From Wool Ranch to the Wiltern: A Brief History of Wilshire & Western

The intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, looking east down Wilshire circa 1950. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1885, it was a quiet country crossroads, its silence punctuated only by the occasional bleating of Merino sheep. By 1928, more automobiles passed through here than through any other intersection in the nation. This is the story of Wilshire and Western -- one that would be exceptional if the histories of so many Los Angeles intersections (e.g., Seventh and Figueroa or Hollywood and Vine) didn't share its basic outlines.

Neither had yet acquired its familiar name, but by the 1870s two dusty wagon roads crossed each other where Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue meet today. An 1877 map paints a rustic picture of the crossroads: a few scattered ranch houses but little else besides the names of those who owned large tracts of land on each of its four corners: "Garnier," "Brown," "W. B. Hunt," and "S.P.R.R." (the Southern Pacific Railroad). The Los Angeles city limits lay less than two miles away, but standing at the lonely crossroads then it might have seemed more like two hundred.

Not to Germain Pellissier. In 1882, the 33-year-old immigrant from the French Alps purchased the Southern Pacific's 156-acre tract on the intersection's southeast corner for $3,200. At first Pellissier opened a sheep ranch on his new property, but he was less interested in the land for wool production than as a long-term investment; the foresighted Pellissier believed that a growing Los Angeles would soon spill over its city limits and reach his quarter-section of wilderness.

Events soon proved him right. In April 1885, the Los Angeles County board of supervisors designated one of the roads passing by his tract a county highway, bestowing on it the name Western Avenue. (The other road would later be named Sixth Street before becoming Wilshire Boulevard in 1897.) Pellissier shut down his sheep ranch, and, when Southern California's wild land boom arrived in 1887, parceled out part of his tract, which eventually became known as the Pellissier Square subdivision. By 1905, land that Pellissier had bought for $20.50 per acre was selling for $2,700.

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Detail of an 1877 map of Los Angeles County. The future intersection of Wilshire and Western appears in the center of the image. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A 1921 Baist's real estate map of Wilshire and Western and the surrounding area. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection.

But it was the 1920s that truly transformed Wilshire and Western into an urban crossroads. The atmospheric rise of automobile ownership within the city, coupled with Wilshire Boulevard's emergence as a commercial corridor (a story that Kevin Roderick richly documents in "Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles") and the development of Western Avenue as a fashionable residential street, transformed the intersection into a recurring traffic jam. In 1928, the city traffic commission recorded nearly 75,000 automobiles and double-decker buses passing through Wilshire and Western on one particular day, making the intersection the nation's busiest, according to the commission's own reckoning.

Chronic congestion inspired traffic engineers to innovate. In 1922 they experimented with a traffic circle that, because of the intersection's small size, only bottlenecked traffic. Two years later they installed some of the city's first automated traffic signals at the crossroads.

Motor traffic may have signaled Wilshire and Western's growing importance, but the intersection still lacked a corresponding architectural statement. Glance at an aerial photo of the surrounding area from the 1920s, and the intersection -- fronted by oversized billboards and real estate offices -- hardly stands out. That changed in November 1930, when a twelve-story Art Deco masterpiece began to rise above Wilshire and Western's southeast corner. Clad in blue-green terra cotta with its tower facing the intersection diagonally, the Stiles O. Clements-designed complex featured offices with sweeping views of the city, street-level retail space, and an opulent, 2,344-seat Warner Bros. movie theater. Developer Henry de Roulet, who had grown up not far from the building's site on the former sheep ranch, named the building after his visionary grandfather, Germain Pellissier.

With grand opening of the Pellissier Building and the adjoining Warner Western theater on Oct. 7, 1931, Wilshire and Western acquired a gleaming ornament that set the intersection apart. And three years later, after a temporary closure due to slow business, the theater reopened with a new name that honored the crossroads: the Wil-Tern (now simply "Wiltern"), a portmanteau of Wilshire and Western.

It remained a functioning movie theater for many decades, but the Warner Wiltern's eventual closing in 1978 and subsequent plans for the Pellissier Building's demolition prompted one of the first triumphs of Los Angeles' preservation movement. After the Los Angeles Conservancy rallied around the historic structure, developer Wayne Ratkovich purchased it in 1981, renovated the offices and theater, and donated a preservation easement to the Conservancy. Reopened in 1985, the Wiltern today is one of Los Angeles' prized performance venues.

The intersection's other pieces slowly fell into place. For decades, rival drive-in diners anchored the northwest and southwest corners. Then in 1962, oil tycoon J. Paul Getty commissioned a 20-story office tower on the southwest corner. The last work of architect Claud Beelman, the modern skyscraper has since been converted into the Mercury residential building. Across the street, the 12-story Pierce National Life Building, designed by Welton Becket & Associates, rose from the northwest corner in 1965. And in 1996, a Metro Purple Line subway station opened on the northeast corner. By then, immigrants from East Asia had refashioned the surrounding neighborhood into Koreatown, and high rises towered over the crossroads where Germain Pellissier once herded sheep.

Aerial view of Wilshire and Western in 1924. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1922, traffic engineers installed an experimental traffic circle to combat congestion. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Wilshire and Western in 1926. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Aerial view of Wilshire and Western in 1929. Courtesy of the USC Libaries - California Historical Society Collection.

For several years beginning in 1928, the city traffic commission proclaimed Wilshire and Western to be the nation's busiest intersection. Here, automobile traffic jams Wilshire and Western in 1931. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Subdivided in large part by grandson Henry de Roulet, Germain Pellissier's sheep ranch became Pellissier Square. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

The Pellissier Building and Wiltern Theater under construction in 1931. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

A movie premiere marked the 1931 grand opening of the Wiltern, then named the Warner Western. A temporary footbridge spanned Wilshire Blvd. for the occasion. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A view of traffic from the Pellissier Building in 1933. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

The Wiltern in 1935. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A night view of the Wiltern in 1935. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

The Melody Lane drive-in coffee shop once occupied Wilshire and Western's southwest corner. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Across the street from Melody Lane was another drive-in, McDonnel's. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

By 1964, a parking lot had replaced McDonnel's on the northwest corner. Within a couple years, a 12-story office building would rise from the site. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Spearheaded by J. Paul Getty, the 20-story Union Bank office tower, now a residential building named the Mercury, rose from the southwest corner in 1962. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A 1966 view looking north up Western at Wilshire. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A Metro subway station opened on Wilshire and Western's northeast corner in 1996. Rendering courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

The Metro Purple Line's current western terminus lies underneath the intersection of Wilshire and Western. Rendering courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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