Posts filed under ‘300 Block Clay Street’

Sunshine and Noir

The recent release of George Mann’s 50-year-old color photographs to this site is one of the most remarkable troves of Bunker Hill ephemera we’ve seen in decades. The accompanying photo, for instance, shows just how dilapidated the neighborhood around Angels Flight on Third Street had become by November 1962, when Mann made his final pilgrimage to the doomed neighborhood. The wrecking ball has already claimed the Hill Crest Hotel at the top of the hill on Olive Street, and the Astoria Hotel is a hulking shell of a firetrap just waiting for a match. Standing near the center of the photo is the Sunshine Apartments, looking empty and haunted, but who knows whether a few derelict souls are still inside, refusing to leave until the bulldozers come growling down the hillside?

Bunker Hill’s Sunshine Apartments at 421 West Third Street has been gone now for over forty-five years, but it’s still one of the most familiar unknown houses in Los Angeles. Perched on a ten-feet-high retaining wall above a narrow alley called Clay Street, it sprawled halfway up a steep hill adjacent to a stairway, its only access, opposite Angels Flight. The Sunshine was the sort of multilevel dwelling that novelist John Fante described in Ask the Dust (1939): “It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels.” The only difference is that the Sunshine was only four stories tall and its front, not its sides, conformed to Third Street’s slant, so that the first floor was only half as wide as the second floor.

 

Constructed on vacant property around 1905 to accommodate downtown Los Angeles’s growing need for cheap housing, the Sunshine looked like a huge clapboard farmhouse, with a stack of three unadorned verandas and a couple of Queen Anne touches around the front entrance, which was on the third floor. Midwestern migrants probably found the place comfortably familiar. Inside, a labyrinth of odd-angled hallways, step-downs and staircases connected the Sunshine’s many small apartments.

 

Though it made its film debut as one of Angels Flight’s neighbors in a 1920 comedy called All Jazzed Up, the Sunshine didn’t get its first close-up until 1932, when director James Whale cast it as the home of two downtown working girls (Mae Clark and Una Merkel) in The Impatient Maiden, his follow-up to Frankenstein. Because sound cameras in those days were large and unwieldy, he used a smaller silent camera to shoot the movie’s opening scene on the Third Street steps, as the actresses came out of the Sunshine Apartments and walked up the concrete steps to the Angels Flight station on Olive Street. (The dialogue and traffic sounds were dubbed in later.) Whale shot another scene on the front steps near Clay Street and in the rear of the apartments, where a second set of concrete stairs from Clay to Olive ran between the Sunshine and the much larger Astoria Hotel.

 

But what turned the Sunshine Apartments into a fairly steady (if nameless) character actor was film noir, the mostly post-World War II crime genre that, in its focus on documentary realism, introduced the use of smaller, combat-tested cameras and gritty urban locations to Hollywood cinema. And since—by the mid-1940s—Bunker Hill was a run-down neighborhood of crumbling Victorian mansions, rambling flophouses, and mean, vertiginous streets, it became the perfect setting for film noir’s fascination with the dark side of American prosperity. Despite the Sunshine Apartments’ sunny moniker and relative youth (less than fifty years old), it did a great job portraying a shabby boarding house for desperate and worn-down people.

 

In Paramount’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), the Sunshine offered low-rent anonymity to a con man (Edward G. Robinson) hiding from his past. Director John Farrow pointedly established its location with an amazing 180-degree shot—taken from Clay Street—that followed one of the Angels Flight cars up from Hill Street, and panned across the top of the hill to catch Robinson’s character hurrying down the concrete steps and up onto the third-floor porch and into the boarding house’s front door. Another shot showed John Lund and Gail Russell approaching the Sunshine’s wooden porch steps from below.

