Sign of the Times III: Henry C. Jensen, the Cunning Capitalist of L.A. | KCET
Sign of the Times III: Henry C. Jensen, the Cunning Capitalist of L.A.
The main roads of Los Angeles are long. The fabled Sunset Boulevard, which links downtown to the sea, has multiple personalities along the drive. The winding, wooded way of Bel Air, the Chi-Chi restaurants of West Hollywood, are but two of the many distinct neighborhoods you encounter. And near the end of the road, at the intersection of Sunset and Logan, beats the heart of Echo Park.
Jensen's Recreation Center, the stately but slightly ragged three-story brick building that sits on the southwest corner, teams with the activity of the eclectic neighborhood. Perfectly styled twenty-something's eat at a hip vegan eatery and afterwards browse through a high-end clothing co-op, while in the next storefront a down on his luck musician hocks his guitar at the pawn shop. A sick laborer makes his way down Logan to the building's free clinic, while in the back, by the parking lot, an artist works in his garage door bound studio. And always, there are the exuberant children and their parents -- many recently arrived from Mexico and Central America -- who skip down the sidewalk on their way to 826LA's tutoring center in the building next door.
Even with all this traffic, all this life, the imprints of Henry C. Jensen, the man who built this center, remain. Behind an iron gate a single set of carpeted stairs lead to the apartments (currently running $1000+ a month) that take up the building's top two floors. A sign, stenciled in gold paint, stretched across the stairs, advertises "Jensen Apartments, Vacancies." At night the lights in the these apartments come on, and atop the building a 17 by 28 foot sign alights, proclaiming "Jensen Recreation Center" and featuring a stick figure man throwing a ball at a set of pins -- a symbol of the building's multi-purpose past, its multi-cultural present and its multi-faceted founder.
Dust and smoke
Perhaps it was all the roads he traveled that led Henry C. Jensen settle as hard as he did. By the end of his 84 years in 1944, he had developed and subdivided the West Adams and Harvard Heights neighborhoods, built and managed theaters and shopping centers in Glendale, Pasadena and Hollywood with the help of sons Walter and Robert, and sat on the directorate of the Pan American Bank and The Navajo Oil Company. He endorsed pro-business city council candidates, belonged to the chamber of commerce and the masons, and lived in a handsome home of his own construction at 1728 Westmoreland Boulevard. In short, he was the ideal, upstanding American success story.
But like many stories of success, his is clouded with shades of grey.
Henry Christian Jensen was born in 1859 in Holstein, Germany. By 1880 he was in America, where he worked as a mason in the thriving brick industry in Illinois, Utah and Oregon. Brickyards were a filthy affair, with clay often being excavated on the same site where the bricks were pressed and cooked. Jensen came Los Angeles sometime in the 1880s and eventually established his own brickyard on the same lot on Westmoreland Boulevard where he would eventually build his home.
The next few years were a flurry of litigation for Jensen. In fitting with his emerging character, the first mention of Jensen in the Los Angeles Times is in November of 1889, when he sued two men whom he claimed owed him money for bricks he had supplied. In the fall of 1895 alone he filed four suits, including one against his former business partner JR Downs, and three to foreclose on mechanics liens. But he had time for leisure as well. In the summer of 1900, he and his wife Emma were reported to be on one of Captain Conell's picnic and BBQ cruises to Emerald Bay on Catalina Island.
In October of 1901, the increasingly successful Jensen, aided by the massive building boom in Southern California, requested permits to establish a new brickyard on Western Avenue, near the Harvard School. At a meeting before the board of public works, numerous angry residents (including many "vehement ladies") claimed that Jensen's Westmoreland brickyard had fouled the neighborhood with dust and thick smoke. In the winter the excavation pit was filled with water, which stank and was a health hazard.
Most revealingly, residents claimed that Jensen had lied to them when he first bought the new Western lot, telling all who would listen that he was building a nursery on the site. Jensen defended himself at the hearing, attempting to appease the board by resolving to use oil fires, which he claimed would cause less smoke. But he let his real feelings show through the words of his attorney JW Mckinly -- If the yard was a nuisance then the property owners "had their remedy in the courts."
Jensen opened the new brickyard for business.
However, the fight continued on, when an ordinance was proposed to the Legislative Committee of the town council for the greater regulation of brickyards. The ordinance push was clearly inspired by Jensen's deeds, with numerous witnesses (more ladies engaged in "unmerciful tongue lashing") again accusing Jensen of "misrepresentation and underhanded work." A teacher at the Harvard School claimed that doors and windows often had to be closed because of the pollution from the brickyard. In the end there was a compromise. Jensen was issued a permit to continue operating the brickyard on Western for a five month period.
"FOR SALE HOUSES AND LOTS IN WESTMORELAND PARK TRACT: The finest in this city in lots, bungalows, and 2-story houses. Investigate take Helliotrope drive car, get off at Heliotrope Drive and Melrose. I can please you, for I have the goods. HENRY C JENSEN Phone West 663." - Advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, 1912
Henry C. Jensen was not going to let a few angry housewives and (to quote his lawyer in the brickyard fight) "fellows with sweaters and thick stockings" keep him from growing his brand. By 1902 he had bought up over 16-acres of the Westmoreland Park Tract (now Harvard Heights), in the area surrounding the intersection of Vermont and Washington Boulevard, near the Rosedale cemetery. He subdivided the land into 70 by 150 feet lots, improved the roads, and planted shady trees. Elegantly situated near downtown, the finely constructed homes and empty lots were quickly sold to the very middle and upper class Angelenos who had recently protested against him. A home he built in 1904 was typical of his surprisingly refined style: two stories, nine rooms, with a basement and attic, balcony and porch.
