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Have a Happy Hundred: Higgins Building Hits the Century Mark

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, September 22, 2010, at 01:17PM
Higgins Building Eric Richardson

On Sunday, residents of the Higgins Building at 2nd and Main will join with the Downtown community to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the one-time commercial structure that they today call home.

The list of structures celebrating the century mark this year is an impressive one, also featuring three Broadway theatres, a hotel and several office and retail buildings.

That makes sense, since the early twentieth century was a period of intense growth for Los Angeles. Population went from 50,395 in 1890 to 102,479 in 1900, and then tripled to 319,198 by 1910.

Plans for the Higgins grew as well. Thomas Higgins bought the corner land in 1903 for $200,000 and in June of 1909 broke ground on what was to be an eight-story building with 14 ground floor storerooms and 281 offices. In January of 1910, Higgins decided to instead make the structure two stories taller, stiffening the walls and adding 68 more offices.

The Higgins was part of a building boom that was accelerated by the growth of new construction materials. Fire codes were changed in 1905 to allow the construction of Los Angeles’ first reinforced concrete building, the Laughlin Building Annex that today houses Grand Central Market. The technique offered better fireproofing and the use of local materials instead of steel beams that needed to be imported from the east coast.

Still, city officials were wary and limited the structures to a lower height than those built out of steel. That upset architects like A. L. Haley, who designed the Higgins. “I have nothing to say against steel, but I object to the senseless discrimination against concrete,” he told the L.A. Times in April of 1910. “The builder in steel pays a tribute to the steel trust and neglects a home product.”

City Council relented, but only partially. The height limit for a reinforced concrete building was raised from 120 feet to 133 feet to allow the Higgins to be built to ten stories instead of eight, but that was still 17 feet shorter than similar steel structures were allowed to rise.

By the time the Higgins broke ground, other nearby structures built using reinforced concrete included the 1906 Hotel Hayward at 6th and Spring, a 1908 annex to the Hamburger department store at 8th and Hill and two under-construction projects: the Baltimore Hotel at 5th and Los Angeles and the Consolidated Realty building at 6th and Hill.

Over the course of its 100 years, the Higgins’ fate has mirrored that of much of the Historic Core.

The building opened its doors in the fall of 1910, attracting a mix of prominent businessmen in for offices. General Petroleum was an early tenant, and in 1934 the company rented six floors. When it left in 1949, the County of Los Angeles bought the structure and moved its Bureau of Engineering inside.

When the county moved out in 1977, the building went dark. In June of 1977 it was sold at auction for $275,100. The doors were eventually welded shut after vandals and transients continued to break the locks.

In 1998, the building’s fortunes turned when it was bought by Andrew Meieran. He and partner Marc Smith would go on to open the famed Edison Bar in the building’s once-flooded basement, while developer Barry Shy would convert the upstairs offices into loft condominiums.

The building began its new life as a residential property in 2003. That process had its own share of bumps in the road, as a 2005 conversion from rental to sale led to numerous lawsuits against the developer.

Through it all, the building has survived. That’s a characteristic that Higgins residents connect with, says Joan Springhetti, one of those planning Sunday’s celebration. “I think there’s something about the staying power of it,” she explains. “It’s been through so much as a building.”

The invitation for the building’s birthday celebration invites neighbors to bring “a blanket and something to share” to the lawn located across 2nd from the building on the site of the new Police Administration Building. A cookout with croquet, badmitton and birthday cake will run on Sunday from 2-6pm.

RSVPs and questions can go to higginscentennial@gmail.com.

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