The Bradbury Building…Art & Architecture
There is a good amount of information online about the building’s architecture, but I wanted to look more closely at its history. So, I went to see my friend Alan Penwick.
Alan is a storyteller and a very knowledgeable architectural historian. He also has two Shih Tzu dogs. One named Ally [female] the other named McBeal [male] who yap and bark during our interview.
Due to various constraints, the following is a transcript of my interview with Alan.
JH: Alan, you and I have both read the same stories about the Bradbury, it’s architecture, it’s architect, Sumner P. Hunt, his draftsman, George Herbert Wyman, and the man who commissioned the building, Lewis Leonard Bradbury.
AP: Where to start…
JH: The building did not simply, uneventfully appear. Instead, there was drama from the very beginning before construction.
AP: Every building has a certain amount of drama, whether it’s from the architect, the contractors, the owner, the bank, the city, or anyone and everyone else involved.
JH: True: Well, let’s start with Bradbury. Who was he?
AP: Lewis Leonard Bradbury, was born in Bangor, Maine in 1823. He moved to San Francisco and lived North Beach after the gold rush and became a successful businessman, then after various financial loses, he moved to Sinaloa, Mexico in the early 1860s.
JH: Sinaloa is on the Baja side of Mexico. Mazatlán is in Sinaloa.
AP: Hmm. Hmm. Bradbury got very involved in the area’s “Tajo” mines
JH: Tajo means cut in Spanish, which is an appropriate name given what the mines did to the earth. Aside from gold and silver, there was Acanthite, Hematite, Quartz, and Sphalerite.
AP: Sphalerite…which is zinc.
JH: I know it’s not the same, but it makes me thing of the zinc oxide I’ve used as a sunscreen.
AP: Makes me think of the zinc tablets I took to help my sperm swim better.
JH: Hmmp…How many compounds can do both, protect you against the sun and help your wife get pregnant?
AP: Sounds like a branding opportunity.
JH: So, Bradbury created a mining empire.
AP: Yes…by the early 1870s he gained a controlling interest in the mines, adding to his wealth.
JH: He’s a millionaire.
AP: Many times, over.
JH: He returns to California while still maintaining the mines.
AP: First to Oakland, then to Los Angeles where he invests in large parcels of land in the area.
JH: His real estate speculations pay off and become another source of wealth for him.
AP: The town of Bradbury, in the San Gabriel Valley, near Duarte and Monrovia, was part of Lewis Bradbury’s real estate empire.
JH: So he has all this money, he’s living with his family near Bunker Hill, on the corner of Hill and Court Streets in downtown.
AP: Not far from where Angels Flight would be constructed, just a few years later.
JH: I’ve heard Angels Flight was initially built to cater to the wealthy on Bunker Hill to make it easier for them to get downtown.
AP: I’ve heard that too. To commemorate his wealth, Bradbury commissions the architect, Sumner Hunt, to build an office building as a monument to himself.
JH: I did a search of the city directories at the Los Angeles Public Library downtown for Bradbury. The actual printed, bound copies. Along each name, the person’s profession is listed. clerk, sales, miner, broker, that sort of thing. Bradbury listed his profession as capitalist.
AP: Ha! That’s fantastic. Why be a businessman when you can be a capitalist?
JH: I did not see listings for other capitalists. It may have been ego, but he was indeed a capitalist. What was the budget for the building?
AP: $175,000…in today’s dollars about five million, but the cost eventually reached $500,000, about 14 million today.
JH: That is a lot of capital.
AP: Construction started in 1891 and the building opened in 1884 on New Year’s Day.
JH: Bradbury died in 1892 so he never saw the completion of the building. I want to talk more about the architecture, but what happens after Bradbury’s death.
AP: As far as his businesses and money?
AP: Eventually, his son, Lewis junior manages the businesses, including the various mines in Mexico. Junior keeps a large office in the Bradbury. Ultimately though it evolved into a messy legal situation among Bradbury senior’s six children and his numerous grandchildren.
JH: …so that’s Bradbury. What about Sumner?
AP: At the time Sumner Hunt started working with Bradbury, he was an established architect in Los Angeles, although his more widely known works came later.
JH: Like the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1923, at the corner of Figueroa and Adams in downtown and buildings in Windsor Square, Pasadena, Santa Monica.
AP: And before that, Hunt, along with his partner Silas Burns, designed the Ebell Club in 1912 on Wilshire, the Southwest Museum in 1914, just north of downtown in Mt. Washington. Balch Hall in 1929 at Scripps College in Claremont, along with many other commissions.
JH: I know he also designed his own house on Severance street, very close to USC in the University Park area.
AP: Which was replaced some time ago with a large apartment building.
JH: Severance. Such an odd name for a street. Could be both good and bad I suppose.
AP: Or symbolic of his experience working with Bradbury.
JH: We’re going to talk about just what you mean by that in a minute.
AP: Hunt’s contemporaries in the later part of his career have greater name recognition; Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene and Greene in Pasadena, George Washington Smith in Santa Barbara, Irving Gill in San Diego,
JH: Even Myron Hunt, though unrelated, is better known, though he didn’t make his way from Evanston, until later, after the Bradbury opened.
