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St. Vincent Court's Strange Past and Unsure Future

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Long after the streetcars stopped running along Seventh Street and the department stores lost their luster in the core of downtown, but years before this stretch just west of Broadway became host to a freshly buzzing restaurant and bar scene, a discrete and distinctive pocket of the city evolved at its own pace.

Driving along Seventh Street between Hill and Broadway, the break between the solid building frontage on the north side of the street is easy to miss. But as a pedestrian, it's impossible to pass St. Vincent Court without popping in through the breezeway. In its current incarnation, a look around St. Vincent Court might very well have turned into sitting down for a serious meal, most likely one involving hearty portions of grilled meats, gyros, and traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern appetizers. Kebab spits had become the main attraction on what was the site of the first college in L.A.

The outdoor seating that's a major part of the alleyway's atmosphere and character, however, violates city code. And because of ongoing disputes with its neighbor, the iconic Los Angeles Theatre, the city cracked down on illegal al fresco dining when the theater's owners filed a complaint claiming that the tables and chairs block access to the venue. While this feature of St. Vincent is relatively new vis-à-vis the alleyway's overall history, it's largely to thank for the courtyard's new lease on life. But once again the future of St. Vincent is in flux.

Image by Flickr user Doc_Brown
Image by Flickr user Doc_Brown

Merchant and banker (and USC co-founder) O.W. Childs donated a portion of the land that he had received from the City of Los Angeles in exchange for his extending the irrigation ditch to St. Vincent's College. On a parcel between Broadway and Olive, and Sixth and Eighth Streets, the first post-high school educational institution in Los Angeles began construction on its first building in 1867, where it remained until moving further south during the real estate boom of the 1880s. (After a series of mergers, St. Vincent's eventually became Loyola Marymount University in Westchester.)

Then came Arthur Letts, who founded the Broadway department store in 1898. When Letts opened the first Bullocks location at the northwest corner of Seventh and Broadway in March 1907, it was a bold retail gesture in an increasingly confident city. Letts had picked up a location held by Express newspaper publisher and land owner Edwin T. Earl; streetcars rumbled by constantly on both Broadway and Seventh, foot (and horse) traffic was heavy, but other aspiring retailers had given up. Here Letts trusted and financed John G. Bullock, a longtime Broadway employee, to spearhead an unprecedented upscale retail effort that would catalyze development in the area.

St. Vincent Place, dedicated in 1907, proved to be a convenient space for shuffling goods throughout the growing retail behemoth. Bridge of Sighs-like walkways were also constructed in the airspace above.

Image courtesy USC Digital Library
Image courtesy USC Digital Library

But the biggest identity shift came in 1957, when plans were put in place to spruce up the utilitarian alley with a quaint (or in retrospect, corny) paintings, plants, and awnings. New businesses were brought in, with Bullocks maintaining managerial oversight. St. Vincent Place was renamed St. Vincent Court, which is now California State Landmark #567.

The renovation that had been announced in 1956 followed shortly thereafter. New businesses moving into the court included Broadway Flowers, which had other locations around the city and in downtown. Ambrose Pasquini set up the neighborhood's first espresso bar when Bulloc's invited him in the early 1960s to join the social and retail scene, which was an odd combination of genuine urban grit paired with classic Hollywood style set building and illusion.

Ambrose Pasquini's son, Guy, recalls a newsstand and bookstore among the Pasquini's Espresso Bar's few neighbors. (The espresso machine distribution and repair company's headquarters are located just west of downtown on Olympic in Pico-Union.) Pasquini's bar remained until Bullocks closed. Additional modifications followed. Tony Reveles, an Irish-Mexican-American artist from Los Angeles who had assisted David Alfaro Siqueiros when the famed muralist came to Los Angeles, added another mural in 1974. (Ambrose Pasquini claims this was a result of his urging management to upgrade the place a little.)

This plan sounds deeply familiar in the context of Los Angeles. Build out a retro, quasi-European style kitschy streetscape tucked within the cavity of a dense downtown building cluster, and they will come. Call it a very rudimentary, quaint version of Rick Caruso's retail template on a much smaller, more modest scale.

Downtown changed dramatically as the city's sprawl increased and the streetcar system met its final demise. Businesses came and went. By the 1980s St. Vincent Court struggled to hold onto its charm. The LA Times noted the "regulars speaking Italian hanging out and there's a trompe l'oeil painting of Italian apartment buildings across the alley. The espresso and cappuccino are about the best in town" at Pasquini's Espresso Bar. Malcolm Boyd noted in May 1982, "The alleyway here, with its painted doorways and windows that suggest a facsimile of counterparts in Venice or Florence, is one of the most romantic spots in the city." Boyd didn't miss a chance for a cappuccino (price tag: $1).

The original Bullocks shuttering in 1983 meant an abrupt transition from one chapter to another in the block's history. Los Angeles United Investment Company spearheaded the adaptive reuse of a portion of the original Bullocks structures to create St. Vincent's Jewelry Center. In December of that year, the complex became the main seat of the area's wholesale and retail jewelry transactions. As the professional demographics gradually shifted, restaurant tenants showed up, eager to cater to a new largely Middle Eastern clientele.

New business owners in the court continue bring their own visions of the place. Kacin Celik, chef and owner of the Tulip Café, has his own distinct history in downtown L.A. A native of Turkey, Celik owned an Orange Julius outpost on West Seventh Street. When he opened up shop in the court a few years ago, Celik proposed adding more false fronts on the alley building façades.

Celik serves everything from a vegan Mediterranean sampler to Iskender kebab to chicken and beef kofte towards the north end of the alley near where the alley terminates at the contested south elevation of the Los Angeles Theatre. "If I made a difference, that's good," Celik says. "I'm happy."

These days in particular, however, Celik and other St. Vincent's tenants have fewer reasons to be upbeat, especially since the vast majority of their customers chose to eat and check out the scene outside -- indoor tables probably won't keep them in business.

Fellow St. Vincent Court neighbors include restaurants such as St. Vincent Deli, a pizza joint, the Sevan Garden kebab house, a barber shop, a French-inspired café, and a shoe shine station (now prohibited under the current crackdown). The series of ersatz façades and discreet entrances into the Jewelry Center lining the herringbone brick alleyway showcase Greek, Chinese, Italian, British, and French motifs. There's even a replica of the Statue of Liberty. It's a stunning microcosm of ersatz, egalitarian Los Angeles eclecticism where you can eat really, really well on the cheap.

If there's one constant of St. Vincent's Court history, it's this place's ability to reinvent itself, much like the institutions and city it's been a part of for over 100 years. Hopefully this flexibility and resilience will be of use as St. Vincent's and the Los Angeles Theatre are caught in regrettable battle of competing interests between two signature landmarks of downtown Los Angeles.

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