The Gaylord Apartments: Luxury, Socialism, and L.A.'s First Failed Co-op | KCET
The Gaylord Apartments: Luxury, Socialism, and L.A.'s First Failed Co-op
The sixteen miles of Wilshire Boulevard that stretch from downtown to the sea runs through the arteries of a series of highly diverse and incongruent neighborhoods. It is a fitting testament to the man for whom the street is named. Henry Gaylord Wilshire, known as Gaylord to his friends, was a man of many hats. He was a son of wealth, an ardent progressive socialist, a perpetually failed political candidate, a radical publisher, a visionary real estate man, a charming dandy who enjoyed ladies and golf, gold miner, the inventor of an electrical "health belt," and a continual thorn in the side of the status-quo establishment in whose circles he brashly and gleefully traveled.
The socialist in a tuxedo
Gaylord was born in Cincinnati in 1861. His father was a successful self-made capitalist in the strictest sense, in bed with many of the large trusts of the day, including Standard Oil. He sent Gaylord to Harvard, but the contrary young man only lasted one year. He became interested in socialism after reading "Progress and Poverty" by Henry George, and quickly became active in socialist circles. Along with his brother William he moved to San Francisco, where he acquired business success and a six-inch scar on his jaw after saving a horse-bound girlfriend from a wildcat.
In 1884 Gaylord, now sporting what was to be his signature scar-covering Van Dyck beard, moved to the small city of Los Angeles. He and his brother bought land in the Los Angeles and Long Beach areas and invested in the city of Fullerton. But progressive politics interested him more than boring land deals. In 1889 he married a Welsh anarchist named Hannah, started a weekly socialist paper, and made his first unsuccessful bid for public office as a congressional candidate for the Socialist Labor Party. After his loss and several business setbacks he left Los Angeles, and followed Hannah to London.
After an unsuccessful stab at a seat in the British parliament and a split with the still radical Hannah, a more moderate Gaylord returned to now-booming Los Angeles in 1895. For $40,000 he bought a wedge-shaped barley field west of downtown, which smelled of oil from nearby derricks. He submitted a plan for a stately subdivision with a road he called "Wilshire Boulevard" running down the middle. Elegant mansions soon sprang up all along the newly christened street, so perfectly situated near downtown and Westlake (now MacArthur) Park. Gaylord capitalized on this success by placing a series of garish billboards all along the trolley line running parallel to Wilshire, incensing local conservatives including L.A. Times publisher and megalomaniac, "American" Harrison Grey Otis. But Otis couldn't resist the lure of a good address, and bought land from Wilshire on which he built his famous Bivouac estate.
Gaylord lost interest in the subdivision and moved on to his true love: sh*t stirring. He became involved in a "feud" with William Jennings Bryan after the progressive titan failed to accept his invitation to debate. He named his newly re-launched socialist magazine, "The Challenge," in honor of this one-sided fight. He ran again for office and was arrested after protesting a speaker's ban in public parks. In 1904 he married his second wife, Mary, who was L.A.'s first psychoanalyst. Although his magazine printed many influential pieces, including excerpts of Sinclair Lewis' "The Jungle," its democratizing cheap price meant it lost money and Gaylord was soon in need of cash. He invested in gold mines and other pie in the sky ventures, and made his last fortune off of an "electromagnetic belt" called the "I-on-a-co," which he claimed cured many ailments, including his chronic headaches. He died in New York in 1927, his fortune in ruins.
"I classify all men into two great classes -- fools and socialists," he once declared.1 It seems that Henry Gaylord Wilshire, one of the first limousine liberals, was a little bit of both.
Jumping the skyline
In the 1920s, while the elderly Gaylord hawked his invention in mail-order catalogues, no part of Los Angeles was hipper than the namesake street he had long lost interest in. A thriving city center grew rapidly just west of the stately residential mansions surrounding Westlake Park. In 1921, the enormously ambitious and grand Ambassador Hotel opened its doors at 3400 Wilshire and soon became the center of both Hollywood and old-money society. In 1923 J.B. Lilly and Paul Fletcher, who had been building in Los Angeles since 1911, bought land on the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue directly across from the Ambassador. They hired the firm of Walker and Eisen to design a thirteen-story, early renaissance-inspired apartment building, and construction began in January of 1923.
