by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been mentioned in this blog several times, one of the main drivers of the greater Los Angeles economy in the first three decades of the 20th century was the dramatic growth of heavy industry. This began in the east side of downtown between Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River and moved generally to the southeast over the years and to places like south Los Angeles, Vernon, what became the City of Commerce and others areas.
One of the industries that blossomed during the 1920s, in particular, was tire manufacturing. This was largely a reflection of the burgeoning population of the western United States and markets that opened up to these people with industrial production being brought to the Pacific Coast from traditional industrial states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and the like in the old “steel belt.”
In 1928, one of the most impressive industrial plants of the era in greater Los Angeles, the B.F. Goodrich tire plant, was completed in today’s City of Commerce. The $4,000,000 facility spanned 45 acres and employed many hundreds of workers turning out thousands of tires per day. Moreover, the factory happened to be built in a Spanish Colonial Revival style that made the plant stand out as stylish in an industry that hardly displayed much interest in aesthetics.
The plant is long gone and was one of many in what was referred to as the “East Side Industrial District” that closed as heavy industry ended its decades-long tenure in that area, but it reflected a new emphasis in the regional economy on large-scale manufacturing that was not only heir to earlier efforts in downtown but was a precursor to what took place after World War II in places like the City of Industry.
The Goodrich plant was announced to the public in spring 1927 and its size, scale and cost drew widespread attention. The facility was heralded as ushering in a new age of large-scale heavy manufacturing along with similar tire plants like those built by Firestone (the groundbreaking of which was covered in this blog three years ago) in modern South Gate, Goodyear, which was located in South-Central Los Angeles, and Samson, the plant of which is now The Citadel shopping center in the City of Commerce.
Though the B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company was the parent firm, the local plant was under the auspices of the Pacific Goodrich Rubber Company subsidiary, as announced in May 1927 when the factory was made known to the public. The facility was to be built on what was known as the Union Pacific Tract, because of that railroad’s ownership of the land.
President B.G. Work mentioned to the Los Angeles Times in its 10 May edition that Goodrich had branch manufacturing facilities in England, France and Canada and “the demands of the Pacific Coast require the establishment of a factory to serve the western part of the United States.” Naturally, as greater Los Angeles was an especially car-centric region, it made sense to locate the plan in the area. The way it was put was that a main reason to place the plant in the region was because of “the enormous number of motor vehicles in Southern California. Los Angeles County had 40% of all cars in California and the region well more than half.
The announcement noted that the construction cost was estimated to be $4 million with the first phase on 10-15 acres to include facilities to employ between 1,000 and 1,500 workers with a projected payroll of $1.5 to $2 million per year. The output of tires was estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,500 tires per day. It was also stated that the Goodrich facility was the largest built in the area in eight years, since the Goodyear plant in South-Central Los Angeles opened in 1920.
In July 1927, the construction contract was granted to the Foundation Company of New York, which was “probably the largest building contractor in the world,” according to the Times. Using the Spanish Colonial Revival style was “to conform with architecture prevalent in Southern California,” such as the Homestead’s own La Casa Nueva, which was completed that same year. Architects Gogerty and Weyl of Hollywood traveled to New York to look at the drawings with an eye to verifying the authenticity of the style.
At the end of that month, the ceremonial groundbreaking took place with Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, a ubiquitous presence at such events, there to pose on a steam shovel and joining county supervisors, county officials and others as construction officially began.
Developer J.B. Ransom Corporation, one of the largest realty firms in the region, also took the opportunity to use the new plant as a way to promote one of its several “East Side” projects, this being Montebello Park (in fact, some news accounts stated the Goodrich plant was in Montebello, though it was then unincorporated territory. The firm highlighted the “stupendous $4,000,000 Goodrich Plant” as a boon to the area and the increase in value for its Montebello Park property.
By mid-September, the arrival of 800 tons of Bethlehem steel from Pennsylvania meant that the foundation and other preparatory work was yielding to the framing of the massive structures of the plant. A photo in the 23 October 1927 edition of the Times showed some of that framing.
Los Angeles was an “open shop” town for the most part, meaning that unions were few and far between and every effort made by the Times, the Chamber of Commerce and other powerful pro-business entities to keep it that way. The paper was pleased to state in a 5 November 1927 article that, despite the best efforts of union agents, none of the workers on the construction site were affiliated with unions and “free labor” was still the rule.
