10 Insanely Weird
And Interesting Stories
About Downtown LA

These stories about Downtown LA will blow you away.
1 OF 10

The Story of How a Séance Led to One of Los Angeles’ Most Beautiful Buildings

Bradbury Building DTLA

 

It’s one of the most beautiful and iconic structures in all of Los Angeles, but the Bradbury Building, at the corner of Broadway and 3rd, wouldn’t be the glorious, light-filled wonderland it is had it not been for the spirit world.

So the story goes: Lewis Bradbury made his fortune mining in Mexico and decided to move to Los Angeles, where he hoped to stake his claim and build his name.

“The only thing a man with money is going to do in late 19th-century America is build a business block or build a mansion,” said Kim Cooper, Los Angeles historian and founder of Esotouric Bus Adventures, who’s thoroughly researched the Bradbury.

The original plan was to work with Sumner Hunt, an architect whose firm designed a number of fashionable homes and offices across Los Angeles. However, Bradbury found Hunt’s work for him to be too conservative.

“He wanted something special,” said Cooper. “He’s Bradbury. He’s conquered Mexico. He’s pulled fortunes out of the soil. And he wants to leave something forever that people are going to talk about.”

Wandering Hunt’s office, Bradbury spied the drawings of a young draftsman named George Wyman. Wyman had been reading a hugely popular science fiction book by Edward Bellamy entitled Looking Backwards, which described a utopian society in the year 2000. Bellamy detailed the gorgeous buildings of the future dominated by glass and light, and Wyman interpreted the ideas in illustration.

“‘Young man,’” Cooper said, imitating Bradbury, “’I want you to build my building.’ And Wyman said, ‘No, no, I work for my boss. My boss is building your building.’ And apparently, Bradbury said to him, and this is the story that came through the children of George Wyman, ‘No, I’ve already decided I’m not going to work with your boss and you should go home and think about it.’”

“A medium would have ectoplasm coming out, and trumpets would play and voices would be heard and messages would be conveyed. This was very common—often theatrical, often fraudulent.”

Wyman would not ponder on this alone. Rather, he called in a medium. Spiritualism was in vogue in the latter years of the century. So many young men died horrifically in the Civil War that a small industry of charlatans arose to help calm the living.

“A medium would have ectoplasm coming out, and trumpets would play and voices would be heard and messages would be conveyed. This was very common—often theatrical, often fraudulent. But in private homes, it was just as common to get out a planchette,” said Cooper. “So that’s what he did.”

Wyman gathered around a table with some others and asked to summon his brother, who Cooper believes died of natural causes. “The question they were asking was should George [Wyman] take this commission. It could make him as an architect, at the same time it could cause conflict with his employer. And the planchette started to move and the pencil started to scratch into the paper. And it spelled in Palmer script, ‘Take Bradbury you will be’ and then there was just complete gibberish.”

One of the attendees left the table and when they returned they happened to see the writing upside down. They could make out the word: Successful. “Take Bradbury and you will be successful.”

“With the encouragement from the Beyond, [Wyman] took the commission and ended up spending all of Bradbury’s money and then some,” said Cooper. “He had the opportunity to essentially bring this vision of the future into reality [and Bradbury was] was willing to invest in it because it was to be his permanent memorial on Earth.”

And in many ways it was. Bradbury died in 1892, the year before the completion of the building. Wyman, on the other hand, fell into obscurity.

“He didn’t have a long or illustrious career,” said Cooper. “He had this wonderful commission. It just fell into his lap.”

 

2 OF 10

The Story of the Former Slave Who Built a Fortune

 

When Biddy Mason died in 1891, the Los Angeles Herald wrote a simple, six-sentence obituary. There was no mention, however, that at the time of her death, she was the wealthiest woman of color this side of the Mississippi.

Born into slavery in Hancock Country, Georgia, in 1818, Mason was forced to make the six-month journey to California in 1851 by the slave owner, Robert Smith, who came to these parts looking for gold. They settled initially in San Bernardino, but when word spread to Smith that California was a free state, he hid the slaves in the canyons of Santa Monica and prepared to take them to Texas. However, the slaves were soon arrested for their own protection while pleadings were made to a district judge for emancipation. On January 21, 1856, the judge handed Mason her free papers, ruling that, “All men should be left to their own pursuit of freedom and happiness.”

For more than a decade, she worked as a nurse and midwife and, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 1905, “on the basis of [her] frugality and keen business acumen have been founded the fortunes of her descendants.” With her savings, Mason purchased three pieces of land in Downtown: 331, 333, and 335 South Spring Street, all at a time “when South Spring Street was little more than a vineyard and settlement of [a]dobe houses.” The price was only $250. When she died, that investment was estimated to be worth more than $100,000 ($2.7 million today). Twenty years later, the estate was worth $300,000 ($8.3 million).

