In November 1935, Los Angeles Times reporter Timothy Turner and staff artist Charles Owens began a year-long trek through the historic downtown core. The Times – best known for boosting suburban real estate and exposing unions – has published more than 40 vignettes of the city’s aging Victorian mansions, abandoned theaters and other 19th-century remnants. Owens illustrated them with evocative pencil sketches.
Turner had worked on “Hotel Rhythm”, a former newspaper assignment that covered the comings and goings of notable guests at city hotels. Turner remembered hotels when they were at their peak. He incorporated these memories into his essays when the guests were mostly weary old men.
Owens was a largely self-taught artist who joined The Times in the 1910s. He was best known for his full-page drawings of the massive early 20th-century projects in Los Angeles: dams, highways, bridges, and ports. But for Turner’s pieces, the view is almost always intimate and often impressionistic. Owens recalled what an art director told him early in his career: “A pencil moved by a man’s heart can capture a life that no camera will ever see.”
Turner’s brief essays are sometimes condescending to marginalized men and women living hardships in Depression-era Los Angeles, but the best of his articles has the melancholy kindness of an essay by Joseph Mitchell, who wandered – and wrote wisely about – the nondescript parts of New York City in the 1930s.
Reporter and illustrator did not stray far from the Times building on Spring Street. Just like Instagram tourists do today, Turner and Owens stopped at the Angel’s Flight Funicular which still carries passengers to the top of Bunker Hill. Turner wondered why downtown ignored his majestic hill, which he believed should have had the apartment buildings and hotels that crowned Nob Hill in San Francisco.
Later, Turner sat among the Latino workers in the old plaza and listened to their conversations. He preferred their company to the English haranguers of Pershing Square. “Everyone minds their own business in the Plaza, one of the few places in town where that quaint old notion reigns.”
Turner found his stories in what he called Old Town. Much of what he saw and illustrated by Owens was about to be demolished. Los Angeles was modernizing, erasing the past and, Turner thought, something of its urban life.
Turner saw one of the last rebote (handball) matches played against the Pyrenees Hotel side at Aliso and Alameda streets. Rebote is the simplest form of the sport. All you need is a rubber ball and a wall. The side of the hotel had been that wall for 60 years. “Sixty years is a long time,” Turner wrote, “for anything to be done in the same place in a… city that’s supposed to be new. holy day.”
Even as the ball hit high on the wall in Owens’ sketch, the old hotel was being demolished to make way for Union Station.
Turner also wandered into the Old Masonic Hall next to the Pico House in the Old Square. The ground floor had become a hair salon and a Mexican cafe; upstairs was a sign shop with a wrought-iron balcony overlooking the street. “You can stand on the little balcony…and look up and down Main Street, formerly Calle Principal,” Turner wrote. “It’s a good view of the past, of Los Angeles as it was, almost without any detail of change, forty, fifty, sixty years ago.”
In his encounters with places like Masonic Hall, Turner reclaimed a city that moved more slowly, that scratched his ear less, that still had graceful things if you went looking for them. Of the places visited by Turner, the Masonic Hall is one of the few that still exist. Today it is part of the El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historic Monument.
Other places were harder to find. “You have to walk up the alleys and through the back doors of the little shops to find a lot of things, sometimes curious, sometimes beautiful, in the old town,” Turner advised his readers.
One of these beautiful things was behind a flower shop on San Pedro Street, just north of 1st Street. Mr. Toyo Y. Maeda, the owner of the shop, had cleared part of a parking lot and laid out a Japanese garden. “You can stand there right in the heart of old Los Angeles, with streetcars and motor trucks jammed on all sides, and hear the birds sing and watch the blue square of the sky and write a poem or… commune with nature, according to your wishes.”
Owens’ drawing shows the garden’s torii gate, a bridge over the koi pond, and the tea pavilion beyond.
Toshiyuki and Chiharu Okamura purchased the Toyo Flower Shop and Nursery in 1940. In early 1942, the Okamuras lost their home and shop and were forced with their three children into the Manzanar Internment Camp, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans.
The garden is gone now, replaced by a sunken parking lot and a plaza that honors Reverend Noboru Toriumi, a community leader in Little Tokyo. Toriumi Plaza “sweeps” since 2020 have periodically removed encampments of homeless Angelenos.
Places of memory
Turner’s penchant for places of memory led him to devote a year to simply looking around. In a 1936 Times profile, Turner said he had no other reason than to want to.
The Times offered its own reasons in an editorial note that led Turner’s first essay. Turner and Owens, writes the Times, had “an eye for romance in the everyday” and for “the almost forgotten landmarks in the march of progress.” These sketches and the stories “may be the only remaining record of many interesting and curious things”.
Nostalgia for “interesting and curious things” was not the usual editorial position of the Times. Perhaps the newspaper (which has done so much to make Los Angeles a “city of tomorrow”) reacted to the surge of modernity, symbolized by Union Station, or to the simple fact that much of the old Los Angeles was about to be covered by tracks and parking lots.
It’s a good view of the past, of Los Angeles as it was, with almost no detail changed, forty, fifty, sixty years ago.
Timothy Turner on Main Street in Los Angeles circa 1935
There is something deeper in Turner’s stories – a realization that his sense of belonging was in jeopardy because of irresistible progress, that he would soon only have memories of the things that made the past real to him. Owens and Turner represented a generation of Angelenos (Turner was 51, Owens 55 in 1936) who would grow old in a post-war “city of tomorrow” that would care little for modest landmarks other than Turner’s words and pencil of Owens gave life.
Turner’s “Rediscovering Los Angeles” essays and Owens’ illustrations are behind a paywall on Newspapers.com.