 

That same year, in Universal Pictures’ Criss Cross, director Robert Siodmak used the Sunshine as a rendezvous spot for criminals plotting an armored car robbery. Whereas the protagonists’ apartments in the earlier films were obviously studio creations, some of Criss Cross’s seedy flophouse interiors were shot on location. Granted, a couple of shots that showed either Burt Lancaster or Yvonne DeCarlo standing next to a bay window, with the Angels Flight trolleys moving in the background distance, were done on a sound stage. The footage of the incline railway cars passing each other above Clay Street was taken from the Sunshine (most likely from the third-floor porch, judging from the angle), but the building itself didn’t have any bay windows facing Angels Flight, so the scenes had to have been process shots. On the other hand, the maze of dingy hallways—whose atmosphere one character mockingly dismissed as “Picturesque, ain’t it?”—most likely belonged to the Sunshine Apartments.

 

In another Paramount film, Turning Point (1952), as crusading reporter William Holden and gal pal Alexis Smith ride up Angels Flight, the camera riding with them turns to look across to the Sunshine, where a witness is hiding. But when they walk down the steps from the funicular’s Olive Street station toward the house, they have to duck into a doorway of a nearby building to avoid several thugs standing guard on the Sunshine’s porch.

 

In the low-budget Angel’s Flight (1965), among the last of Bunker Hill’s noirs, Indus Arthur played a stripper and “Bunker Hill serial killer” avenging an early rape by slashing the throats of men who put the moves on her. The scene of that rape, we eventually discover, had been at her one-time home in the Sunshine Apartments.

 

The building also showed up briefly in Act of Violence (MGM, 1949), Joseph Losey’s M (Columbia, 1951), and the cheap Lon Chaney Jr. horror film The Indestructible Man (1956), among others. Documentary filmmaker Edmund Penney introduced his lyrical fifteen-minute film, Angel’s Flight Railway (shot in the early 1960s and again in 1969; released in 1997) by looking across Third Street through the ornate woodwork of the Sunshine’s doorway.

 

The Sunshine Apartments finally had its appointment with the bulldozer around 1965, after Los Angeles’s Community Redevelopment Agency had already torn down many of the other buildings around it. By the time the CRA carted away Angels Flight and the last two surviving houses on Bunker Hill Avenue four years later, the nearly century-old neighborhood of Bunker Hill had ceased to exist.

 

Yet today the Sunshine Apartments survives in old movies, in countless photo- and postcard-tableaux of Angels Flight, and as the most prominent background feature—painted green—in Millard Sheets’ vibrant 1931 oil painting, Angel’s Flight, which is not only one of the most famous works on permanent display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but also the logo of the OnBunkerHill.org website.

 

I welcome any further information you may have about the Sunshine Apartments, or any corrections to this blog entry. Even better, I’d love to hear from someone who actually lived or spent time there.

 

For more photos of the Sunshine Apartments, check out www.americanfilmnoir.com/page18.html and www.forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=4855115.

 

Thanks to George Mann’s son Brad Smith, and daughter-in-law Dianne Woods, for allowing us to reprint his copyrighted photograph.

For a representative selection of photographs from his archive, or to license images for reproduction or other use, see http://www.akg-images.co.uk/_customer/london/mailout/1004/georgemann/

June 5, 2010 at 2:15 am 2 comments

Only Angels Have Wings

It is said that the Lord protects drunks, fools, and children, and it would seem that He had his hands full keeping watch over the residents of 316 Clay Street, known variously as the Patterson Hotel and Luckenbach Estate over the years.

fivestoryplungeIn the wee hours of August 31, 1934, one of its residents, a 31-year-old mechanic named Herbert Stockwell, decided to live out the sort of feat that is irresistible in daydreams and drunken hazes.  I’m speaking, of course, about stealing a car and attempting to drive it down the steps of Angel’s Flight.

It was a bold plan, but things soon went very ill for Herbert Stockwell.  Police were summoned to the scene by a loud crash, and discovered the vehicle wrecked on the steps, and Stockwell sprawled on the ground nearby.  His front teeth were knocked out, but he was otherwise unharmed.

A few years later, another resident at 316 Clay would require divine intervention as she toyed with the boundaries of human frailty.

Maryan Ellis was a 27-year-old waitress at a S. Hill Street cafe, and a relative newcomer to Los Angeles.  She was homesick, missed her mother, and was despondent that she couldn’t raise the money for a trip home to San Antonio.

