Once the site of the two-story Foy House and later the original Vons grocery store, the intersection of Figueroa and Seventh streets will soon host the tallest building on the West Coast. When the new Wilshire Grand Tower rises its planned 1,100 feet above the corner, it will continue a long tradition of eye-catching structures and lauded real estate developments at the downtown Los Angeles intersection -- a crossroads whose historical evolution tracks important changes within the city.
The intersection was born in the 1850s as lines on a surveyor's map.
It was absent from one of the city's earliest maps, drawn by surveyor E. O. Ord in 1849. Ord had dragged his chains through the open countryside to the south and west of the city's historic center, sketching out a street grid that included Seventh Street and the street that would eventually become Figueroa -- Calle de las Chapules, or Grasshopper Street. But on the map he eventually submitted, Los Angeles City Map No. 1, Ord chose not to connect the two streets, indicating instead that the base of a hill occupied the point where they would intersect.
By the time Henry Hancock surveyed the city lands in 1857, he had connected the two streets, presumably deciding that the terrain was not too hilly for private interests to develop. But while Hancock's map suggests an actual intersection of Grasshopper (Figueroa) and Seventh, the streets existed only on paper. In reality, the location was still open countryside, the streets unimproved and indistinguishable from the empty lots they bordered. Few structures then existed south of Third or west of Hill.
The expanding city finally reached the intersection in the early 1870s. With road improvements, the surveyor's lines became actual streets, and a fashionable residential neighborhood took root in the area. Perhaps in deference to homeowners' sensitivities, the city renamed Grasshopper Street to Pearl Street on February 26, 1874. (It became Figueroa in 1896.)
In 1873, a successful saddler named Samuel C. Foy built a handsome, two-story house on the intersection's northwest corner. For many years, the Italianate Victorian house was home to Foy's daughter Mary, who in 1880 became the first woman to serve as Los Angeles' city librarian. Foy sought and received the post as a precocious eighteen-year-old recent graduate of Los Angeles High School. She served for for years before returning to the high school as a teacher and then principal. Mary Foy later became a passionate activist for women's suffrage and a leading figure within local Democratic politics, representing California on the Democratic National Committee.
From its perch on the foot of Bunker Hill, the Foy residence kept watch over the corner until 1920, when it was moved to Wilshire Boulevard. It was later moved twice more and today sits at 1325 Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights.
In the early 1900s, another pioneering Angeleno took up residence on the corner opposite the Foy house. In 1906, Charles Von der Ahe opened his first Vons Groceteria at the southeast corner of Figueroa and Seventh, later growing the enterprise into a chain of 87 stores.
In those days, Figueroa and Seventh was still a rustic crossroads. Later, new construction and the city's growth transformed Figueroa and Seventh into a decidedly urban intersection. Angelenos had adopted the motorcar--originally a fanciful toy for the rich -- and Figueroa Street became Los Angeles' automobile row.
For a while, Figueroa and Seventh gained notoriety as a dangerous intersection, as cars would speed down steep slopes (since regraded) on both streets: Figueroa to the north and Seventh to the west. The city managed to calm traffic through the intersection in 1912 by placing some of its first motorcycle patrol officers there.
By the 1920s, dealers representing more than a dozen auto manufacturers lined the road, and on northwest corner of the Figueroa and Seventh an enormous building designed specifically for the automobile replaced the Foy house.
At three stories and filling an entire city block, the Harold L. Arnold Building functioned as an auto showroom, service garage, stockroom, and office building, all in one. Motorists entered the indoor service garage through a portal on Figueroa, while a ramp through the building's third floor provided access from Orange Street (later renamed Wilshire Boulevard) to a rooftop parking lot.
The building had become home to Paul G. Hoffman's Studebaker dealership by 1946, when Hotels Statler Inc. chose it as the site of their first West Coast hotel. News of the hotel chain's $25 million plans was widely cheered; Governor Earl Warren participated in the 1950 groundbreaking, working the controls of a diesel-powered shovel.
When it opened in 1952, the 15-story Statler was the downtown area's premier hotel. In the succeeding years it went through several ownership and name changes. In 1962 it became a Hilton, in 1994 an Omni, and in 1998 the hotel adopted its final name, the Wilshire Grand. Demolition is now underway to clear the site for the 73-story tower that, counting its spire, will be the tallest building on the West Coast.
On the southwest corner, a branch of the Hellman Commercial Trust and Savings Bank opened in 1920. The site of that building -- later home to a fur shop -- was in 1988 transformed into the Citicorp Plaza. The mega-development includes a 53-story office tower and an adjacent shopping center, now anchored by a City Target and recently renovated and rebranded as FIGat7th.
Across Figueroa, in 1926, the Barker Bros. furniture retailers moved into their new, $3.5 million building on the southeast corner, where Charles Von der Ahe had opened the original Vons. The 12-story historic Renaissance Revival building still stands today, hosting retail on its first floor and offices above.
The northeast corner has been home to a succession of buildings. First was the Hotel Hinman, which was later converted to apartments. A coffee shop followed, and in the late 1980s Home Savings of America erected a 24-story tower with French Chateauesque accents there. Today, the corner pulsates with activity, as commuters stream into and out of the 7th St/Metro Center station.