There’s something wonderful happening on “The Nickel,” the portion of Fifth Street that connects the gritty Skid Row neighborhood of Downtown Los Angeles with the business district to the West: the early 20th century residency hotels whose owner Izek Shomof kept them empty—despite covenants requiring them to be maintained as affordable housing—are getting purchased, restored and returned to their proper use!
First it was the King Edward (John Parkinson, 1906), then the Baltimore (Arthur Roland Kelly, 1910). And now, Healthy Housing Foundation has just purchased the long derelict Leland Hotel (Preston & Seehorn,1904) at 116 East Fifth Street, with the plan to bring its 64 single rooms back into service as affordable housing. The ad at left appears in today’s Los Angeles Times, which is ironic in light of that newspaper’s recent attack editorial on the non-profit’s parent organization for its opposition to land use policies that favor developers over tenants.
The Leland isn’t a famous hotel. It doesn’t have an original basement speakeasy bar like the King Edward’s King Eddy Saloon, nobody ever built a bomb to destroy the Los Angeles Times in one of its rooms as happened next door in the Baltimore, and Raymond Chandler didn’t set a murder there like he did in the Barclay. It was just one of many useful, dense, anonymous residential hotels with commercial space below that once filled this neighborhood of working people, transients and the elderly poor.
The 3-story building was owned by Charles M. Hoff, whose stylized “C” initial has led to it being known erroneously as the “G.M. Hoff Building.” Hoff was the local ticket operator for national express transit lines, first rail and later cross-country bus service.
Hoff’s intent was to eventually expand his investment property upward with additional floors of hotel rooms, but that never happened, perhaps due to the cost and stress of a serious car vs. streetcar accident that injured his wife and other family members in August 1908.
One early tenant of the C.M. Hoff Building was the New England Markets, serving the wholesale restaurant and hotel trade.
When we first started giving tours of the neighborhood, the central storefront still held the last vestiges of a lost Skid Row business type: the former Crest Labor “slave market,” where itinerant skilled workers could drop in and pick up a few hours work on the docks or in the factories.
Healthy Housing Foundation has just purchased the C.M. Hoff Building, and we haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore its nooks and crannies to see what relics yet survive. When we do, we’ll take lots of photos to share with you. But when we heard of the purchase, we remembered a collection of photos we’d consulted at UCLA Special Collections a few years back, and blogged about as Robert Luthardt’s Lost Skid Row, 1967.
Location scouting Art Director Luthardt had shot the King Edward across the street. Did he photograph the Hoff Building, too? You bet he did! Looking through our reference files, we found that around 1967, he caught the elbow shaped LELAND HOTEL blade sign made by QRS Neon Corp. that was installed above Mr. Hoff’s name in late 1954. A careful chronicler, he came back after dark to catch it all aglow.
And he came right up to the hotel door and shot up the steps, capturing the swinging glass doors and the room rates. On a later occasion, he shot gaily dressed cast and crew relaxing on an unspecified night shoot, on the Fifth Street sidewalk with the Baltimore and Leland Hotels behind them.
Note the backlit 1970s plastic signs for the infamous circus-themed Carnival Bar and Crest Labor. It was a fun and funky neighborhood before redevelopment squeezed all the color and the people out. We’re awfully glad that Healthy Housing Foundation is bringing people back into the mix, and look forward to more fun and funk and neon in the years ahead.
Update March 2022: Here are photos from our exploration of the derelict structure, including the treasures in the basement.
One more signage treasure we found in the Robert Luthardt files is especially timely in light of the wild tale of a fleeing criminal wrecking the neon blade sign at Cole’s French Dip Sandwiches as they jumped from the window: mid-1970s views of the joint before it was cleaned up for mainstream consumption. Note the wonderful neon ligatures connecting the “o” to the “C” and “l” and breathe a thanks to the great Robert Luthardt, who roamed the sleazy city with camera round his neck and an abiding love for Los Angeles powering his work.
Update May 5, 2022: Today we went down into the ratty basement of the Leland Hotel (64 affordable units held vacant on Skid Row until an ethical buyer took over) and our preservation pal Nathan Marsak found something magical! Even in such filth and degradation, there is beauty if you have the eyes to see it.