When Ellis returned to her fifth story room at the boarding house on July 18, 1940, her roommate, Jerry Bills, decided to give Ellis a few moments of privacy.  Shortly after she left the room, however, she heard a scream, and returned to find that Ellis had thrown herself out the window.

Astonishingly, Ellis survived the fall with relatively minor injuries.  She fractured both heels and her pelvis, and had a few cuts and bruises, but it should have been much worse.

Presumably, Ellis got to see her mother after all, and hopefully, a trip back to Texas.

 

September 9, 2008 at 9:04 am Leave a comment

Hotel Northern – 420 West Second Street


Above photo borrowed from the "A Visit to Old Los Angeles" website

January 13, 1913 was opening day for the Northern Hotel, a fireproof, 10-story establishment of 200 rooms with baths, built by F.W. Braun (wealthy president of the Braun corporation, dealers in assay and chemical lab equipment) and designed by his favorite architect W.J. Saunders.

It stood on the site of the old 3-story Carling Hotel, which the thrifty Mr. Braun ordered moved to the rear of a lot on the west side of Flower Street, just south of Court Street; Saunders was also reported working on a 3-story addition to the front of the old building to give it a modern face onto Flower.

During the early days of the year long construction (estimated cost $100,000), the Northern was reported to have been leased for a period of ten years for a rental of $200,000. This prompted one L.A. Times reporter to muse "the project is of especial interest as showing the sterling value of downtown frontage north of Fourth Street, revealing as it does the confidence of a leading capitalist in this older section of the city."

But things change quickly, even on old Bunker Hill, and by opening day leasee James Kincheloe was nowhere to be seen, with management undertaken by Frank L. and Blanche L. Crampton. The Cramptons were 20 year hoteliers, formerly of Seattle and Alaska. They most recently managed the Seminole Hotel on Flower Street. Sadly, their time at the Northern rang the final bell for their concord, for on Hallowe’en Eve 1916, Blanche peered through a transom and spotted Frank in the arms of another… a lady dentist! (Maybe she was just checking his bridge.) Blanche sued for divorce, noting that she had for some time been engaging detectives to follow Frank, but that she’d finally solved the case herself. After obtaining suitable visual evidence for the divorce, spry Blanche broke out the glass in the transom and climbed down into the dentist’s room, ordered her to put on her street clothes and marched the homewrecker right out of the hotel.

Conveniently located at the intersection of Second and Clay, the Northern was a reinforced concrete structure curiously designed with Bunker Hill’s eventual demise in mind. Its foundations, you see, ran thirty feet down, to permit the addition of two extra floors of rooms should the hill ever be shaved away. Other innovations included running ice water in every room, a central vacuum system, steam heat, hydraulic elevators for passengers and freight, telephones, and a French parlor for the ladies on the fifth floor.

Entrance to the hotel was made though the Second Street lobby, a fantasia in Italian marble, bronze, mahogany and tilework. The Mission furnishings were of red leather. From Clay Street, one could reach the dining room and grill, also fitted out in the Mission style, as well as the laundry and work rooms.

The Northern was not a year old when it found its first unquiet spirit. Anna, wife of Butte, Montana capitalist Jacob Osenbrook, came to Los Angeles with her husband and son Arthur to spend Christmas in the city. She had been suffering depression for several months, and it was hoped a change of scene and altitude would ease her worries. The family had just checked into their suite, and Jacob and Anna were standing at the sixth floor window, amusing themselves by comparing the number of passing motorcars to horses. Anna was a horse fan, and exclaimed loudly whenever one entered the scene. In the midst of the conversation, Jacob went to the next room to get a glass of water. When he returned, the curtains were outside the window… and when he looked outside, he saw that Anna had joined the horses below.

By May 1919, the Northern was under new ownership, having passed from the Union Realty Company to the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Beach Company. A news report curiously describes the building as a 9-story structure, but they may not have been counting the service basements.


