Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Charnock Block/Pershing Hotel

I overheard a Facebook conversation: "How's the new S.R.O. on 5th and Main working out for the neighborhood?"  Lots of opinions about drugs and drug dealers, people passed out or screaming on the street, the need for housing, housing first, the police, the city councilman and who's responsible for what.  I laughed because the "new SRO" has not only been around longer than most downtowners have lived downtown, but before they were born.  Long ago, it was a real estate office, but it's functioned as an SRO since the 1950s, if not earlier.

I knew the name "Charnock" since I was a small child.  Charnock Road ran through the little neighborhood of Mar Vista where I grew up.  It was the main street to take you into Palms, before Palms Blvd was paved and the school in the middle of it was split in two.

Here's Charles Charnock, all dressed up for his picture when he got to L.A. in the 1880's, just in time for the real estate boom.  He was born in 1836, the seventh of the ten children of John and Sophia Charnock of England.  He came with his parents and seven of his siblings to Canada in 1846 .  Of the two siblings who didn't come to America, one went to Australia and the other died by drowning at a young age.  Poor Sophia, his mother, "succumbed after three years to the hardships of a pioneer life" and died in Canada. The hardier members of the family moved on to Wisconsin, where they all set about claiming land. With a brief interruption for the Civil War, the Charnocks continued to be involved in real estate.  Oldest brother John James Charnock was the most successful of them, buying part of the Rancho La Ballona.  Charles came to live there too, and by 1883 L.A.Times shows Charles buying land in Pomona and Hemet as well in as the city of Los Angeles.  John James is the one the road is named after.  He was a confirmed bachelor, but when he died in 1909, a woman came forward waving a forged document that said she was his wife and therefore entitled to most of his great wealth.  After she was exposed as a forger, a bunch of the siblings, nieces and nephews all started suing each other.  Charles Charnock, the one who built the Charnock Block, was dead by then, but the other relatives wanted to prevent his adopted daughter from inheriting anything.  Charles had been a wealthy man himself when he broke ground for Charnock block Apr. 23, 1889.  He didn't realize that the real estate boom that made him rich had come to an end. He and his wife lived there a few short years, where she collected donations for the Ladies Aid Society.  

Charnock had sold the Charnock Block by the time of his death in 1907, but he still had a beautiful house in Boyle Heights.  The house where he lived was eventually torn down to build a school. but the church he attended, Euclid Heights Methodist Church still stands as La Casa del Mexicano. 

Main street was living up to its name in the 1880's, as the civic and commercial buildings expanded into the residential area. Main St. looked like this in 1885, before Charnock built his place.  The building on the right was the Federal Building, constructed in 1883.  

As time went on, Broadway became the main street for shopping and entertainment, while Spring became the "Wall St. of the West." David Belasco left his once fashionable theater on old Main Street  to open a new one on Hill.  The former Belasco became the Follies, a burlesque house. The Charnock Block became the Pershing Hotel, and its next door neighbor, the Roma, was home to the World Museum of Human Oddities.  It became the main street of "sin."  

The World Museum was regarded as a nuisance by the Downtown Business Men's Association, and was raided more than once. Street barkers were arrested for advertising on the street.  Mrs. Mary Faser was unable to run her boarding house at the Roma Hotel because the noise drove her boarders away.  Her physical health was also affected, according to her testimony in court. 

In the 1920's or earlier, the Charnock Block became known as the Pershing Hotel.  The Pershing Hotel and its inhabitants survived a fire in 1952. There was only one injury, a fall down stairs attributed to loss of consciousness due to smoke inhalation.  The structure also survived the slum clearance, building code enforcement and modernization of the 1950s, 60's and 70s.  

  In 1955,  Helga Bender Henry wrote Mission on Main Street, a book about the history of the Union Rescue Mission, a venerable institution.  It occupied Main at 2nd Street from 1926 until 1994, when it was moved to make way for the "revitalization" of Spring St.   She described Main St. 

"Some people apologize for their neighbors; Union Rescue Mission picked hers: loan banks, flop houses, taverns, burlesque halls.  Here congregate the forgotten men and women, object of the mission’s search and remembrance.
In the “City of the Angels” Skid Row comprises approximately ten blocks.  Beginning at First and Main, it pushes south to Fifth and across to Towne Avenue.  It’s habitués come from everywhere with a destination of nowhere.  Day after day, night after night, thousands upon thousands repeat their established cycles from bar to bar, doorway to doorway, gutter to gutter, shuffling the tread of defeated yesterdays and hopeless tomorrows.  In this world of the living dead, dragging feet rasp dully along the pavements in ever-deepening grooves of sin and vice.  Shoulders stooped, eyes hollows and averted, faces drawn and unsmiling, the patrons of Main Street, whatever the diversity of background and experience, have one common bond: despair."

