by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The appearance of high-quality professional aerial photography came along at a particularly opportune time for showing the massive, rapid growth of greater Los Angeles and the dominant firm in that industry was Spence Airplane Photos, launched by Robert E. Spence about 1920 and, remarkably, he continued his work for over a half-century until he retired in the early 1970s.
Robert Earl Spence was born in Chicago Heights, Illinois, a southern suburb of the Windy City, in May 1894, though the 1900 federal census stated he was born in Pennsylvania as his family then lived in Pittsburgh, where his father worked as a carpenter. A decade later, Spence was working as a clerk at the headquarters of the Westinghouse Electric Company.
When the 23 year old Spence registered for the draft during World War I, he was still living in Pittsburgh and, though he listed his profession as an electrician, he reported that he was “not employed at present.” He enlisted with the U.S. Army in July 1917 and was sent the next month to a Signal Corps depot company at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After three months, he was transferred to the 175th Squadron at Kelly Field in Texas for a few weeks and then spent the remainder of his service at Ellington Field, also in the Lone Star State, from which point he was discharged in March 1919.
Spence, however, must have reenlisted, because he showed up in the 1920 federal census, taken on 15 January, as a stenographer at the Army’s Balloon School at Ross Field in Arcadia. He very soon launched his aerial photography business and over his long career took thousands of images documenting the stratospheric growth of the area. Notably, he went back into the service during World War II as he approached the age of 50, enlisting in February 1943 and mustering out in early August 1945, just prior to the atomic bomb attacks on Japan.
As noted above, Spence continued operating his company until his late seventies and died in 1974, three years after he retired and sold the business. The bulk of the archives of Spence Airplane Photos is now at U.C.L.A.
The Homestead’s collection has about twenty of these great images taken between 1920 and 1929 and it is a small sample demonstrating the development of the region during that roaring decade. Tonight’s highlighted artifact is a remarkable Spence view of downtown Los Angeles taken on 10 February 1925.
The reverse has a company stamp with an address on 7th Street just west of what was then Westlake Park, later renamed MacArthur Park, after World War II general Douglas MacArthur. An identification number and date are inscribed ink along with a description reading, “12th & Santee / looking NW.” Moreover, there is a dark “X” and another inscription added, “x marks point about where we live / above Echo Park lake.”
The view goes as far north as Elysian Park, Echo Park and nearby neighborhoods toward East Hollywood and Hollywood with a substantial portion of downtown taking up the bulk of the image. Much of this, in the lower section, was still residential, with the interspersing of commercial structures, though, today, it is virtually all commercial area.
Towards the lower left one of the standout structures is the Los Angeles Examiner Building, designed by Julia Morgan, architect of Hearst Castle, and which was completed in 1913 at the southwest corner of Broadway and 11th streets. Closer to the lower left corner are the tall twin steeples of the Gothic Revival St. Joseph Catholic Church, at the southeast corner of Los Angeles and 12th streets. The church opened in 1903 and primarily served German congregants with stained glass windows imported from Munich. The church, however, was destroyed by a fire eighty years later and a new structure serves a mainly Latino community now.
Another landmark that easily stands out on close inspection just north and to the right of the center of the image is the Biltmore Hotel, opened a few years prior to the taking of the photo, with its three distinctive towers and the dark green space to the right is Pershing Square. Behind the hotel is a bare patch of land that formerly housed the Normal School for teacher education and would soon be the Central Public Library, completed in 1926. Above and to the right is Bunker Hill, still largely populated with Victorian-era houses at the time, with major redevelopment after 1960 transforming that area into a financial center with great controversy.
Almost directly below that park are the Great Republic Life and National City Bank buildings, between Main and Spring and 8th and 9th streets. These were finished the year before the image was captured and Walter P. Temple was a major investor in the building of these commercial structures, with his Walter P. Temple Oil Company and Temple Estate Company housed there until his Edison Building was opened at Alhambra in 1927 and the businesses relocated there.
The bulk of the heavily developed commercial core of downtown is mainly at the center and towards the upper right. Just outside the top right edge would be where the Temple Block, built by Walter Temple’s uncle and father between 1857 and 1871 would soon give way to the wrecking ball for the construction of the City Hall, finished in spring 1928.
In addition to the entire image, scans of the four corners are included to give a little more detail of this great photo and document of downtown Los Angeles during another of its enormous growth and development booms during the Jazz Age.