If you’ve ever crossed the Los Angeles River into Boyle Heights, chances are you’ve admired the National Register Sears tower, a combination retail store and warehouse that served the eastside for generations. (Like too many Los Angeles landmarks, today it stands vacant, waiting for an unpopular and unlikely redevelopment scheme to pencil out.)
But even if you traveled south down Boyle Avenue to visit Sears, you could easily have missed the intriguing 1927 structure just two short blocks away. 1214 South Boyle’s great bones have long been obscured behind a big bushy tree and the stock of a palette jack business stored out front.
If you had stopped to look, you would have seen the round corner tower looming over a pair of matching arches, one with a door cut in, one a floor to ceiling window, everything painted dusty beige. Despite the obvious neglect, the building looked romantic—and like it had a story to tell. So for our own amusement we poked through old newspapers and city directories and pieced together its history, thinking maybe one day we’d get a chance to see inside and then write something about it.
We never have had a chance to go inside. But earlier this month, 1214 South Boyle appeared on the black bordered list of newly issued demolition permits. We raced over, to see if it was still standing—it is, now much easier to see, with the tree and stored goods gone, but heavily tagged—take some photos, and share the history with you.
In July 1927, Otto Gustafson received a permit to build a stucco frame lunch room at a cost of $2700, adding living quarters in August. No architect is listed for the initial building, but the addition is credited to “E. Northmann,” almost certainly Edith Northman, the first licensed woman architect in Los Angeles and occasional Samuel Goldwyn screwball comedy motion picture consultant. If you’ve ever taken Sunset through Silver Lake, you know her work.
This pioneering independent female architect gained prominence in the field, and was featured as the only woman in a full page Sunday Los Angeles Times feature on Southern California business and civic leaders in 1937, in the company of distinguished peers Albert C. Martin and Claud Beelman, each of whom were aided by large offices.
Northman was not prolific, and her modest, elegant buildings are at great risk of demolition due to the pressures of upzoning for redevelopment. The “protected” city landmark Altman Apartments at 414-416 South Catalina Street in Koreatown are suffering serious neglect, with the remaining low income tenants threatened with displacement and a ridiculous scheme floated by the landlord to lift up and move the entire structure to an unspecified location.
So any surviving Edith Northman project is worthy of note. With just one month between 1214 South Boyle building permits, it’s reasonable to assume that Northman is the architect of the entire road house and residential complex, and to wonder if the Danish-born architect met her client through the Scandinavian community. In 1926, Northman had launched her solo architectural practice, and was simultaneously studying at USC. This could well be her first project.
Otto and his wife Maxine, or Minnie, appear as proprietors of 1214 South Boyle in the 1929-31 Los Angeles City Directories, during which time the lunch room was permitted as a public dance hall. We don’t know if it was called the Waldemar Cafe when it opened, but it reopened under that regal Danish-tinged name in June 1932.
From the partial set of city directories available online at LAPL, we learn that ownership changed often: Benjamin and Blanche Porter (1933). Frank Fitzgerald (1935). Mrs. Mabel Sellers, or Sells (1938). Dale J. and Dorothy Bordner (1941). Joseph Aristo (1942). Fred Gill (1960).
Also, there were some shenanigans. In November 1932, the Waldemar Cafe was one of more than 100 venues raided by the vice squad in a citywide crackdown on punch boards, slot machines and other illicit gambling devices. In July 1933, Pete Cuccia applied to take over the dance hall permit; somebody with the same name would be indicted by a Los Angeles Grand Jury in 1951 for operating a race track bookmaking wire out of the Hollywood Western Building.
In 1941, The Original Chicken Man relocates from South Los Angeles and the road house becomes The Original Chicken House; the old joint becomes the Whirl-Away bar.
By December 1954, according to a pair of classified “where to dine” ads in the Los Angeles Times, the road house is operating as B.J.’s Chalet Inn, offering “quaint atmosphere” and “East Indian Curry,” quite a culinary novelty in mid-century Boyle Heights.
By November 1960, it is El Pasiente Cafe, serving beer and food. Fred and Consuelo Gill sell the business to Donald J. and Gertrude T. Walsh. They rename the establishment Mr. Lucky, and in April 1962 sell it to Daniel Naudin and Furman A. Senter Jr.
By 1964, the bar is running classified ads for a “young, attractive” barmaid, updated in June 1965 to note that the position called for “no leotards.” (In local classified ads starting in 1963 we find numerous beer bars where attractive young women workers wore skintight leotards and danced when not pulling taps, and others where they explicitly did not wear leotards. It’s not clear from the ads if this meant attire that was less or more revealing.)
And it’s in this Mr. Lucky era of the road house that we get the clearest picture of what kind of joint it was, at least towards the tail end of its history. Vincent Bugliosi, the former Los Angeles District Attorney turned true crime writer (Helter Skelter) writes in Till Death Us Do Part: A True Murder Mystery (1988) about two double indemnity insurance murders. While the main characters are given fictional names, it is presumed that other details are accurate.
After conducting an interview at Sears, where murder victim “Henry Stockton” (real name Marlin Cromwell) had worked for a decade, Bugliosi writes that, “Sergeant Aguirre and Officer Duretto journeyed to Lucky’s Bar at 1214 South Boyle. It was a sorry little tavern that [Marlin] and his friends had made their daily after-work haunt. The floor was dirty, the old wooden bar marred with carved initials and cigarette butts. The few booths toward the rear, with their high backs and wood cutout designs, attempted without apology a Swiss chalet motif. The proprietor, Charlie Parks, was the first person the officers talked with. His sentiments about [Marlin] echoed everybody else’s. [Marlin] was a quiet polite fellow who could occupy himself for hours sipping beer or perhaps shooting pool with friends. Only once that he could remember had [Marlin] pulled himself high on his barstool and ventured a meekly roguish remark about some new barmaid’s figure… [Kristina Cromwell], Parks barely knew. No one at the bar, in fact, had even known [Marlin] had been married until one day he brought [Kristina] and his son in with him and announced happily to his friends that they were soon to be a family again. All the Lucky’s regulars—bus drivers, mechanics, welders… threw the couple a party.” Soon afterwards, Marlin would be shot dead in his modest El Sereno home, which was then set on fire, by Kristina’s new lover Paul Perveler.
We don’t know when the road house closed and the property, though still zoned as a restaurant, became the palette jack storage yard we’ve always known it as. But the neighborhood’s changing demographics likely played a role. In 1992, Sears closed its warehouse distribution center and sold the building at the end of Boyle Avenue, eliminating a large pool of potential patrons.
As we wait to see if 1214 South Boyle might somehow escape the wrecking ball that could come for it at any time—wouldn’t it make a lovely beer garden if restored?—we’ll raise a virtual glass to the doomed Marlin Cromwell and all the other regulars who knew this bar as a welcome port, with friendly faces and no leotards, a little run down maybe, but still the work of a significant Los Angeles architect and we bet still showing signs of Edith Northman’s hand, if you know where to look and if you ever get the chance.
Is there a lesson here, for preservationists and the city? Yes, we think so. It shouldn’t need to come down to the issuance of a demolition permit before somebody looks through the backlog of early building permits to determine the hand of a master (or mistress) architect is present. There is nothing except political will stopping LADBS from feeding all of their scanned building permits into optical character reading software and making them digitally searchable. Now that Jose Huizar has confessed his crimes and there is no question that City Hall has been acting in the interests of developers and not citizens, it’s long past time to do things differently.