Above: Hotel Northern from Second and Hill, 1920, photo from the collection of the LA Public Library

In July 1920 a bizarre incident unfolded at the Northern, when two little girls from Little Rock — Laura Cash and Margaret Martin – arrived in Los Angeles and encountered a strange, ticked off lady who tossed a note addressed to Miss Martin into the room she shared with Miss Cash. It read: "Margaret Martin, it will not pay you to keep on with Levee. A word to the wise is sufficient. Mrs. Levee."


Above, Matilda Levee in repose

Baffled by this message, Miss Martin went off to take a stroll. It was then that Matilda, long estranged wife of attorney Frederick R. Levee, entered the Hotel Northern and returned to the room where she’d left the note, encountering there Miss Cash. Assuming Cash was Martin, as she had previously assumed Martin was messing with her hubby (later it was asserted that Martin’s visiting card was on Levee’s desk because his law partner knew her), Mrs. Levee brandished a cowhide whip and slashed Miss Clark five or six times across the face. Cash shrieked, of course, and her assailant fled. Where’s Eugene Corey when you need him?


Above, Matilda Levee in action

Mrs. Levee, formerly of 1001 South Union Avenue, was at the time suing her husband for divorce and maintenance, and had previously whipped at least two other women who she believed to be involved with Frederick, who had long since abandoned her. Previous victims include Mrs. Emma K. Doyle of Chicago, whipped at the Hotel Clark in December 1918, and Mrs. Inez M. Farnham, a cabaret singer from the Philippines, whipped in a hotel dining room and chased down Broadway while Frederick watched. Police quickly located Matilda in Santa Monica and held her pending civil charges which went unfiled, as the Arkansans had suffered sufficient embarrassment. (Inez never sued either.) Matilda was, however, brought up before the Lunacy Commission at the behest of Frederick, found to be "not absolutely normal, but not insane" (this is the new slogan of On Bunker Hill), and freed.

Frederick Levee meanwhile checked the wind and fled the state, abandoning his car in El Paso and continuing east by rail. He was arrested in New Orleans by agents of the Nick Harris detective agency in March 1921 and was to be returned to Los Angeles to face judge Walton J. Wood, who had just ruled in Matilda’s favor on their divorce and the $200 monthly alimony she sought, and who was not amused that Frederick had missed the court date. At this hearing, Matilda testified that they had failed to live happily as husband and wife, and that she had finally told him to "hit the ties and keep going" or she would "get" him. Previously, Frederick had protested "Why, she even shot a hole through my coat" to which the sassy Matilda snapped "Well, didn’t I buy you the coat?!" She’d also once visited him in his law office and shot him in the arm.

Somehow–maybe he told them what his home life was like?–Frederick gave the detectives the slip. By late April, the Levees were both in New Orleans, Matilda seeking to hasten Frederick’s extradition. On arrival, she discovered that he had established a law office in the Maison Blanche Building in Canal Street, and had obtained one of those sneaky Louisiana divorces without her knowledge. She fumed and stalked him.

Finally on May 7 she lurked near the St. Charles Hotel until he came out and saw her. They spoke briefly, and as he turned away she… what, do you think, whipped the heck out of him? Oh no, whips are for women. Husbands get the gun. Before hundreds of witnesses Matilda shot Frederick in the back, causing his death. Clapped in jail yelling that she had done it to save other women the pain she had suffered, Matilda pled not guilty, and later filed an injunction against Lucius H. Levy, administrator of Frederick’s estate, to stop him from disposing of any property.

In March 1922, Matilda was sent to the East Louisiana hospital for the insane at Jackson. (We reckon that they have a slightly freer definition of madness in the south than in the Southland.) Released as cured in June 1923, last reports have her seeking control of her late husband’s extensive property holdings in Texas and California.


But we are far from the Hotel Northern and Bunker Hill now, with a tale of love scorned ending up in a Louisiana madhouse. What of architect W.J. Saunders, a reinforced concrete specialist who made his name building the downtown lofts and warehouses which garnered deep fire insurance discounts for his clients? Among his notable projects were a charming Mission Style auto sales and service shop on Orange Street (1921, see drawing above), the remodeled Lynn Theater in Laguna Beach (1930, still in operation, and variously described as being French-Norman and Mayan) and a supermarket at Wilshire and Camden Drive (1933) built for screenwriter Louis D. Lighton ("Wings," "It"). Among his surviving commercial structures is the massive five-story New Method Laundry Company plant on the northeast corner of Sixth and San Julian (1910, see below), featuring rows of novel windows that began at five feet above the ground and reached to the ceiling. It still makes a striking facade, despite a wretched paint job and a couple of missing floors.

