B’nai B’rith—846 South Union Ave.

For the record, let me state at the outset: I revere the Catholic faith. I believe the Church to have had a vastly civilizing influence on humanity—yes, an enormously unpopular opinion, as society now considers statue destruction and church burning the ideal Sunday outing. Do admit, though, what are your temples of the Enlightenment compared to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or York Minster or Nantes Cathedral (or what’s left of it)?

Point being, in that I love its doctrine and architecture (above and beyond any fetish for thuribles and a preference for Jameson over Bushmills) I don’t want it to seem that I’m picking on the Church—but.

The Church in Los Angeles has had a troubling history with historic buildings, religious and otherwise. Let’s look at just a smattering:

The Oviatt Building. James Oviatt’s eponymous high-rise haberdashery/office tower (Walker & Eisen, 1928) is one of the great Art Deco monuments of Los Angeles, and therefore the world, known for its cut glass, rare woods, neon clock tower and incredible penthouse. Mr. Oviatt was renting the land on which the tower sat from the Archdiocese. In the late 1960s-early ’70s, with demand for non-polyester clothing on the outs, Oviatt tried to sell his building, to pay back rent owed to the Archdiocese. The Archdiocese sabotaged several escrow attempts by making financially unfeasible demands (installation of central air, replacement of the elevators, etc.) on potential buyers. James Oviatt died in 1974 and the building’s trustees voted to give the structure to the Archdiocese in forgiveness of past rent. The Archdiocese immediately put the building on the market as a teardown, informing realtors it would provide the ideal site for a multistory parking garage.

Fortunately, Wayne Ratkovich bought the place and saved it in 1977. Image from Floyd Bariscale.

St. Joseph’s. Los Angeles was once a forest of church spires, few as prominent as the twin spires of St. Joseph Catholic Church, dedicated on the Feast of St. Joseph, May 3, 1903, at 12th and Los Angeles Streets. Saint Joseph’s architects were Brothers Adrian Wewer and Leonard Darscheidt, German Franciscan monks famed for their church designs. St. Joseph’s was heavily damaged in a September 1983 fire that collapsed the roof, but the walls stood fast and the towers remained. The Cultural Heritage Board reasoned with the Archdiocese that the surviving elements of the church—declared Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument #16 some twenty years earlier, in 1963—could be easily rebuilt. But the Church would have none of it, and demolished the structure, to build a modern edifice.

This is what mass in the 1903 church was like (or at least what it was like before Vatican II) as photographed in St. Joseph’s in 1979 for the period picture True Confessions. Here is what the 1985 St. Joseph looks like (architects Brown & Avila are better known for their 1966 St. Genevieve at Roscoe & Hazeltine, and the 1970 Our Lady of the Valley at Topanga Cyn & Gault).

Cathedral of St. Vibiana. This tale is so famous it hardly bears repeating. But anyway: St. Vibiana’s—our first Cathedral, and parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese—was built in 1876 and designed by Ezra Frank Kysor of Kysor & Mathews, basing its design loosely on Barcelona’s 1755 Sant Miquel del Port; famed architect John C. Austin made the façade less Baroque and more Roman when he oversaw additions in 1922. Vibiana’s importance to the Church is one thing, but its importance to Los Angeles in general is so deep and undeniable I won’t even begin to elucidate.

His Eminence Cardinal Roger Mahony wanted to tear down the 1876 Cathedral. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, his structural engineer told him the structure was sound, although the bell tower required shoring; the Church did not shore the bell tower. In May 1996 Mahony began the process of removing statuary and the windows of the structure; illegal for a Historic-Cultural Monument. On June 1, 1996—early on a Saturday morning (and when, conveniently, all of LA’s top preservationists happened to be away at a conference in San Jose)—demolition crews set to work illegally demolishing the structure. Concerned parties rushed to the site but were ignored by guards at the fence; it took a Superior Court Judge to get him to stop.

Huntington Library

Mahony thought he had an ace in the hole. He kept repeating “if you don’t let us tear this down, we’ll move out of downtown!” But nobody was buying that. Everyone rememberd, for example, when in 1982 the Gas Company at Eighth and Flower said “if you don’t let us tear down neighboring First Methodist to expand our building, we’ll move out of downtown!” So despite protest, they were allowed to demolish First Methodist (John C. Austin, 1923), all its Tiffany mosaics and stained glass, wood paneling and terra cotta, and then the Gas Company said “oh yeah sorry, we’re actually gonna build something new a few blocks north at Fifth and Olive” …and First Methodist remained a parking lot for 35 years.

A legal battle ensued, St. Vibiana did not become a parking lot, and Mahony finally swapped his little church for six acres of County land bordered by Grand, Temple, Hill, and the Hollywood Freeway.  Mahony’s stripped-down, deconstructivist, $250 million church broke ground in September 1997 and was consecrated in September 2002.  

Deconsecrated, retrofitted, it has since become an event space. If you’re familiar with John 2:16…

Which brings us to today’s topic.

B’nai B’rith, 846 South Union Ave. (S. Tilden Norton, 1924). You might be asking, what does a Hebrew congregation have to do with the Catholic church? Well.