“In the slums of the city she was known as ‘Grandma Mason,’ and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles.”

But her fortune wasn’t her only legacy. She established the first AME Church in Los Angeles, right there on Spring Street, and in her days, she was known as one the most charitable in the city. “In the slums of the city she was known as ‘Grandma Mason,’” reported the Times in 1909, “and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles.”

The Times also reported this anecdote:

“During the flood of the early [eighteen] eighties, she gave an open order to a little grocery store, which was located on Fourth and Spring streets. By the terms of this order all families made homeless by the flood were to be supplied with groceries, while Biddy Mason cheerfully paid the bill. Her home at No. 331 South Spring Street in later years became a refuge for stranded and needy settlers. As she grew more feeble, it became necessary for her grandson to stand at the gate each morning and turn away the line which had formed waiting for her assistance.”

Biddy Mason’s original properties are long since gone, replaced instead by the appallingly unattractive concrete structure of Broadway Spring Center. There is, however, a plaque and display commemorating Mason that was erected in 1991.

 

 

3 OF 10

The Story of the Many Deaths and Murders of the Van Nuys Hotel

 

Even before the hotel at the corner of 4th and Main opened, calamity struck. The Los Angeles Herald reported in 1896 that “a large oil tank which was being hoisted in place in the new Van Nuys hotel building fell as a result of a weak rope breaking. In the descent it struck [James] McNulty, who was passing, bruising his body and crushing it badly in places.”

Nevertheless, the Van Nuys opened as scheduled in January of the following year, and was hailed as a marker of “an important epoch in the history of the city. Los Angeles now has a hotel that is equal in style and furnishings and comfort of the very best to be found anywhere in the United States.” But, the day after the opening, another bad omen befell the property. A runaway horse-drawn streetcar struck a telegraph post just outside, injuring the horses so badly that several of them died.

Then came the first of many, many deaths.

Then came the first of many, many deaths. A waiter, Charles Gamble, was “caught in the elevator and crushed, then released, dropping from the third story to the cement floor of the basement.” Horrifically, he was alive and conscious for another 30 minutes, despite his hideous injuries, which were described by the Herald: “mangled in a terrible manner, his head and one side of his face crushed to a pulp, both legs broken above the knees so that the bones protruded from the quivering flesh, one foot nearly torn off, injured internally and ejecting blood with every breath.”

Four years later, a janitor peered into that elevator shaft and was struck by the falling 4,800-pound lift car and instantly killed. In 1911, an elderly reclusive millionaire who’d been living at the hotel for five years died of heart disease, though the Los Angeles Times notes that “his life of ennui, confinement, and lack of exercise [hastened] the end.” A depressed man took revenge on his estranged wife in 1924, by swallowing cyanide, rudely doing so in the presence of a porter. And in 1937, a 71-year-old resident of Akron, Ohio, and guest of the hotel was found upright in her chair, bludgeoned to death—the Times reported that “a brick was found in the woman’s bed while the bed clothing also was saturated with blood.”

By this point, the hotel’s ignominious name was stricken, replaced with the Barclay. And it’s the strange case of Otto Wilson that is so inextricably linked to the Barclay Hotel.

He put the corpse in the closet then went off to see a Boris Karloff movie at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway.

Wilson, a discharged Navy pharmacist, arrived at the hotel one November morning in 1944 with a young prostitute, Virgie Lee Griffin, whom he’d met at a bar down the street. They booked a room, withdrew to it, and drank whiskey together. At some point, Griffin asked for more money and Wilson hit her. Wilson confessed, “I socked her. And then I cut her. I was going to dismember the body and get rid of it, but I found that I couldn’t do it. So I left.” He put the corpse in the closet then went off to see a Boris Karloff movie at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway. He picked up another prostitute called Lillian Johnson and took her to a now-demolished hotel that was once next to Grand Central Market on Hill Street, and on account of what he called “her cussedness,” killed her, too. He then walked across the street to a now-demolished bar that was next to Angel’s Flight, sat down and had a drink. He was arrested there and in 1946 tossed into the gas chamber. It’s suspected that this day of havoc wasn’t the first of his murders, but no others have ever been proven—though this hasn’t stopped some from dubbing him the L.A. Ripper.

Though now apartments, the Barclay’s still there, perched at that corner. Caddy-corner is one of the best restaurants in Downtown, Baco Mercat.