But for his most unusual structure, Saunders served as his own client. This was the "spite house," erected in 1907 at 2691 San Marino Street flush up against the property line of Saunders’ neighbor Adolph Lowinsky, orchestra leader at the Angelus Hotel. This oddity was two stories high but only one room deep, with its staircase on the outside wall and no windows on the west side.

Lowinsky sputtered that this abomination existed purely to deprive his home of any natural light on the east side, and to block the view from his porch; other homeowners shared his revulsion at the bizarre addition to their block. Saunders countered "I planned that house long before I ever knew Mr. Lowinsky. That is a flat building, and I believe it will prove lucrative!" And anyway, Lowinsky had started it by pelting the Saunders children with stones and building an unsightly wall. Lowinsky further claimed that he and his day-sleeping wife had long been tortured by the Saunders brats, who rolled past the house on the sidewalk on noisy wagons, banged tin pans under their windows and yelled "Sheeny" whenever Lowinsky mowed his lawn. Saunders complained that Lowinsky pelted his children with pebbles, cursed at his wife and finally pointed a shotgun at him and threatened to blow his brains out. These battling neighbors aired their grubby laundry in a series of newspaper articles, but seem never to have actually sued or slain each other.. no doubt much to the disappointment of you, gentle reader.

You can today walk in Saunders’ footsteps by joining his and the missus’ club, the Ruskin Art Club (founded 1888 and still active). But please be kinder to the guy next door.

June 20, 2008 at 9:14 am Leave a comment

Last Shore Leave

Location: 350 Clay Street
Date: June 3, 1946

In the not-quite-twelve hours since John M. Kelly was discharged from the Marine Corps, he somehow took up with Henry Ehlert, 44, and Dwight C. Lester, 23, of this address and John Graham, 43, a Naval chief petty officer stationed in San Diego.

Kelly’s first night as a civilian was a notable one: he and his pals drew the attention of Traffic Officer F.J. Rees, investigating reports of a holdup in an alley between Main and Spring, and when Kelly made a funny move when ordered to put ’em up, Rees shot half his face off.

Kelly survived long enough to be booked on robbery charges in the prison ward of General Hospital, while his pals cooled their heels in County Jail. But the lack of any follow up to this story makes one wonder if Rees had an itchy finger, and the arrests were meant to cover up an accidental shooting of an innocent man.

The previous November 10, hapless Dwight C. Lester, then residing at 300 S. Olive Street, somehow lost his footing, fell under the up-bound Angels Flight car and was dragged about 60 feet before engineer Elmer Miller heard him hollering and braked. He escaped with friction burns and lacerations. Below, a photograph of his rescue.

May 8, 2008 at 9:50 am Leave a comment

Reading between the lines

Location: 350 Clay Street
Date: November 25, 1919

John Roebling tells police that as far as his confused memory can be relied on, a man and a young woman clad in boy’s clothing chloroformed him in his room and relieved him of $20 before fleeing in a car. We cannot but suspect the full story is more interesting, and regret Mr. Roebling’s discretion.

May 8, 2008 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

Red Light Raid

Location: 310 Clay Street
Date: June 15, 1915

The Redlight Abatement Act is now law, and the first establishment to be entered by crowbar, ax and the strong arms of police and DA’s men was the Hotel Clayton, formerly the Lorraine. The authorities interrupted a gay midnight dinner party and made prisoners of all 25 inside, including some panic-stricken ladies who begged to be turned loose as their husbands didn’t know they were out. In all, 17 men and 8 women were seized.

Among those arrested, 75-year-old proprietress Mrs. Florence Cheney (held on $5000 bail for pandering and $2000 for contributing to her 16-year-old granddaughter Florence Emery’s delinquency). Florence is now in the hands of juvenile authorities and her mother Ella Emery is being held on vagrancy charges.