For all that, the corner of 5th and Main didn't look so bad in the 1930s, when the Owl Drug Co. occupied the Charnock Block,  Lorry's Men's Shop doesn't look so bad either even though the place next door is a pawn shop, or "Loan Bank" in Helga Bender Henry's parlance. 

It took until the 1980's for officials to realize that the disappearing Single Room Occupancy Hotels might actually fill a need for society in general as well as the individuals who lived in them.  After decades of destruction, a moratorium on demolition was declared in 1987.  In 1989, All Saints Church of Pasadena and  Baeck  Temple of Bel Aire, along with corporate philanthropists, formed the Skid Row Housing Trust to fix these old places up, under the direction of Alice Callaghan.  They were not thinking in terms of preservation at the time, but just thought it would be cheaper to fix up the old ones than to build new ones.  Their first project was the Pennsylvania which later became the Genesis, and the second was the Pershing and the Roma, combined into one place.  At that time, the Pershing was described as a battered three story green building.  One of the occupants said the owners just went "around collecting rent. That's all they care about."  The bathroom was down the hall, and the showers were all in a row with no partitions. By May 1990, the renovations were complete, with no more "gang showers." 80 tenants had moved in, and there was a waiting list.
The plan had been to rent out the ground floor for retail outlets in order to finance the low cost housing upstairs.
It was not all smooth sailing though.  By November 1991, the hotel had gone through 5 managers.  "Management is Hell," said Alice Callaghan.

Mar Vista, the neighborhood of my childhood, had formed an historical society, and I attended a few meetings.  That's where I learned of the lawsuits proceeding from  the death of John J. Charnock.  Wait a minute, I thought, isn't there a Charnock Block described in Los Angeles, an Architectural Guide, by David Gebhard and Robert Winter.  I borrowed that classic book from a friend over ten years ago and have yet to return it.  They described the Peshing Hotel as a "rare late nineteenth century commercial building......Five classical decorated oriel bays and a corner bay tower punctuate the facade."

Oriel bay windows do not reach the ground, but are supported by corbels and brackets.  Here is one of the five.

This is the corner bay tower.

 I found the Pershing Hotel at 5th and Main and photographed it in 2009.

Here is the entrance.  That's my elbow on the right side of picture, with a man looking very curiously at my camera.  Rules are posted.  If you are not a guest you can't come in.

The idea of having retail outlets on the ground floor had apparently not worked.

One day in 2013, I found some sort of construction going on.

I snapped this from the car window because there was no place to park.  By then, its historic value was appreciated, but the interior was considered inadequate.  Because the two hotels, the Pershing and the Roma, had been joined cheaply, the second floor was at two different levels.  It was described as being like a rabbit warren or an Escher painting.  The exterior was carefully preserved while the interior was gutted, with selected parts saved for re-use.  “It’s a holy old building; you can’t approach it lightly,” architect Wade Killefer was quoted in the Sept. 18, 2013 Downtown News.

There had been some trouble getting the project started when Gov. Brown closed the California Community Redevelopment Agency.  Today's C.R.A. is a local organization.  It was taking shape in May 2014.  The formerly homeless started moving in early 2015, according to the Mar. 19, 2015 Downtown News.  

The architecture was done by Killefer Flammang Architects.   Westport Construction Co. built it.  Adam's Gallery did the stained glass restoration.

I took this picture looking up 5th St. when the copper was gleaming in the cloudy sunshine, and these, a month later.  

The New Pershing opened officially on July30, 2015


  1. Well, I'm certainly not fond of the new grey paint theme, or the gutting of the interior, but it sure beats being torn down and replaced with another Orsini. When I lived a block away at 4th and Main around 2000, I used to gawk at the wonderful old Charnock and hope to get invited in by some of the residents I knew slightly. It didn't happen but I do remember one hipster tenant complaining that the management was trying to shoo away all the prostitutes who lived there. He liked them. They were good neighbors.

  2. What a beautiful building! Thank you for the history of it.