, First and Hope Streets
The Majestic, AKA the Rossmere and the Lima Apartments, in a very dim capture. I’ll grant you it looks rather forlorn here, ugly by 1945 standards (moreso given the dreary lighting), but would we pronounce it so…today? I think it’s a rather remarkable building. It was shot by nearly everyone, from Dickerson in its early days to Palmer Conner and George Mann near the end; I wrote about it here (and here) and it gets a full-page spread in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.
The Melrose and Richelieu, 130-142 South Grand Avenue
Sanders shot a pair of images of the Melrose, and one of the Richelieu, and this one of the two together. I mean, you’ve probably had enough of these characters after reading this. Now, I haven’t actually gone through all fifty-two issues of LIFE from 1946 to find this purported “Ugly America” article, but seriously, if you have that issue, shoot me some shots of it, because I’m dying to read the copy.
First Street, between Olive and Grand
Historically less photographed is that part of the world around First Street, between Olive and Grand, where Sanders took a few shots—
Above, the southwest corner of First and Olive (with the Mission-Revival Owens Apartments at 502 West First, in all its parapet’d and tile-towered glory), First Street running west up the right side of the image, shot from the towering dirt hill kittycorner.
From the same vantage point, at the opposite (northwest) corner:
The structure at bottom left in the above image is 501 West First (with 107 North Olive to its right). 501 West First shows up again:
Six years later, in October 1951, the Examiner shot that same corner when a Deputy Sheriff careened out of control and smashed into that callbox:
Sanders also shot the Nolen Apartments at 512 West First, mid-way up the block on the south side (it can be seen at left in both images taken from the hill)—
Below, we look down First from Grand, with the aforementioned hill in the distance, whence he shot the intersection of First and Olive:
The structure second from left, above, is 519/521 West First:
The Queen Apartments—529 California Street
The Queen makes its appearance in BHLA, of course, but it’s the straight-ahead shot we’re used to seeing (in online magazine articles, for example). What makes Sanders’ shots different are his standing further back, and shooting a wide shot from up the street:
The Weygand Apartments, 208 South Figueroa
You may be familiar with the wonderfully Neoclassical/Greek Revival Weygrand at 208 South Figueroa from this 1964 shot by William Reagh. Really nice to see this oblique angle from 1945:
Above, a shot of the back of The Weygrand, taken by Sanders while standing at the railing of the Second Street tunnel at Flower. A bit like this Nadel image from 1955, which Nadel shot from the Stanley Hotel.
J. P. Miller house–201 South Bunker Hill Avenue
The Miller (seen here in 1896) house is not the most unphotographed house on the Hill, shot as it was, and in color, by George Mann and Walker Evans. Still, I like this image, as it predates those two by fifteen years or so, and shows all sorts of interesting differences (like the loss of the upper railing and those ball-top newels, the enclosure of the back porch, etc).
Sanders also shot up at the back of the house from Second and Hope Streets:
Berke Mansion—145 South Bunker Hill Ave.
While standing on Second between Bunker Hill Ave and Hope Street, Sanders turned his camera to the Berke, which loomed o’er.
The Backyards of Olive Street
In images worthy of Leonard Nadel, Sanders, standing on the dirt incline near the back of the Melrose, captured the cluttered back yards of the 100 block of South Olive.
The white structure, center, 129 South Olive, gets a shot of itself in the book:
The Gibson—635 West Fourth Street
Now we’re getting into some meaty meat. The Gibson at Fourth and Hope is one of my favorite structures:
Zelda Best Keel had married Fred Gibson in Ohio in 1898; they came to Los Angeles and built the Gibson, at 635 West Fourth St., designed by Zelda’s brother Jesse Reece Keel, in the fall of 1903. She then married Harvey La Chat in April 1907 and they built the Zelda in 1908, also designed and built by the J. R. Keel & Co. She, her brother and their families all lived and died in the Zelda, though they, perhaps fortunately, did not live to see its end. The widening of Fourth Street for the freeway cut took out both the Gibson and Zelda, in the summer of 1954.
Shots of the Gibson are few and far between, so I was immensely gratified to be rewarded with this one:
I mean, notice how the humble Edwardian-era grocery became the world’s most noir liquor store.
The Francis—129 South Grand/128 South Bunker Hill Avenue
In 1905, Mrs. Fannie Mansfield, widow of Francis Mansfield, engaged architect Arthur L. Haley to built and apartment building between First and Second, that ran from Grand to Bunker Hill Avenue. It was to be known as the Mansfield, but she soon changed its name to the Francis.
I’ve only found one proper image of the 131-129 S Grand Avenue frontage, which has its entrance on the south corner of its subtly asymmetrical, plastered, Mission Revival façade:
But have you ever seen the Bunker Hill Avenue side? That one is all bilateral symmetry, and covered in traditional shiplap:
And you may say, well, yes, Nathan, there’s an image of the Francis’ 128 South Bunker Hill side in the Palmer Conner collection:
To which I say not good enough! You can’t even see the quatrefoil! But:
Those then are the Bunker Hill images from Sanders’ November 1945 trip out west; remember, though, they account for about only 10% of the shots from this set. As I mentioned before, Sanders went to other parts of Los Angeles, and up to San Francisco, in his search for Ugly. Some quick examples:
It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into what was considered ugly in 1945, and how that fit into greater cultural prejudices against old buildings (I go into this a bit on p. 64 of BHLA—e.g., the 1941 play/1944 movie Arsenic and Old Lace, in which we learn to stay away from the Victorian house on our block, as it is likely inhabited by psychopathic, poisoning spinsters). One wonders how Sanders, who lived till 1985, felt about his role as a documentarian come the early 1960s, when the Bunker Hill streets he walked in 1945 were depopulated and demolished.
Compare the 1945 LIFE shoot with one from eighteen years later titled “Doomed…It Must Be Saved” in which Walker Evans shot Bunker Hill. That feature described a great number of buildings America could not afford to lose…of course, the 1963 LIFE feature didn’t look kindly on anything as recent as fifty-year-old buildings, just as the 1945 feature looked upon fifty-year-old buildings with a jaundiced eye.
Of course, today, on post-redevelopment Bunker Hill, things aren’t looking so hot for fifty-year-old buildings, either. We’re just hitting that sweet spot when building owners really like messing with their properties.
We’ve seen this recently, when KBS Realty built up the south half of the 1965 Union Bank Plaza. Yes, the majority of the Eckbo gardens at the north half were spared, but only after a fight (then, after KBS’s $20-million renovation, they promptly turned around and sold the property…for a $50-million loss).
We’ve seen this recently, at the 1968 Bunker Hill Towers, which had balconies stuck on and were then painted battleship grey.
We’re seeing this now, as the 1975 World Trade Center will have a skyscraper attached; it’s unclear whether its intact 1970s lobby with 1000′ foot-long Tony Sheets bas relief The History of World Commerce will survive the build.
In any event, those then are the Hill shots captured by Sanders in 1945. Thank you for reading! And as I continue to uncover new (to me) Bunker Hill images, I shall endeavor to bring them to you here.