Lipson Plumbing can easily claim it is the longest-standing tenant on Larchmont, tracing its company lineage back to namesake Jack Lipson, who came to Larchmont in 1931 and first rented a garage space from founder and developer of Larchmont, Julius J. La Bonte. Lipson eventually moved to 146 1/2 N. Larchmont Blvd., and the company later expanded to 148 N. Larchmont in the 1980s.
But the good news is, even though Lipson had to vacate its ancestral home of nearly 70 years, the business has not left Larchmont entirely.
“We have a space at 606 N. Larchmont and we are here if customers want to come visit. [And] of course they can always call us on the phone; our number hasn’t changed,” Bob Vacca told the Buzz.
In late November, the Vacca family, only the third set of Lipson Plumbing owners since its founding, gave us a tour of their shop, Jack Lipson’s original space at 146 1/2, and their office suite upstairs, all the while telling us the history of their company, one of the last direct connections to the founding of Larchmont Blvd., which is marking its centennial this year.
According to Bob Vacca, Jack Lipson was a master plumber who came to Los Angeles from Denver, Colorado. Lipson started working for LaBonte, serving the numerous buildings on Larchmont that LaBonte had developed in mid-1920, which is also when he met the boss’s daughter, Charlotte, whom he later married. (LaBonte is widely recognized as the founder of Larchmont, having built and owned more than half of the building in the village area between Beverly Boulevard and First Street.) As his business grew, Lipson moved into 146 1/2 N. Larchmont.
“Jack was a very good master plumber,” Vacca told the Buzz. “He mostly worked alone. Though he was small in stature, he was very feisty. He used to boast that no one ever owned him a nickel.”
The space inside the Jack Lipson’s original shop looked more like a “dungeon of cast iron fittings and plumbing parts,” said Zeb Vacca, who started working with his dad during summers when he was in high school.
“I knew everyone, I got to work with my cousin, and I enjoyed the physical the nature of the work. Even though it’s heavy and tight and dirty, I like it,” said Zeb. And later, after studying geology at Occidental College, where he met Alicia, the younger Vacca decided to join the family business.
“It’s really rewarding,” said his dad, Bob. “We both have an urge to help people and this is our way of helping.”
Over the years, Jack Lipson built up his residential plumbing business until he retired in 1974 and sold the business to Earl and Pat Wiley, the second generation of Lipson ownership. Vacca, a union plumber, worked part-time for Wiley.
Vacca told the Buzz he would always ask Wiley if he would sell him the business, but Wiley brushed the 25-year-old Vacca aside, calling him “glue pot.” At the time, Bob explained, plumbers were learning to transition from using cast iron to plastic pipes. And, as Zeb added, “Instead of joining cast iron with molten lead by pouring hot lead around the joint and chisel it in, they would use blue plastic glue to connect the plastic pipes…It was a lot safer, because [with the old pipes] plumbers were exposed to lead and would have lead dust on their clothes which often exposed their families too.”
Lead is still used in plumbing, Vacca said, though very rarely. But since they often service older buildings, the Vaccas still come accross lead closet rings and they still have some of those tools to work with it. Lead was the best connection, explained Zeb Vacca. “Lead would never fail. We see examples of 100 year-old buildings that have lead joints that have never failed.”
Bob Vacca was working for Wiley at the time Wiley suffered a fatal aneurism. A few years later, Bob and his brother-in-law Jim Domay bought the business from Mrs. Wiley, who stayed on serving as their bookkeeper. And they remained close, personal friends.
The current shop at 148 N. Larchmont has only been the business’ home since the 1980s, when Mrs. Charlotte Lipson, owner of the building, agreed to let them move next door because they needed additional storage space. According to Vacca, Mrs. Lipson believed that Larchmont should be a service street for the neighborhood, with plumbers, a hardware store, etc. So she happily made space for Lipson Plumbing to expand.
After his brother-in-law (who was 10 years older than Bob Vacca) retired, Vacca bought him out and became the primary owner in 2005. Over the years, Vacca also became the concierge for the building, helping all the tenants if the security gate in the back didn’t work or tree roots had clogged up their toilets. And for the most part, Vacca enjoyed his special relationship with Mrs. Lipson, even though she could be difficult.
For example, according to Vacca, at some point, Mrs. Lipson and the owner of the building across the shared driveway between the two parcels got into an altercation. The other owner threatened to build a wall on that property line in the middle of the driveway. Calling the other owner’s bluff, Mrs. Lipson, tore down 148 N. Larchmont, demonstrating that she would not back down and would simply install a driveway on her property. Apparently, that was all it took to resolve the matter and Mrs. Lipson rebuilt the space in the late 1970s.
“I’d see her coming across the street and I could tell by the look on her face, if she was upset,” said Vacca. “But she loved her tenants. They were like her family.”
According to Vacca, Lipson was an only child, with no children of her own. She had no family locally. The only family she had were her husband’s cousins in Prescott, Arizona. Vacca joked that he tried to marry Mrs. Lipson about four times after he husband died in his late 80s.
“She always understood the economics of the boulevard. She wasn’t fancy; she was a very blue collar person,” said Vacca. “She always said that Larchmont was a service-oriented street and that’s why she liked to have a plumber and a hardware store on the street, and it was helpful for us, too, to have the hardware store on the street.”
Vacca told the Buzz that he and other tenants (David Haas of Haas Hair Salon, who styled Mrs. Lipson’s hair every week, and Larchmont Barbershop owner Jerry Cottone, who have since both passed away) tried to buy the building several times over the years and regretted they weren’t able to secure the future of the building for the neighborhood.
“Mrs. Lipson didn’t have a lot of trust in people,” said Vacca, who speculated that she didn’t have a very happy childhood. According to Vacca, Mr. LaBonte was a difficult man, and he suffered numerous financial failures including going bankrupt several times. The Lipson Building was the only building he retained after he sold all the others to cover his debts. “I tried to tell her, if you can’t trust us, you can’t trust anyone. We were like her extended family, and she would tell us that we were her family. But after awhile, you just give up.”
In the next chapter of Lipson Plumbing, the company will have an office at 606 N. Larchmont, along with a building they purchased several years ago in El Sereno near Cal State LA, which has lots of storage and a workshop. That building is about as far as Larchmont was from the family’s home in Eagle Rock.
“Our world headquarters will be in El Sereno, but we will still have a place where people can visit us on Larchmont,” said Vacca. “We probably should have moved years ago, but my partner, Jim, always wanted to be on Larchmont, and we’re going to miss having people stop by and chat with us.”
Though he wonders what will happen and if people will remember them, Vacca isn’t too worried. Most of their business comes by word of mouth and they have a great reputation in the community.
Before we left, Vacca gave us a quick tour of the old office suite upstairs at 136 1/2 Larchmont. There are two suites, there which used to be apartments. The Lipsons lived in one for a time after World War II. The other space was home to Judy Horton Garden Design for nearly twenty years, and we got to see that, too…but that’s for another story.
Here are some photos of the old Lipson space and the view outside. You can see the removal of the mansard metal awning revealing the original facade. The original windows were removed in the 1950s and the interior is very simple, just the way Mrs. Lipson liked it.
About Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the co-editor and publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.
- Web |
- More Posts
One thought on “Lipson Plumbing Leaves Shop of 70 Years But Stays on Larchmont”
Very interesting, Patty. We use Lipson and love Zeb. I always wondered if they were part of Lipson family?!