AP: Although Hunt designed many buildings, his influence was less visible to the public, ironic because he was a member of the city Planning Commission and other civic committees which positively impacted the construction of public buildings in Los Angeles.
JH: How did Sumner Hunt get the commission for the Bradbury Building?
AP: As you can imagine, Los Angeles was quite small in the early 1890s. The population was about 50,000 people. Given the proximity of the Bradbury Mansion on Bunker Hill, and Hunt’s living quarters then, and the location of Hunt’s office near South Spring and West 3rd streets, and Bradbury’s presence downtown, it seems like there would have been various professional opportunities for them to meet as Hunt became more involved with civic activities.
JH: It may have also been more formal with Hunt submitting plans for potential buildings for Bradbury.
AP: Right. The two did work together before the Bradbury Building, on a warehouse Hunt built for Bradbury near Mazatlán. Eventually some of the heavy timbers from Bradbury’s mines would be used as joists in the Bradbury building.
JH: Working together on another building would have seemed natural. If it had gone well, so what happened next?
AP: Well, some years later, there’s speculation about who designed the building.
JH: Architect Sumner Hunt or a draftsman named George Wyman, who may or may not have worked in Hunt’s office.
AP: Well, for about 60 years after the completion of the building, there didn’t seem to be much question about who designed it.
JH: The architect of record was Sumner Hunt.
AP: A book called “Los Angeles of Today Architecturally,” published in 1896 three years after the Bradbury opens, lists Hunt as the architect of the building.
JH: I read that LA landscape architect and historian, John Crandell, reviewed a copy of the book at the public library downtown, and found the page with the Bradbury Building and Hunt named as the architect, missing from the book.
AP: Hmm. I love the mystery of that detail.
JH: Which is why I had to see for myself. I went to the library and it turns out, that’s the only page missing from the book. There were other Sumner designed buildings in the book, but those pages were not missing. The library has two copies, I looked at the other copy in the rare books room. That copy is complete. No missing pages. I also had to see all the other copies I could find so I went to see the Huntington Library’s copy of the book, and two copies of the book at UCLA. All complete. No missing pages.
AP: I like how you always want to be thorough even with something that may seem so incidental.
JH: I had never heard of the book and now I want a copy for myself.
AP: Good Luck.
JH: Not sure why the LA Public Library copy is missing that page.
AP: …easy enough to speculate.
JH: Could have been anyone. Maybe the person just liked the printed photograph. It’s one I haven’t seen before. Framed it would like even nicer.
AP: Maybe someone spilled coffee on the page and removed it. Who knows what happened to the page? We’ll never know.
JH: What adds to the uncertainty and what I find odd, is that Sumner Hunt’s obituary in 1938 list his various architectural and civic contributions, but there’s no mention of the Bradbury Building.
AP: What about a list of Wyman’s accomplishments or obituary?
JH: No list and his obituary was just a funeral announcement in 1939.
AP: Neither one seems to have solely or openly taken credit for the building in later years.
JH: Which just adds to the ambiguity of its history. Then years later…
AP: Right…architecture writer and historian, Esther McCoy, a professional smoker and swearer, whom we all loved, writes an article in the April 1953 issue of Arts & Architecture. In the article she raves about the building and its architect, George Wyman.
JH: Even though Wyman was not a licensed architect when he worked on the Bradbury.
AP: Esther thankfully becomes an advocate for its preservation and later gets involved with ensuring the building’s landmark status.
AP: As part of all this activity she interviews Wyman’s two grown daughters and they provide her details for the article. Even though she doesn’t quote the kids directly, Esther later shares that she did not follow-up the kids’ stories and took all their information at face-value.
JH: And why not. It’s a good story!
AP: Later, in 1968, in preparation for the Bradbury’s nomination to the National Survey of Historic Buildings, Esther interview’s Forrest Ackerman, Wyman’s grandson.
JH: Ackerman was a literary agent for Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury [no relation] and other writers. He was also a writer and editor of science fiction and fantasy, along with amassing a substantial collection of movie memorabilia related to the genre.
AP: Ackerman, with his own appreciation of the ethereal confirmed the stories he heard growing up from his mother and his aunt about Wyman’s involvement with Bradbury, and how Wyman received the commission.
JH: The otherworldly way in which he chose the commission, or how it chose him, which I know we’ll talk about, also relates to Wyman’s architectural source of inspiration.
JH: But first, a consequence of Esther’s writing leads to a re-write in various architecture publications, listing Wyman as the architect of the Bradbury, while Hunt’s credit is reduced or shared when it is mentioned. This is also the time Wyman’s status emerges as a draftsman in Hunt’s office, based on what the daughters, and the grandson told Esther.
AP: It becomes de facto, along with everything else Esther gathers from the Wyman family.
JH: Even though there’s no proof Wyman was or wasn’t a draftsman for Hunt.
JH: Let me try to defend Hunt before we talk about the details from Esther’s interview. Keep in mind Hunt had a thriving practice so having a draftsman, like Wyman, work on the specifications for the building would have been typical, much like it is today. It’s not like Wyman left Hunt’s office to start his own practice and took the Bradbury project with him…and Hunt did nothing to curtail Wyman’s work with Bradbury. Bradbury was probably too vested in the project with Hunt to withdraw and it was unnecessary to do since Bradbury liked Wyman’s work.
