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When Buildings Crawled Across Los Angeles

Buildings once wandered the streets of Los Angeles.

Today, we perceive buildings as stationary objects -- heavy things of wood, steel, and concrete, tethered to the ground by pipes and telecommunications lines. But in the boomtown that was late-19th-century Los Angeles, buildings migrated across the city with some regularity.

Most were houses, displaced by the relentless march of the central business district south from Temple Square into the city's residential areas. As commercial structures invaded these once-suburban blocks, real estate values surged, prompting homeowners to sell their lots and relocate. Many took their houses with them (why waste a good house only to build a new one?), hiring contractors who raised the structures from their foundations with screw jacks and then hauled them across town by horse or ox.

By the end of the century, these wandering houses had become a public nuisance. The contractors who specialized in moving buildings often left them standing in the middle of streets, blocking traffic, while they completed another job. These house-movers, who worked in large teams, also routinely cut utility lines to clear the way for taller structures. When workers with the electric or telegraph companies arrived to protest, they encountered an army of men clutching crowbars and pickaxes.

One house's journey nearly resulted in disaster in East Los Angeles. In 1893, a train from Pasadena was rounding a curve at full speed, the Times reported, "when the engineer discovered to his horror a house standing directly upon the track." The train's engineer was quick and its brakes true, but such incidents convinced the city council to regulate the house-moving industry in 1898.

The council may have also recalled the greatest house-moving spectacle in the city's history, which was also the industry's greatest embarrassment: the 1886 journey of the Central School house.

L.A.'s bustling house-moving business directly depended on the rapid expansion of the city's central business district. Cartoon from the Los Angeles Herald, Volume 44, Number 117, 6 August 1895. Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
L.A.'s bustling house-moving business directly depended on the rapid expansion of the city's  central business district. Cartoon from the Los Angeles Herald, Volume 44, Number 117, 6  August 1895. Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

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The schoolhouse was a prominent landmark from 1872 to 1886, its clocktower visible from nearly every corner of the city. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
The schoolhouse was a prominent landmark from 1872 to 1886, its clocktower visible  from nearly every corner of the city. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Designed by architect Ezra Kysor in the then-popular Italianate style, and built from California redwood lumber, the two-story schoolhouse dominated the horizon from its perch on Poundcake Hill. "That was a happy thought, our school to build / Above the vulgar plane of sordid streets," wrote poet James J. Ayres upon the building's dedication in 1872. The following year it welcomed the city's first public high school classes (the curriculum: Latin, English, rhetoric, mathematics, and mental philosophy), and for many years it served as L.A.'s most prominent landmark, its clocktower visible from nearly every corner of the city.

But by 1886 the county was eyeing the hilltop site for its new courthouse. Los Angeles High School had outgrown the schoolhouse anyway, so the city board of education sold the land to the county and advertised in the Herald for a contractor who could transport the structure to its new home, several blocks away on Fort Moore Hill.

It wasn't a simple request. Larger than most transient buildings, the schoolhouse was too wide to pass through a standard 60-foot street. The terrain further complicated matters, as both the origin and destination stood high above the grade of Temple Street and its cable car railway.

Contractor L. O. Merrill claimed he could accomplish the task, however. He would hoist the schoolhouse onto stilts and -- using rollers, draft animals, and human labor -- walk it across Temple and over the complicated terrain. In early July of 1886 the board of education hired Merrill, and on July 21 the schoolhouse began its crawl across the city. Progress was slow, but by mid-August the building had cleared its old Poundcake Hill site so that it stood directly over Temple Street.

And then Merrill decided the task was impossible after all. For several weeks, as Merrill and his workers pondered a solution, the schoolhouse creaked above Temple Street, a small gap in its wooden legs allowing cable cars and wagons to pass through. The board of education hired another contractor, M. M. Kenyon, to assist, and the schoolhouse soon completed its transit of Temple Street. The remaining journey was not without incident -- on October 19 a falling timber smashed Merrill's leg -- but the old high school building, repurposed as a schoolhouse for younger children, reopened on January 31 on its new Sand Street site.

There it stood for decades, until in 1949 it found itself directly in the path of the 101 freeway, whose plans called for an artificial canyon through Fort Moore Hill. Preservation-minded Angelenos insisted that the old schoolhouse had one more journey left in it. But its wandering days were over. The house-movers never came, and in October of 1949 a demolition crew picked apart its redwood frame.

Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.,
In 1886, house-moving contractors hoisted the Los Angeles Central School building on stilts and moved it across the city. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
In 1886, house-moving contractors hoisted the Los Angeles Central School building on  stilts and moved it across the city.  Courtesy of the USC Libraries -California Historical Society Collection.
Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
When the 101 freeway's so-called Downtown Slot cut through Fort Moore Hill in 1949, the old schoolhouse (labeled here as 2) stood directly in the way. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
When the 101 freeway's so-called Downtown Slot cut through Fort Moore Hill in 1949, the old schoolhouse (labeled here as 2) stood directly in the way.  Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The old Central School building shortly before its demolition in 1949. Photo by L. Mildred Harris, courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The old Central School building shortly before its demolition in 1949. Photo by L. Mildred Harris, courtesy of the Photo Collection -  Los Angeles Public Library., 

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