Every building has a story. And when those stories are architecturally, historically and/or culturally signifcant, we work to save or honor the buildings with various kinds of historic designations that can preserve them, or at least their memories, for generations to come.
But many lovely buildings simply exist for decades as valuable parts of our communities, quietly contributing to the overal texture, flavor and sense of place… but without being lucky enough to have a big-name architectural pedigree, have housed a superstar tenant, or have been the site of an historically important moment or movement.
And when those buildings, no matter how charming or loved by the community, reach the end of their lifespan (all too often, these days, it seems), there may be a small outcry from neighbors who have enjoyed them over the decades…but few others notice or have much to say as yet another piece of our city’s history simply vanishes into the mists of time.
We were sad this week to see this process playing out at the lovely brick building that has occupied the space at 838-844 S. La Brea since 1928.
As someone who arrived in the adjacent Sycamore Square neighborhood in 1991, I’ve always been a fan of this little gem, and I’ve heard many neighbors say the same over the last 26 years. During that time, I’ve known this building variously as a quirky antique store, a short-lived Italian restaurant, a longer-lived, cozy and yummy Chinese/Korean restaurant, and a vacant and decaying ghost of its former self.
And very soon a ghost is all it will be. Permits granting permission to demolish the building and clear the lot (for what we don’t know yet – no other permits or applications have been filed so far) were issued in July, and the demolotion is now underway. So this appears to be the last chance to say goodbye to this community fixture before it vanishes forever.
But while this building never seems to have built up enough official cultural capital to achieve landmark status of any sort (unlike the bigger, flashier Firestone building just a few doors up the block), it still tells many stories and, through them, provides a snapshot of the community’s larger history over the years.
So what better eulogy for our vanishing friend than to tell its stories here. Some of the tales are verified and some not…but together (we think) they’re still valuable in their own small way.
First, let’s start with some rumors about the building’s history. I’ve personally heard three:
- That it was once the offices of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino…
- That it was the original home of a very early aircraft technology company that grew into such a giant in the industry that, in a later incarnation, it bought out world-famous Honeywell…
- …and that it was once home to the offices of rocker and reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne.
I’ve done a bit of research on all of these rumors in the past few years, but will say right now that I’ve never been able to find even an inkling of anything that would verify either of the two celebrity connections.
The second of the three rumors, however, mentioned to me during a neighborhood walking tour I was conducting, by a man who seemed to know his aircraft industry history, seems a bit more possible.
Checking it out, I’ve learned that in May of 1936, a young aeronautics engineer named John Clifford “Cliff” Garrett, who had previously worked for Douglas Aircraft Company’s Northrop division, broke away (with support from both Douglas and Northrop) and started his own company called Aircraft Tool and Supply, which was quickly re-named Garrett Supply Co. later that same year. Garrett Supply Co. grew very quickly, was a key player in technology for the B17 and other bombers in World War II, and soon – at least by the time a corporate profile appeared in the July, 1957 edition of Flying magazine – had nine divisions, two subsidiaries and annual sales over $150 million per year.
Over the next few decades, Garrett merged with a company named Allied, which later merged with the Signal company to become Allied Signal..and then Allied Signal purchased industry giant Honeywell for $15 billion in 1999. (And the Garrett name actually lives on in at least one part of the current empire — as Honeywell Garrett, supplier of automotive turbochargers.)
Interesting as that all is, however, it’s still not clear where the very first home of Cliff Garrett’s Aircraft Tool and Supply was., and whether or not it was ever located at 838-844 S. La Brea.
Several corporate and industry histories mention that the company started in a small, one-room office in Los Angeles. But the exact address is never given, and the company doesn’t show up in the 1936 city business directory (which probably would have been complied in 1935, before the company existed). The company does show up in the 1938 city directory, but at an address on Santa Fe Ave., in Vernon. And by that point, the fast-growing enterprise may have already left its original tiny office and may even have spread out among several locations, including – in at least one account – a lab in a Melrose Ave. storefront. A 1937 city directory would probably shed some better light on the company’s office origins…but there doesn’t seem to be a 1937 city directory in any collections that I’ve found so far.
