A Monument to the Earthquake That Made Los Angeles

The PacMutual Insurance building (at 6th and Olive) has been sold to a new team of real estate developers for an undisclosed price (probably about $60 million). They plan to turn the complex of three connected towers into a "marquee lifestyle commercial office space for Class A local, regional and national tenants."

I don't pretend to understand the developer babble of a "marquee lifestyle commercial" building, but the new owners seem nonetheless to have the right focus. (They are Nelson and Christopher Rising, former executives of MGP Office Trust, the city's biggest commercial landlord.)

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The new owners see their turn-of-the-century building as both an architectural landmark and a good fit for tenants who aren't looking for generic office space. They expect to remove at least some of the 1980s drywall, dropped ceilings, and carpeting to reveal the building's brick walls, 14-foot ceilings, and concrete floors. Helpfully, the Los Angeles Conservancy is one of the building's current tenants.

Designed by John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom, the original, six-story tower of the Pacific Mutual Insurance building opened in 1908 with a heroic sculptural group, designed by Joseph Jacinto Mora, over the entrance.

The artist and the architects are themselves part of Los Angeles history. As a partnership (and later with their own architectural offices), Parkinson and Bergstrom designed many of the iconic buildings of early 20th century Los Angeles. Mora, though less well known today, was an artist, illustrator, and sculptor whose work often celebrated the West and its meld of cultures. In addition to his commission for the Pacific Mutual building, Mora also completed projects for the Herald-Examiner building and the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

Don't Miss This: Jo Mora's Humorously Detailed L.A. History Map from 1942

But there's even more history embedded in the PacMutual building -- the story of a tectonic shift in the state's center of economic power and one of the reasons why downtown Los Angeles is crowded today with 100-year-old office towers that have become the perches of loft dwellers.

The Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company made Los Angeles their headquarters following the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The company's original building had been dynamited into rubble as a firebreak (hopeless, it turned out) to stop the city from burning. From those ruins, 20th century Los Angeles rose.

When the Pacific Mutual Insurance building opened in 1908, San Francisco lost one of its pioneering businesses, one of many that fled south after 1906. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Los Angeles was already the state's largest business hub. By 1924, Los Angeles was the commercial and industrial capitol of California. And for the rest of the century, Los Angeles would beat its old rival in population, volume of business transactions, and economic growth.

The renovated PacMutual Building is a monument of Los Angeles architecture, but even more, it's a monument to the catastrophic moment when earthquake and fire determined the future of two cities.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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