In 1921, the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard now known as the Miracle Mile was a 20-foot-wide dirt road, flanked by oil wells and barley fields. Today, the strip is a busy thoroughfare, home to museums, the La Brea Tar Pits, and a collection of historic Art Deco structures. The story of the Miracle Mile's stunning transformation from cow path to commercial artery -- told through selected images from the region's photographic archives -- is part of the larger narrative of L.A.'s decentralization, as electric railways and automobiles encouraged sprawl and drained the downtown retail district of its vitality.
The Miracle Mile was the brainchild of real estate developer A.W. Ross, who in 1921 paid $54,000 for 18 acres of land along the south side of Wilshire Boulevard between La Brea and Fairfax avenues. Ross envisioned a retail district there, subdividing the land and offering it to suitors for as little as $100 a front foot, but the tract's commercial potential appeared bleak to many. Retail was then concentrated in the downtown business district, and with no electric railway line along Wilshire, the remote location was inaccessible to many Southern Californians. Ross' detractors dismissed the tract -- surrounded by grain fields, a primitive airport, and an active oil field where asphalt seeped up from the ground -- as "Ross' bean patch" and "Ross' folly." Ross pressed forward with his plan anyway.
"I went to men of wealth," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1939. "They turned me down; I was visionary. Even friends who had the means to help me laughed and wished me luck."
But the developer foresaw how the rise of the personal automobile would change settlement patterns and upset the balance of power between downtown and what were then the city's hinterlands.
"When I started out to plan the Miracle Mile I saw Beverly Hills gaining ground in the west, Hollywood progressing to the north, business forging nearer from the east and fine residences going up in the south," he told the Times.
Located within a four-mile drive of the city's most fashionable residential districts, Ross' subdivision boomed as L.A.'s population continued to swell and fill in the automobile suburbs west of downtown. First, a structure consisting of two small storerooms rose sometime before 1924 at the corner of La Brea and Wilshire. Then, a two-story building at Cochran and Wilshire appeared, followed by a fruit market at Curson and Wilshire.
It was not until 1928 that the Miracle Mile acquired its glamorous appellation. Ross originally gave his development a much less-memorable name: Wilshire Boulevard Center. According to a story -- perhaps apocryphal -- Ross was describing his vision for the development when a friend interjected: "From the way you talk, A.W., one would think this is really a miracle mile." The name, with its obvious promotional value, stuck.
But what finally signaled the Miracle Mile's success was the 1929 arrival of a Desmond's inside the Wilshire Tower at Dunsmuir Avenue. With three downtown locations, the department store validated Ross's foresight by placing its fourth branch miles west of the central business district.
When it opened on March 15, 1929, the Wilshire Tower fronted an entire city block and featured an 11-story Art Deco tower. Desmond's main entrance opened onto the sidewalk, but many shoppers entered through the rear; in a nod to the automobile's ascendency, the store's owners built a large parking lot behind the store and reserved additional space for future parking needs.
Other retailers soon followed Desmond's to the Miracle Mile, and they, too, provided ample parking for their customers behind their buildings. Silverwood's arrived in September 1929. In a move laden with symbolism, Coulter's shuttered its downtown location in 1938 and opened its Miracle Mile store at Hauser and Wilshire. Two years later, the May Company opened its new Wilshire Branch at Fairfax.
Eventually, the Miracle Mile was overwhelmed by the same forces of change that once made it a success. Increasing reliance on the personal automobile and uncontrolled sprawl ushered in the age of suburban shopping malls, which challenged older, automobile-oriented retail districts like the Miracle Mile just as the Miracle Mile had previously challenged the pedestrian-oriented retail district downtown. Unable to compete, retailers once at the vanguard of L.A's decentralization relocated, leaving vacant storefronts and shabby discount stores in their place.
By the 1980s, the mile-long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard was in need of a second miracle. Even the president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association compared the area to "a slum." Representing local residents, he called on the city to declare the Miracle Mile a historic district, hoping the designation would spur revitalization and attract interest in the area's many elegant Art Deco and Streamline Moderne structures. But property owners rejected the call, and despite preservationists' protest, many cherished buildings have since fallen to make way for apartment complexes.
Instead, it was museums and office centers that injected new life into the Miracle Mile. Patrons flocked to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which had moved to Hancock Park in 1965. Across the street, the former Orbach's department store found new life in 1994 as the Petersen Automotive Museum, and four years later the abandoned May Company building at Fairfax and Wilshire reopened as LACMA West.
With LACMA, the Petersen, and other museums -- including the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, and the Architecture and Design Museum -- the Miracle Mile has gained a reputation today as L.A.'s museum row. Meanwhile, publications like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Los Angeles Magazine now call the district home. While the Miracle Mile can no longer claim to be the city's premier retail district, the area once derided as "Ross' bean patch" remains fertile commercial ground.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. 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. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrativein all its complex facetsof Southern California.