So that leaves this rumor also unconfirmed. But it could still be true…and, thanks to one other compelling bit of information, it also seems entirely plausible. The intriguing tidbit is that city directories for the 1930s show that John Clifford Garrett (specifically identified as president of Garrett Supply Co.) resided at 926 S. Masselin Ave., just 8 blocks west of La Brea, for at least several years at the time he started his legendary company. It’s not confirmation of his business address, but it’s also not hard to imagine that a young engineer, striking out on his own, would rent a small office in a building within walking distance of his home…and 838-844 S. La Brea could easily have fit the bill. Also, it turns out that a number of other engineering and instrument companies did rent space at 838-844 during its early decades (and even into the late 1950s)…which makes it even easier to imagine that Garrett could have started out there, too.
What We Do Know
While we may never know whether Valentino, Ozzy or even Cliff Garrett actually called 838-844 S. La Brea any kind of home, we do know quite a bit about the building, decade by decade.
On June 11, 1928, a man named John R. Greene filed for permits to build a new office and store building, with a rear garage, at 838-840 S. La Brea. The designer and contractor for the project was Lee E. Greene. According to the permits, the building would be two stories tall, with brick exterior walls, concrete and wood floors, and a composite and red tile roof. Permits for a garden wall and toilet room were added in the next few weeks. Total value of all the permitted projects was about $6,200.
On September 16, 1928, however, much more became known about the building and its owners when the Los Angeles Times ran a story announcing the formation of the Greene & Co. real estate firm, headed by Bess A. Greene, who specialized in property rentals.
According to the story, the new building was “perhaps one of the most unusual of business buildings in this city of extraordinary architecture…and bears a resemblance to a palatial residence.” According to the article, “the interior carries out the Spanish motif with unfinished brick walls, beamed ceilings, wrought-iron fixtures.” Also, the price tag of the building, in the article, was now said to be a rather palatial (for the time) $35,000.
Interestingly, the Times story says the building’s designer, Lee E. Greene, now identified as Bess’ brother, was not an architect but an “insurance broker,” and that he would be handling the insurance side of Bess’ business. (Side note: in addition to 838-844 S. La Brea, LADBS records show that Lee E. Greene also designed the duplex at 1201-1203 S. Hudson where he, Bess, and John R. Greene, lived for many years.)
But that third Greene, John, remains a bit of a mystery. He’s listed as the building owner on all the original permits (by himself at first, and then as co-owner with Bess, starting in 1933), and his 1964 obituary indicates that he, too, was a brother of Bess’s, and that he was a real estate broker and member of a realtor’s professional association since 1925.
This hints that he, too, was a partner in Bess’s (and Lee’s) company…but his name never appears in any of the thousands of LA Times rental ads placed by the company over the next few decades, which all carry only Bess’ name. Also, interestingly, Bess A. Green’s obituary, in the March 8, 1975 L.A. Times, makes no mention of her real estate career…and says only that she was a 54-year resident of Los Angeles.
So were Bess and her brother John partners in the real estate business? Was Bess the real powerhouse agent that her ads and the LA Times story would indicate? (“Most houses are rented by women or they have the final say-so in renting,” Bess says in the Times story, explaining her success and suitability for the job.) Or was the female-led agency more of a marketing strategy, with John actually leading the business? Again, we many never really know.
During the 1930s, Greene & Co. rode the crest of the real estate boom in the neighborhood (which went from nearly empty in the early 1920s to almost fully built out by the end of the 1930s). One sign of the business’s (and building’s) success is that the Greenes added an extra bathroom to the building, as well as did some roof repairs, in 1938 (when, interestingly, Lee Greene was now listed as the property owner on the work permits).
In 1941, the building had a bit of a brush with celebrity when the Rev. R. Anderson Jardine, the Anglican minister who gained notoriety for marrying England’s Duke of Windsor to his fiancee Wallis Simpson in 1937, migrated to California and opened his own small church at 838 S. La Brea.
The records are a bit spottier for the years after that, with no city directories or building permits readily available for much of the 1930s or ’40s…though Bess A. Greene’s property rental ads still ran regularly in the Times’ classifieds.