AP: Hmm. Hmm.
JH: I tracked down someone who used to know the Wyman family. Well, didn’t actually know them personally, but personally knew someone whose daughter’s friend’s stepfather’s former mother-in-law used to occasionally feed one the Wyman’s cats when it strayed into another neighbor’s yard.
AP: Not sure I follow…but OK.
JH: Well, this person, thought it was important to look at the age differences between Hunt and Wyman. Since much is made of Wyman being something like 32 years old when he was drafting the Bradbury specs.
AP: Or designing the building.
JH: Hunt was 27, five years younger, than Wyman. Maybe Bradbury related to some maturity, or something in Wyman’s personality. Though Hunt had a working relationship with Bradbury, who would have been about 70 years old.
AP: One of the more peculiar aspects of Esther’s interview with Wyman’s daughters, which I think animates or eulogizes Wyman’s role is how his children describe how he received the commission from Bradbury.
JH: Did you just dim the overhead lights and light those candles?
AP: No. I thought you did. Well, as the daughters tell it, Wyman worked as a draftsman in Sumner’s office and Bradbury happen to walk by Wyman’s drafting table, saw some renderings and liked what he saw more than the work Sumner had done.
JH: For whatever reason or reasons, Bradbury did not want to continue working with Sumner. Or vice-versa. Again, there’s not much to validate either scenario. Other than the Wyman daughters.
AP: Bradbury offers Sumner the commission
JH: Under who knows what sort of agreement with Sumner, and Sumner and Bradbury.
AP: But before he accepts the commission, as Wyman’s daughters tell Esther, their father and mother consult a planchette for spiritual guidance on whether to accept Bradbury’s offer.
JH: I like this mysterious, mythical part of the story. Imagine a Ouija board but instead of a pointing device that tracks to letters and numbers to convey messages from the supernatural, a planchette holds a pencil to generate automatic writing while participants subconsciously hold the pencil in place, so messages get spelled out.
AP: I wonder if they did this while living at the Hotel Green in Pasadena.
JH: Tsk. Oh…I don’t know but I should check. It’s easy to picture them in one of the rooms using a planchette.
AP: Wyman does not want to be ungrateful to Sumner or unprofessional, so he seeks spiritual direction from the planchette about what to do.
JH: Wyman’s dead younger brother speaks to him from the beyond. The planchette spells out the words, “Take Bradbury Building. It will make you famous.” As described by the daughters and later retold by Wyman’s grandson, the word Bradbury was spelled upside.
JH: That makes sense since somethings are sometimes upside down in a parallel universe anyway.
AP: Forrest Ackerman, Wyman’s grandson, claims to have had the original paper with the message written on it, passed on to him by his mother and aunt.
JH: A copy too.
AP: Neither of which are likely to appear since Ackerman died in 2008. Though what an incredible piece of paper it would be to see. Ackerman was such a collector, I’m sure if the papers existed, he had them.
JH: I smell an episode of Drunk History.
AP: Drunk Lore — LA Architecture edition.
JH: We haven’t talked about Wyman’s inspiration for the Bradbury Building.
AP: Again, going back to Esther’s interviews with the Wyman family…they say he was inspired by the book, Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887, by Edward Bellamy. It was a bestseller when it came out in 1888 and reportedly sold a million copies.
JH: This might have been another way Wyman and Bradbury connected. Perhaps they talked about the book. Given its popularity, Bradbury may have read it or been curious about Wyman’s interest in reading it. Maybe Wyman’s copy was on his drafting table and got the two men taking.
AP: We may never know. Though given Bradbury’s capitalist nature, he may have been intrigued by the utopian storyline.
JH: I’d like to think Bradbury himself was inspired by the book…thinking of ways to capitalize on some of the book’s ideas.
AP: The book is another essential facet of the Bradbury Building’s mythical backstory. Given its popularity, Hunt, if he didn’t read the book would have certainly known about it.
JH: I want to talk about Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887, but let’s jump ahead for a moment. What happens with Wyman after the Bradbury Building?
AP: Once the building is completed, Wyman receives a commission from Simona Bradbury, Bradbury’s widow. It’s a commercial building not too far away on what was then Pearl Street and is now Figueroa, near Temple Street…and Wyman has an office in the Bradbury building.
JH: If Wyman was ever part of Hunt’s office, he’s clearly not part of it now.
AP: Wyman designs the New Club Rooms at the Jonathan Club and eventually becomes a registered architect. He gets involved with the design and construction of the Southern California Veterans Home, serves as an architectural consultant to the Los Angeles Board of Education, becomes an early member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
JH: But otherwise, not a very public career, or as prolific as Hunt.
AP: Mmm. Mmm.
JH: I’m going to take a closer look at Bellamy’s book to see how it may have had some effect on Wyman and the design of the Bradbury Building. I’ll leave you with Ally and McBeal. As always, thank you.
AP: Come back when you have more time…we’ll go to Rosty for saltado.