The building was named after Gaylord, and its character mimicked the contradictory forefather in more ways than one. The building was to be one of L.A.'s first co-ops, with its 163 apartments sold to individual owners. Though already a long standing tradition on the east coast, co-ops, or "own-your-owns" as they were pithily called, were new to the West Coast, and the Gaylord's business manager G.W. Cowan put on the hard sell:
Cowan explained that co-op owners would be able to elect their own board of governors, dictate the direction and future of the building, and create a vibrant, democratic community. Men like J.H. Butchart began to pay a mortgage on a $14,250 apartment, assured they were making a smart and progressive investment. And what an investment it was! At the grand opening on April 29, 1924, over 2,000 gawkers attended a reception to inspect the sumptuous apartment house, which boasted marble floors, mahogany finishes, custom tapestries and furnishings, views of the sea and the Ambassador gardens, and one of most beautiful lobbies in Los Angeles. Every apartment had a garbage chute, and the basement contained a steam plant, laundry, incinerator, and servants' quarters. A large commissary, barber shop, ballroom, and retail space added to the cosmopolitan, all-in-one feel, much like the sprawling Ambassador across the street.
Wealthy residents quickly moved in and a community of culture was nudged into existence. In October, a ceremony and dance were held in the lobby to mark the lighting of the highest fireplace in Los Angeles, with a flue of 160 feet. The Gaylord offered weekly classical music programs performed by the popular, all-female "Gaylord Trio," who, along with a dramatic reader, also performed on local radio stations on hours sponsored by The Gaylord. Notables, like the movie star Constance Talmadge, distinguished elderly folks, and seasonable Easterners, moved in. There seem to have been more than a handful of reverends and deacons who made their home there -- they must have been appalled when John A. Whelan, proprietor of the commissary, was charged with selling liquor to patrons.
But the owners may have miscalculated what kind of city L.A. was. Respected builder J.B. Lilly lived at the Gaylord, toasting his Harvard-grad daughter, Ruth, and her new blue-blood husband at a family reception in the ballroom. But many folks frequenting this part of Wilshire (now even hipper with the opening of the Brown Derby Restaurant in 1926 and Bullocks Wislhire in 1929), like the arrested-for-forgery Dr. Liebman, who had run from his society wife in Atlanta, were looking for a good time, not a long time. Co-op members, including J.H. Butchart and E.A. Fennell, began to sue the owners of the building, claiming that only 20 of the 163 apartments had been sold, while the rest were rented out. These suits, along with struggling sales and frequent (and shady) changes in ownership, eventually forced the Gaylord into receivership. In 1930, the Co-op was dissolved and the building became a traditional long and short term rental apartment property.
But the change in ownership, the Depression, and even the stick up of the front desk clerk by a "particularly good looking" lady2 and her two male accomplices, took little luster off the Gaylord's address. For the next couple of decades, it continued to be an upscale apartment house in one of the most happening neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Art exhibits, musical recitals, bridges, Republican fundraisers, and war relief teas were held, and the high-toned and famous slipped from the madness of the Ambassador's famed Coconut Grove nightclub across the street into The Gay Room, which opened on the ground floor in 1948. In 1962, the space reopened as the HMS Bounty, the nautically themed, dark and cozy dive bar that thrives to this day.
As went the fortunes of the Ambassador, so went the fortunes of the neighborhood. With the assassination of Bobby Kennedy there in 1968, and the shifting of the elite westward, the Gaylord became just another apartment building in just another crime-ridden part of Los Angeles. An influx of Latino and Korean immigrants in the '70s and '80s brought a new, frenetic vibe to the area, and revived it commercially and culturally. In 2006, when the long defunct Ambassador was torn down to make way for the Robert Kennedy Community School, a star-studded wake was held at the still bustling Gaylord and HMS Bounty. The pupil had outlived the master.
The Gaylord today enjoys a second life as a faded relic on Wilshire Boulevard in bustling, democratic, and messy Koreatown. A single apartment goes for around $1200 a month, and though the furniture is threadbare and utilitarian, the architecture and outdoor areas (including the pool) are still divine. In a way, the multi-cultural middle and working class population who now lives at the Gaylord represents more of the socialist ideal than Henry Gaylord Wilshire could have ever truly imagined.
1"The Boulevard of Token Dreams," Los Angeles Times, March 26, 1981
2Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1930.