As the building’s address range would indicate, however, there was room in it for more than just the Greenes’ company. By the time the 1956 Los Angeles Street Address Directory was published, 12 businesses were listed at 838 S. La Brea, including five house and window-cleaning companies, five engineering, valve and instrument companies, one investment company, one company identified only as “Ohmart Corporation,” and one enterprise called “Western Switchboard Companies.” In addition, 840 S. La Brea was listed as the address for three different versions of Greene & Co. (Bess A. Green & Co., Greene & Co., and Lee E. Greene & Co.), as well as the Kirschner Insurance Agency. 842 S. La Brea was the address for two electronics companies…and 844 S. La Brea was home to Charles Leon Print-O-Graph.
The 1960s seem to be the beginning of big changes for the property.
During the first couple of years of the decade, the building housed an L.A. County mental health office, which had a five-year lease from the Greenes starting in 1962, in addition to the Western Acceptance insurance company, Greene & Co., and ACME cleaners.
But John R. Greene died in January of 1964, and the last time Greene & Co. is listed at the building in city street directories seems to be April, 1964…so the Greene siblings may have finally sold it shortly after John’s death (another clue that he might have actually been the driving force behind the business).
In November, 1964, an application was filed by the building’s new owner, Irene C. Finkerstein, to remove 2,300 square feet of illegal additions, followed by a permit application in February, 1965 to perform some unspecified non-structural alterations and repairs. And when a permit was filed in June of 1965 to install a new metal and plastic illuminated wall sign on the building, the owner was now listed as Holland Construction.
In 1967, a company called Baby Mate shows up at 840 S. La Brea, with classified ads offering franchise opportunities for a “baby business” (selling baby-related products, we assume, and not babies themselves). During the late 1960s, Western Acceptance insurance was still around, along with other small companies including a business broker, a company advertising for phone solicitors, and an “imprinters” business.
After the late 1960s, records for the property are pretty scarce. The public record comes back into focus, however, in 1995, when then-owner Michael Ramos applied for a change of use to convert the use of part of the property from offices to classrooms. Then, four years later, in 1999, Ramos received another permit to convert the space from classrooms to retail sales.
This is the point at which I remember first entering the building, when it became a truly eclectic antique and curiosity shop, with a fascinating collection of items large and small, many with a nautical theme. It was a great place to browse, even if you didn’t buy anything…and though the shop didn’t last too long, many of its wares actually outlived the business.
In 2001, another set of property owners, Leonardo and Iris Lopez, along with tenant K.Y. Lee, applied for another change of use, this time from retail to restaurant space, and a permit was was issued in 2002. I have not been able to find confirming records of the first restaurant in the building, but as I recall (from living less than a block away at the time), it may have been Italian-themed, and didn’t last long. What was interesting about it, however, was that it retained many of the fascinating old objects from the space’s days as an antique store…and those remained even after the restaurant re-opened some time later, in the mid-2000s, as the Ogamdo Cafe and Restaurant, which featured Korean and Chinese dishes.
Yelp reviewers mostly seemed to agree with my own opinion that the Ogamdo was a tasty favorite, with great ambiance (including a warm fireplace that was stoked on cool days) and a truly unique style.
After a few years, though, the restaurant ran into some difficulty with neighbors, when it applied for an upgrade from a beer and wine license to a full liquor permit, along with extended hours for its rear patio seating area (including a table in an old diving bell left behind by the antique store), which was never properly permitted. Neighbors living behind the restaurant complained about the late night noise from the open patio, as well as poor maintenance of a retaining wall on the restaurant’s property, between it and the neighbors’ yards. After a full review process, the liquor upgrade was denied, both in 2006 and 2009. [Full disclosure: I was on the boards of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association and the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council when those groups voted to support the neighbors and oppose the liquor permit.]
The restaurant continued for a few years after that, but finally closed in 2011…and, despite hopes from neighbors that there would be at least one more life left in the charming old structure, the building has been vacant and in decline ever since.
Today, records show that 838-844 S. La Brea is owned by Hwi Jong Park and a company called 844LBLA, LLC…but there does not seem to be any contact information for those entities in the public record…so the Buzz was not able to contact them for comments on this story.
Instead, we are left watching, with other passersby on La Brea, as the building is being disassembled, brick by brick, and taking its long history to the grave.
[Special thanks to Katie Horak, Architectural Resources Group, which researched this property for SurveyLA, and who provided several of the newspaper clippings used in this article.]