Construction moved steadily along and, in mid-March 1928, production of tires began at the plant, though it was not quite completed. The “East Side Organization,” which promoted development in the area held a celebration in early April, including visits to the factory by thousands of school children (presumably with an eye to recruiting many of them some day to work in it or like facilities). The expectation was that 1,500 workers would be on the job at the plant by the first part of the following year.
Developer Ransom took the opportunity to note that a main attraction for industrial firms to locate in the East Side “is the proximity to attractive residential sites for workers.” He noted, for example, that skilled workers in the Goodrich plant were brought out from the main facility at Akron, Ohio and all settled at his Montebello Park project.
A map in the same issue of the Times, from 18 March, showed the project future industrial centers of greater Los Angeles, including the East Side (really, South East area); the South and South Central area; sections near Inglewood and what soon became Los Angeles International Airport; portions stretching from Downey to modern La Mirada; the area near Azusa and future Irwindale; and, between the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific rail lines near Puente. This latter wound up, in the late 1950s, becoming the City of Industry, which owns and funds the Homestead.
A photo from the 25 March 1928 edition of the Times included Goodrich officials standing with one the first tires to roll (!) off the production line at the new plant and which was destined for a Buick in a dealership in nearby Huntington Park. It was noted in the article that the production building was an astounding 1,800 feet long by 400 feet wide and that the “layout permits a continuous straight line flow of progress from the raw material warehouse at one end” through the various stages to the finishing warehouse and shipping department at the other end.
The official grand opening of the plant was on 2 May 1928, including a banquet in the directors’ rooms and other festivities culminating in the evening with radio broadcasts over National Broadcasting Company (NBC) affiliate stations on the Pacific Coast, including KFI in Los Angeles. The following day, the public was allowed to tour the massive factory and the 3rd was also designated “East Side Organization Day” to honor that group’s advocacy of the project.
Goodrich President James D. Tew, in remarks given to the Times observed that
The Los Angeles plant will serve eleven Western States and solve the problem of maintaining adequate branch stocks, as well as reducing heavy shipping costs. The plant is a logical development of the method that big industries of the nation are bound to follow in the natural development of the West.
The fact that the Los Angeles plant was completely built and equipped in seven months is a remarkable illustration of the Pacific Coast efficiency and typifies the spirit of progress and progressive accomplishment that is attracting the attention of financial and industrial circles of the East.
Meanwhile, the Union Pacific’s vice-president of traffic operations, F.W. Robinson, stated that “Los Angeles rapidly is becoming one of the large industrial cities of the United States.”
The last word here goes to an editorial from the Times, which neatly encapsulates prevailing views of the situation with industrial development and labor in greater Los Angeles during the Roaring Twenties. Noting that construction finished a month ahead of schedule, the paper added that “the architecture of this vast factory building proves again that industrial structures need not be unsightly, and that what is useful may also be handsome.”
Moreover, there was benefit for the employees due to the “psychological effect upon the workers of pleasing surroundings” and which “more than makes up for any additional expense there may be involved in decoration.” As to those workers, it was added that the completion of the plant was “also a tribute to Southern California’s free labor system.”
The Times reminded its readers of “threats of strikes in other cities” that led the original contractor to “give up their contract in preference to conducting operations here on a closed-shop basis.” Rather than let the project fall prey to delays, however, the powerful Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association stepped in through its “free employement” department to arrange for a solution that “is bound to have a heartening effect in other cities struggling to free themselves from the tyranny of the closed-shop system.”
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is a real photo postcard of the recently completed Goodrich plant, showing the massive complex, located at 5400 East Ninth Street, but which soon became Olympic Boulevard as the 1932 summer Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles. The impressive architecture, including the three-story tower with an arched entrance and neatly-ordered landscaping, definitely was a far cry from the nondescript look of most industrial buildings before or since.
All of this, however, is long gone, though the location remains a commercial and industrial area today. The photo and the coverage of the building and opening of the plant are reflections of the dramatic changes brought about in industrial Los Angeles in the early 20th century, especially the 1920s, and the prevalence of heavy industry, given a major boost after World War II, especially in defense, remained through about the 1980s.