4 OF 10

The Story of the Wildest Saloon in Downtown

 

The Bismarck Café, a basement saloon on the corner of Main and Winston Streets, was better known by police as “the Bucket of Blood.” It was the epicenter for the rough-and-tumble down-and-out from the time it opened in 1906. It was the Cheers of Skid Row. “Most everybody goes down there,” said one of the patrons in 1907, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In an expose in August of 1907, the Times described it as a place where “only sandwiches and beans are served in the way of eatables,” with décor “fitted up in frontier style. The floor is covered in sawdust. With an ordinary garden rake the filth is cleaned out once a day.” It was alleged that women were paid to lure in other, younger women, mostly domestics, “whose dresses were above their shoe tops.” The men would lust after them, plying them with beer. Fights routinely broke out and thieves would often hide out here after a robbery.

The proprietor, a Chicago politician named Jack Edwards, showed up in L.A. in 1901 with only $4.50 in his pocket. As he told it to the Los Angeles Herald, “I had the 50 cents and my wife had the $4.” He was described as “muscular and fearless.” But after the Times story, business began to sour. Edwards tried, temporarily, to clean up the Bismarck. “No person of questionable age was admitted. The waiters were instructed to keep customers as quiet as possible. In several selections rendered by the band there were strains of sacred music.” Two Catholic priests even accidentally stumbled in, thinking it was somewhere better.

“The thirsty and gore-seeking public was turned away due to the canker of financial distress which seems to have eaten the vitals of ‘the bucket.’”

In didn’t last long. By the end of the year, the bar was, yet again, a Dickensian dive of lost souls. But in 1908, all well to rot. The Times reported in February that Edwards had “discharged a union bartender for dishonesty,” and replaced him two new bartenders who “were denied admission to the local union.” As a result, picket lines formed outside. In June, the police commission revoked the Bismarck’s restaurant license. And soon thereafter, Edwards went bust.

As the Los Angeles Herald reported at the time that, “the thirsty and gore-seeking public was turned away due to the canker of financial distress which seems to have eaten the vitals of ‘the bucket.’”

Edwards died in 1939. The Bucket of Blood is now Blossom, a very pleasant Vietnamese restaurant.

 

5 OF 10

The Story of the Bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building

 

William Randolph Heart’s paper, the Los Angeles Herald, ran the news first in October of 1910: “EXPLOSION DESTROYS TIMES BUILDING; 30 THOUGHT DEAD.”

“An explosion that shook the ground within a radius of half a mile wrecked the Times building at First Street and Broadway at 1:07 o’clock this morning, sending a sheet of flame high in the air and wrecking the structure.”

There would be no Los Angeles Times edition for October 1. But, the following day, using a different press, the Times resumed operations with the headline, “TWENTY-ONE KILLED AND MORE INJURED IN THE DYNAMITED ‘TIMES’ BUILDING – BOMB EXPLODED BY THE ENEMIES OF INDUSTRIAL FREEDOM AND OF THIS PAPER.”

In the fifth paragraph of the article, it was reported, “The union has struck. The great coup consists of broken hearts of innocent workers. That is all. The rest is as nothing.”

He drove the streets of Downtown in a limousine, on which was affixed a machine gun.

Los Angeles was an open shop town—it had successfully resisted unionization from the very beginning. The publisher of the Times, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, did everything in his power to maintain the city’s anti-union sentiment, including turning his paper into propaganda. Gen. Otis was a Civil War veteran, who was lauded as larger than life. The legends surrounding him continue to this day—common (and unproven) lore insists that he drove the streets of Downtown in a limousine, on which was affixed a machine gun. To the unions and their sympathizers, he was a villain, plain and simple.

The culprits were the brothers McNamara—John, the secretary-treasurer of the Iron Workers union, was considered the brains of the operation, and James, a unionist, carried out the attack. James planted a suitcase of dynamite in Ink Alley, next to the Times building; he left another at the home of Gen. Otis, though it failed to detonate.

“O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins.”

The bombing did nothing to dissuade Gen. Otis of his position on the unions; rather, he doubled down. Even before the brothers McNamara were identified and captured—that wouldn’t be until April of the following year—the Times ran a number of excoriating columns. Two days after the bombing, next to a cartoon of Justice without a blindfold, holding a sword on which reads, “For Industrial Freedom,” the Times wrote, “O you anarchic scum, you cowardly murderers, you leeches upon honest labor, you midnight assassins.” Two weeks later, they decried “the greed of monopoly in labor” and fantasized vengeance against the attackers: “Death at the end of a rope would be too much of a holiday. The bitter lesson of torture, by fire, long drawn out, would prove more fitting and more lasting as an example.”

In the end, John McNamara got 15 years and James life in prison; Gen. Otis died a rich man in 1917. In 1935 the L.A. Times moved into its Times Mirror Square headquarters, a city landmark, at Spring and 1st Streets—however, in 2018, the Times moved out of Downtown for El Segundo, just south of the airport.