First of all, do not confuse the B’nai B’rith about which we are speaking with Congregation B’nai B’rith—LA’s first (chartered) Hebrew temple began in 1862, Congregation B’nai B’rith first holding services in their Ezra Kyzor-designed synagogue on Fort Street (now Broadway) between Second and Third in 1873; in 1896 B’nai B’rith moved further south, to Ninth and Hope, to a grand new onion-domed temple designed by Abraham Moses Edelman (son of chief rabbi, Abram Wolf Edelman); they then moved further west, and built one of the greatest synagogues in the world in 1929, and changed their name to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Rather, we are discussing B’nai B’rith, the service organization (which also functioned very much like a fraternal lodge). The International Order of B’nai B’rith, begun in New York in 1843, founded its Los Angeles chapter, Orange Lodge No. 224, in 1874, and another, Semi-Tropic Lodge in 1883; they merged to become Lodge 487 in 1899. In the 1880s B’nai B’rith met at Bryson’s Hall on Spring Street; in January 1904, when they had 170 members, they dedicated a fine new hall at 521 West Pico. By 1918 they had moved to a new lodge hall at 17th & Georgia. In the January 13, 1922 issue of The B’nai B’rith Messenger, under notices about Lodge 487:

Fun fact: the weekly B’nai B’rith Messenger was not a publication of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, just as the IOBB was not allied with Congregation B’nai B’rith. Jews just love naming stuff B’nai B’rith is all. (Tr. “Children of the Covenant.”)

Note that their stated goals were 2,000 members and a new building. They achieved both: at 2,000 members in 1923, Lodge 487 became the largest B’nai B’rith Lodge in the nation. And, they built a swanky new building:

It contained “two large lodge-rooms, banquet hall, dancing floors, library, kitchen, elevators, committee-rooms, spacious lobby, gymnasium, shower baths and eight handsome stores” according to this. And its architect was Samuel Tilden Norton. 

S. Tilden Norton is of such glaring importance to Los Angeles’s built environment that…I won’t make this post any longer by detailing his work here. Go read his Wiki page.

B’nai B’rith Messenger, May 2, 1924

Note that the exterior is done in Batchelder tile. Like S. Tilden Norton, I don’t have to tell you of the importance of Batchelder tile.

The International Order of B’nai B’rith settled in, and did their good works, having concerts, etc.

By the mid-1930s, the IOBB 487 have moved, presumably because of the Depression, into a room at 742 South Hill St. 846 South Union becomes the home of other fraternal organizations, like the Blue Devils Post of the American Legion and the Los Angeles Aerie 102 Fraternal Order of Eagles. In 1938 it becomes a little more labor-related, when the Safeway Employees Associationmoves in. By 1942 it was a full-blown temple of labor, as the former B’nai B’rith was now home to Bakery Drivers 276, Dump Truck Drivers 420, Warehousemens 598, Grocery Warehousemens 595, Dairy Haulers 737, Milk Wagon Drivers 93, Meat and Provision Drivers 626, Truck Drivers 208 and 403, Hay Haulers 737, Garage Automotive and Service Station Employees 495, Laundry Workers 52, and Wholesale Delivery Drivers and Salesmen 848.

By 1945 it was just known as the “Teamsters Hall,” “AFL Hall” or the “Teamsters Building.” Here’s a shot outside 846, showing worker’s wives protesting the Teamsters’ throwing their husbands out of work for the holidays:

Only vintage shot I’ve found of the exterior, November 1955. The round neon sign (there were two, one on each side of the building) was fabricated by QRS neon and installed in the spring of 1949. It would have looked very much like this.
Inside the hall! LAPL doesn’t give a date for this image—there were so many transit strikes normally it would be impossible to pinpoint this photo, but they do mention it’s during Shrine Week; therefore this was shot during the mass meeting of June 17, 1950
And THAT’s why all along the top of the building you have these nifty medallions that read AFL, and wagon wheels, symbol of the IBT

Teamsters Hall was renamed Roosevelt Hall in 1960. The Teamsters moved out about 1977 and in 1978, 846 South Union became the location of California International University and Southland College, later known as the Southland Career Institute. The Lighthouse Mission Church purchases 846 in March 1989, and it has been a church these past thirty-some years.

And that brings us around back to the Church. The property, and its large adjacent parking lot, was purchased in September 2018 by Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, Inc., which is the social service arm of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Catholic Charities intends to demolish the building:

The Demolition Notice was affixed to the wall a year ago, according to this Instagram post

This, then, is my message to Catholic Charities’ Executive Director, the Reverend Monsignor Gregory Cox, and its Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the Most Reverend José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles:

I support you, of course, unwaveringly, in your alleviation of the material and spiritual poverty of the poor and disenfranchised. Breaking the cycles of poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and violence is especially important for boys and young men transitioning out of foster care, and I applaud the concept of a village catering to their needs and to that end.

Union Avenue Village is a wonderful concept in achieving your goal. But this is a very large property; the 1923 B’nai B’rith structure takes up only about a third of it. And it was initially constructed with all manner of convenience (showers, gymnasium, kitchens, etc.) conducive to housing young men. Might I suggest adaptive reuse of the property? Rejuvenating this building would certainly fulfill attractive concerns of sustainability and of the circular economy, to be certain, but I would also argue a more esoteric point—that retaining and maintaining a beautiful old building such as this, a touchstone of the neighborhood and link to the past and our shared cultural heritage, is good for the soul. I would say it uplifts the soul, and serves the people of Los Angeles, to retain 846 South Union and incorporate it into the forthcoming Angel’s Flight shelter for homeless boys and housing for Transition Age Youth. Moreover, keeping 846 South Union would reverse the trend of the Church’s propensity toward demolishing historic buildings.

Thank you for your consideration!

Why, it even comes with Calvary stained glass and a neon cross!

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