Jensen continued to develop the increasingly fashionable areas outside downtown throughout the 1900s. In 1912 he began to turn from the private to the public sphere, again capitalizing on a new boom -- the burgeoning motion picture industry. For the Globe Theater Company he built a $35,000 domed movie palace at 1624 Sunset Boulevard. In 1914 he gave Glendale its first movie theater, the ornate Palace Grand at 131 Brand Boulevard. This time he retained ownership and management, and in 1921 converted the building into a multi-use arcade, featuring a plethora of stores, a café and a bowling alley.
Jensen had come a long way from the toxic dust of the brickyard. His muscle in town may have been flexed when in 1915, his 23 year old son Walter struck and killed a Mexican laborer named Leon Ramon in the early morning hours while driving down Sixth and Spring Street. After being detained by police and suspected of recklessness, Walter, whose father was described as a "wealthy real estate operator," was cleared of all charges and released. He would prove to be his father's right hand man in the busy building years that followed.
Jensen's buildings were distinctive for their graceful pressed brick exteriors, blue and white terra cotta accents, beaux arts molding, and intricate tile work. Jensen's Raymond Theater, at 129 North Raymond Avenue, opened in Pasadena in 1921, followed by Jensen's Melrose Theater, on 4315 Melrose Avenue, in 1924. The theaters were built on Jensen-owned land by Jensen and Sons with Jensen brick, and managed by said sons Walter and Robert. Needless to say, it was a clannish affair.
1924 also found the clan constructing its most famous project -- the Jensen Recreation Center. Designed by architect E.B. Meinardus in the "old English" style, and costing $200,000, the multi-use building boasted 46 apartments, a fad-appropriate Egyptian themed recreation hall, a bowling alley, and billiard and beauty rooms.
But just how was this massive success achieved? Ingenuity, tenacity and great skill, no doubt -- but two incidents in 1926 again cast a pall over Jensen's character, or at the very least the quality of his public dealings. In February a suspicious fire was set in a store owned by Jensen at 4359 Melrose Avenue. The walls and floors had been doused with gasoline, and the store was saved when a janitor discovered and extinguished the blaze. Detectives subsequently found a 2-gallon gasoline container in the back of the store, but the arson attempt appears to have remained unsolved.
Only two months later an old man attempted to climb into the home of Mrs. Lucille Woodward at 410 South Bernardo Street. She was woken while he fumbled with her bedroom window, and her screams brought neighbors who quickly apprehended the intruder. There was general shock when the attempted burglar was revealed to be respected real estate man William Kunkel. During his interrogation at the Wilshire Jail, Kunkel blamed Henry Jensen for ruining him in business, forcing him to attempt robbery to pay for care of his sick wife. When reached for comment, Jensen stated that Kunkel was obviously delusional. Kunkel had failed to make payments for a series of storefronts he rented from Jensen. So Jensen had simply sued him for non-payment, sailed to Europe, and won In absentia while he was on vacation.
It could be seen as a testament to Jensen's character, or perhaps his power, that these strange incidents did not seem to damage his community standing. The late '20s and early '30s found Jensen settling into his role as a business leader and elder statesmen. Diversifying into banking and oil, backing republican candidate Douglas E. Foster for city council, and partnering with a tractor company, Jensen certainly lived up to the L.A. Times 1928 description of him as a "capitalist and theater owner." He also continued building. In 1933 he requested a permit to construct a food market at 2093 Washington Boulevard.
But the ghost of Leon Ramon now came to exact his revenge on the Jensen family. In 1936 while on vacation with his parents and his wife, Walter went fishing for swordfish 20 feet off the coast of Catalina Island. The sea was rough and Walter slipped and fell into the churning sea. Captain George Gibson and his assistant attempted to pull Walter aboard, but his great weight made this difficult. He was unconscious by the time he was retrieved from the water. Three hours later, after an inhalator failed to revive him, Walter was pronounced dead.
After Walter's death, it seems his father retreated from life. There is no other mention of Henry C. Jensen in the L.A. Times until his own death eight years later, and no new projects announced or buildings leased. Jensen was buried next to his son with full Masonic rights in the Rosedale Cemetery, surrounded by the houses he had constructed forty years before.
Jensen and his sons have settled into dust, but many of their buildings still stand, no doubt in part to their superior construction.
Although the Palace Grand was demolished in 1984, the Melrose Theater is now a Ukrainian Cultural Center, which occasionally hosts musical events.
The Raymond in Pasadena, after serving as a popular concert hall in the 1980s, has now been converted into retail space and residential lofts.
The aforementioned Jensen Recreation Center has become a hub of cultural activity, with the bowling areas converted into creative offices and studios, and its retail storefronts occupied by a vegan restaurant and a fashion boutique, among others.
The Harvard Heights/West Adams neighborhood in East Los Angles foundered for several decades, with many of the homes quartered into apartments and falling into disrepair. But in recent years preservation efforts have stepped up.
And though weathered on the outside, the interior of the Jensen family home at 1728 Westmoreland Boulevard is said to feature tiled floors, a hand-painted mural, a basement with a built in tapestry, and gold leaf crown molding like those in a grand theater.
And all this where a brickyard once smoked and smoldered.