The Merritt Building has long been shrouded in mystery and misery. Once one of the finest buildings in downtown Los Angeles, the 1914 Beaux Arts building has seen its fair share of suffering. It surrendered to a major height-restriction, a bastardized facade job, abandonment, and graffiti tagging. In a time where the remainder of downtown’s best historic buildings are in the process of being renovated, the Merritt Building stands as a living reminder of post-war urban decay.
For years, I have wondered what lies beyond the decrepit facade. I was anxious to know if it served as a time capsule, much like the Garland Building
or Commercial Exchange,
or if it was an empty shell – gutted and barren inside.
The building was listed for sale earlier this year and I finally had the opportunity to explore the interior. Much to my satisfaction, there were still elements of the past that had survived. The most notable features were the stained glass skylights, the old bank vault, the office doors with the name stencils, and the fireplaces – which is something I have not seen in any other historic office building in downtown.
A heavy vault door remains, used first by the Coast Federal Savings Bank and later by the Home Savings and Loan Assn.
Fireplaces are a rare sight in historic office buildings in Downtown LA.
Much of the interior has rotted away, with patches of floor and roof missing.
There are several stained-glass skylights throughout the top floor of the building, including the restrooms.
The History Behind The Merritt Building
To say Hulett C. Merritt was an accomplished man is an extreme understatement. He was a real estate magnate and one of the largest owners of interest in iron ore and railroads, making him a multimillionaire at the age of 18. By the age of 26, he sold his shares of the Merritt-Rockefeller syndicate for $81 million and left his home state of Minnesota for Los Angeles. By the age of 28, he was president of United Electric, Gas and Power Company and had acquired a considerable portfolio of real estate on Broadway, Hill and Spring Streets in Downtown.
In 1910, Merritt chose the prime corner of 8th and Broadway Streets to erect his namesake building. The original plans called for a 23-story Italian Renaissance style skyscraper. The city, who had enacted a height restriction for buildings in 1904, vehemently opposed Merritt’s tower. The city argued that buildings taller than 13 stories would break the symmetry of the skyline and create canyons of shadows. Merritt argued that the restrictions inhibited the beauty of his design. With neither party willing to budge, the plans were nearly scrapped.
Luckily, the brick structure never came to see the light of day. Instead, the San Francisco-based architecture firm of the Reid Brothers designed a beautiful Beaux Arts Classical building. At nine stories tall, the most notable feature of the edifice is the fluted columns fashioned after the Temple of Minerva. The ground floor originally served as a clothing store while the upper eight served as offices. Merritt claimed the top floor for his own personal use.
Changes Over The Decades
Over the decades, the ground floor hosted a variety of retailers. Each one brought a distinct variation to the facade through signage, awnings, or lack thereof. None, however, changed the appearance of the building as much as the Home Savings and Loan Association. After Hulett Merritt’s death in 1956, the Home Savings and Loan Association purchased the building, in part for its own use. They hired artist Millard Sheets to “modernize” the lower floors. The remodel removed the rustication of the second floor, as well as the windows on the Broadway side. An entrance to the building was added on the 8th Street side. The smooth masonry was a stark contrast to the ornate beauty of the upper floors.
The Merritt Building in the 1920s.
A view from 1939 shows how activated the sidewalks on Broadway once were.
In 1957, Silton’s Jewelers dominated the ground floor just before the Home Savings and Loan Association took over. Image: USC Digital Library
Taken in the late ’50s, this photo shows the drastic redesign of the ground floor, designed by artist Millard Sheets.
The Home Savings and Loan Assn. lasted for two decades (give or take) before vacating the building. It was completely abandoned by the ’80s. The ground floor was reactivated in the last decade with a check cashing business and cluttered discount retailers that would likely make a fire marshall very, very nervous. Vandals have continually tagged the facade and roof with graffiti.
All that remains of the Home Loan & Savings Assn.
I imagine the vault will either cause a headache for the new developer, or become a huge asset as a historical element.
Fortunately, the Merritt Building has some positive changes in its future. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported
an international investor has picked up the property for a steep $24 million. Whether the historic corner property will be turned into creative offices or a boutique hotel, this is great news for the Bringing Back Broadway initiative. The 8th Street corridor is undergoing a huge revitalization with the Broadway Trade Center
, Freehand Hotel and Whole Foods offering a unique experience for both residents and visitors alike. I can’t wait to see the transformation and reactivation this project will bring to the neighborhood.