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50 Years Ago: $50-Million California Market Center Announced

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, September 14, 2011, at 08:09AM
California Mart (California Market Center) Plans Victor Gruen Associates / USC Digital Archives [digitallibrary.usc.edu]

Rendering of the California Mart project by Victor Gruen Associates. Three million square feet of buildings were eventually built, though not the 20-story hotel first planned.

Fifty years ago today, a pair of underwear manufacturers announced their $50-million plan to reshape Los Angeles' fashion industry. Speaking to a breakfast at the Statler Hilton, Harvey and Barney Morse shared their intent to build the California Mart, the massive structure that today anchors Downtown's Fashion District.

The Morses, proprietors of California Lingerie, Inc, envisioned building two office towers, a 16-story hotel, a bank building and an exhibition hall on the four-acre block bounded by 9th, Main, Olympic and Los Angeles. They had acquired the site years earlier, sort of by accident: the pair were reportedly negotiating a new lease for their own company when they found the whole block was on the market. They made the deal within a week.

Ground was broken just under one year after the announcement. At the kickoff ceremony, Governor Pat Brown called the ambitious structure "an expression of faith—in California, in Los Angeles and in the economy of the West."

The first 13-story tower opened at the end of 1963. By the end of 1964, the brothers were moving forward with plans to build it a twin, moving forward on a $20-million addition that opened in June of 1966. J.C. Penney leased the addition's entire eighth floor, taking 135,000 square feet for its local buying office.

A third tower opened in 1974, and the glass tower on the south edge of the site opened in 1979.

The Morse family, mostly notably Barney's son Sidney, would continue to run the complex until 1994, when a softening economy forced them to a default on the complex's $265-million mortgage. Equitable Life Assurance Society took over ownership of the fashion center.

The complex, now known as the California Market Center, continues to carry on in the work the Morses started. In the upcoming weeks it will host the L.A. Majors Market on October 3 - 5 and the Spring 2012 L.A. Fashion Market from October 17 - 20.

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