Also arrested were Special Officers W.C. Becker and A.S. Ross of the Nick Harris Detective Agency, both in the process of devouring sandwiches and claiming to be doing some investigating of their own, attorney Chauncey Gardner, who refused any comment, a fellow named Jones who had no trousers, and a number of people named Smith or Jones. All came before Police Judge Frederickson and were bailed at $50 each after pleasing not guilty, save Mrs. Cheney, jailed on the statutory charges, and the two detectives, released on their own recognizance.

When the place was called the Lorraine it was site of the murder of the notorious Nellie Buck, Hite’s shooting of his wife and several suicides, and seems to still be a place of notable ill favor.

April 11, 2008 at 9:46 am Leave a comment

The Most Beautiful Woman on Spring Street

nellie murdoch and slayer claude mathewson at Hotel Lorraine

Location: 310 Clay Street

Date: April 11, 1914

Claude Mathewson lived and died by the philosophy "The better the day, the better the deed." He’d often slip this bon mot into conversation in the basement dives of Spring Street, and if his tipsy companions didn’t know what the hell he meant in life, they got an inkling today as he lays dead.

At the time of his death Claude was joint proprietor of the Hotel Lorraine with his paramour Nellie Buck, aka Nellie Murdock, the black-haired Irish of 24 who was known as "The Most Beautiful Woman on Spring Street" — a phrase that damns as it praises, for it is a certain kind of woman who frequents the rowdy cafes of this avenue.

And Claude too was well known along Spring, as former proprietor of the Rathskellar Cafe, one-time ward politician, deputy sheriff and fireman. When Nellie came from the north on a lark and met Claude, he had already divorced once and would soon enough lose track of wife #2. He’d never taken a woman seriously before, but when he saw Nellie, he was gobsmacked. He contrived to pay for her drink with a $50 bill, and was rewarded when the lady smiled and said to her friend, "He’s some sport." Claude’s captivation became the talk of the town, as his wife filed for divorce, his bank accounts were emptied to buy dresses and wraps, and he even sold his cafe on Nellie’s whim, because she wanted to run a rooming house. He paid $5000 for the Hotel Lorraine (later to be called the Hotel Clayton) and established her there on Clay Street. But soon the police discovered the type of establishment it was and blocked new tenants from arriving, and Claude found himself short of cash.

Worse still, Nellie developed an affection of her own, and began traveling to the Vernon Country Club to dally with a cafe singer. Anxious, Claude retired to Murrietta Hot Springs to lick his wounds, and there he brooded. On his return to town, his jaw was set, and his friends could see he had made some big decision. It was hoped he would scare up some cash and redeem his cafe partnership with Walter Lips, former fire chief, but this was not his plan.

Late Thursday night, he went to the hotel to look for Nellie, and waited until she returned from Vernon. They fought, and she told him she intended to leave him, and had been saving her money to get away the very next day—Good Friday. Is that so, mused Claude. Because he too had been waiting and planning something for the morning, only his plan was to kill Nellie. He had waited fourteen days to perform this grim act on the most auspicious date. Nellie sat shocked, then ran to a friend’s room to say that Claude was mad. But she must not have taken him seriously, since she returned to her room and continued the discussion, and all night they quarreled.

nellie murdoch slaying headline at Hotel Lorraine

And when the dawn broke, Claude announced "Good Friday has come, my dear, and it is time for you to die." She screamed. He took her own gun from her desk and aimed. She hid in the closet, wrapped in silky things he’d bought for her, which were no defense against two slugs from the little lady’s .25. And after satisfying himself that she was dead Claude rolled and smoked a last cigarette, then shot himself in the head.

Nellie was buried at Rosedale, and her lover cremated after services at the Peck & Chase chapel. Mrs. Mathewson, who returned from Seattle to handle the arrangements, is at her sister’s home on West 41st Street, and will not speak of what has happened, but we think the disposition of her husband’s body says it all.

April 11, 2008 at 9:42 am Leave a comment


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