The Pickle has been lopped, but still stands
The Pickle Factory at First and Center Streets, Los Angeles, CA
Save the Pickle Factory! The pickle factory formerly known as the Citizens Warehouse, former home of many contemporary artists, and the location of the Art Dock, is threatened with destruction. Bought by the City of Los Angeles in order to build the light rail extension of Metro’s Gold Line into East LA, the building was vacated of its inhabitants and the southernmost bay of the building demolished. Demolition of this part of the building allowed the construction of the rail line next to the First Street Bridge, since the building encroached upon the bridge's abutments. The building predates the bridge and the bridge was built in the 1920s right next the old warehouse. The building has about another year to survive, since completion of the Gold Line Extension with the reestablishing of the bridge’s decorative piers will take that long to be constructed.
The City authorities say the building is too damaged to be saved. When I inquired about the building’s future and my desire to save it through Councilperson Jan Perry’s office, I was told in effect that “I was tilting at windmills.” I guess I am like Don Quixote, but I refuse to believe this building needs to be completely destroyed. The old warehouse, constructed in the 1880s, has survived every calamity to its use for 121 years. It survived the building of the bridge. It survived the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake and every earthquake in Southern California since then. I can survive the construction of the Gold Line, if there is a will to do it.
There is much to be preserved in the old pickle factory. Its construction is an excellent example of late 19th Century heavy timber construction. The building has oak flooring over a subfloor and large full sized redwood joists. The joists are carried on heavy timber hand hewn beams, which stand on 16”x 16” wood columns with smaller angular capitals. This building is so strong that I believe additional frame construction could be built on top of it. The building structural grid goes into a basement where the columns stand on exposed concrete piers. The shell around the structure is brick and perimeter beams are supported on the brick wall which is three bricks in thickness. In the 1980s the brick walls were tied to the beams using wall anchors to meet the new seismic code requirements. The foundation’s perimeter wall is brick too, and this wall could be relatively easily reinforced by the building of a slurry wall inside of the brick wall. Located in the basement are large vats that were used to cure the pickles or perhaps to store tallow because the building was also once a tallow (soap) factory.
Le Grande Depot, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Station Los Angeles
This building is an important remnant of early Los Angeles. Besides its early history as a pickle and tallow factory, the building lay in close proximity to Santa Fe Le Grand Terminal, until 1933 Los Angeles’s main railroad station, located just south of the First Street Bridge at 2nd Street and Santa Fe Avenue. For many decades the pickle factory building was used as the premier storage facility for furniture and possessions of immigrants from the East. One can imagine newcomers disembarking the train at Le Grande Depot and walking up the street to engage a horse-drawn trailer and picking up their pianos, sideboards, and armoires at the pickle building before heading to their new homes in the burgeoning metropolis. The Long Beach earthquake in 1933 destroyed the terminal, and it was replaced by Union Station in 1939. The pickle factory survived the 1933 quake. After the station moved to Chinatown, this area of Los Angeles became a backwater, but in its decline the warehouse had another life as a soy sauce storage facility for LA’s large Japanese and Chinese populations. Little Tokyo is only a short three blocks away on the other side of Alameda Street.
In 1980 the artists moved in. A group of artists and investors bought the building and leased out the raw space to other artists, musicians, and other adventurers who were willing to build their own lofts within the demising walls created by the new owners. The lessees finished the interiors of their lofts with drywall and built as they desired other amenities. I built a kitchen bathroom enclosure made of walls that were simple planes without doors. Others built rolling walls and interior rooms. One artist rented part of the basement, cut a hole in the floor and combined the two levels. Another artist cut a hole in the roof and built an enclosure above. All of this activity was done without permits. Living in loft buildings was illegal in the early 1980s. The building was raided several times by the Fire Department and City inspectors. On one raid the Fire Department discovered an airplane being constructed in the basement. They ended that use and made the tenant remove hundreds of flammable paint cans. Occupancy was supposed to be hidden, but the Art Dock revealed that artists were there. The City knew artists were occupying the structure, like many similar structures also being illegally occupied in Downtown Los Angeles. Officials went slowly on enforcing the building codes because there was a movement to legalize loft living.
In the mid 1980s loft living was legalized under the A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) ordinance. Thus began a many-year struggle to bring the Pickle Factory and many other illegally occupied buildings up to code. The owners left to their tenants the financial burden of compliance with code. The situation caused the formation of a Tenants Organization to mitigate the costs and prevent exorbitant rent increases. After long and protracted negotiations during which the artist/investor group sold the building to a speculative investor, the building was made legal, code compliance was achieved, and the building had the first stage of earthquake reinforcement done. For the first group of tenants the last five years of their ten year leases passed in relative peace and at inexpensive costs for rent per square foot.
At the end of ten years the first group of tenants generally moved out of the building. I moved out with that first wave. Rents escalated to the new market rates, which were in the neighborhood of 75 cents per square foot. More established artists moved in including John McCracken and George Herms. From 1990 to well into the first decade of the 21st Century, the Pickle Factory was a vibrant artist living establishment. Eventually, the City of Los Angeles bought the building from its third or fourth speculative owner, and the building was vacated, but not without another struggle with tenants who wanted to stay. The now vacant and excess piece of City real estate will be destroyed unless a progressive investor or non-profit developer can be convinced of the value of preservation for the Pickle Factory.
The Pickle Factory can be preserved and made the centerpiece of an artist housing project with special amenities. (See sketch.) Creating adequate parking for artist housing projects is usually a problem, but because of the Pickle Factory’s unique location there are several opportunities to create sufficient parking. Center Street, which now dead ends in the First Street Bridge, can be closed and converted into parking, with automobile access and a pedestrian walkway for use by visitors and inhabitants alike of this project. Additional parking for the project can be made in the open space under the First Street Bridge. An open lot next to the Pickle Factory to the north now currently used by the Gold Line contractors to store vehicles could be purchased from the Poultry abattoir next door to provide parking for the project. Additional parking could be made by closing the end of Banning Street from Santa Fe east and including a small concrete island.
The buildings that lie across the street and are owned by a loft developer could be incorporated into this project. These one-story bowstring truss buildings could easily be converted into nine living lofts, a small theater, and a gallery. A new small building for a café could be constructed on the open space in front of the one-story building envisioned as a gallery. The space created by the demolition of the south end of the Pickle Factory can be turned into a small art park. A large community mural could be painted on a newly refurbished south wall of Pickle Factory. In doing this the area around the Pickle Factory could become a vibrant artist colony
There are several options that could be investigated for the remaining portion of the Pickle Factory. The first option would be to rehabilitate what remains, which still includes approximately 20 living lofts. A rehabilitation plan could increase the number of lofts to approximately 24 if some of the larger lofts on the second floor were divided into smaller units and a new south wall incorporated some fenestration.
Option 2 would investigate the viability of building additional lofts on the roof of the two-story Pickle Factory’s existing structure. It is conceivable that 18 additional lofts could be built in two stories. These 18 units with the 20 to 24 units below would provide 38 to 42 artist housing units. The heavy timber construction of the existing building could very likely support the additional load of these wood framed lofts. Careful examination of what would be needed to reinforce the existing basement and foundation is the challenge. Access to these units could be created by stair and elevator structures located on the two ends of building.
Option 3 would build the additional units on top of the existing building, rehabilitate the existing lofts in the Pickle Factory, and provide as has been proposed by MTA to construct a platform for viewing the high speed railroad line built along the access route to Union Station between the Los Angeles River and the Pickle Factory. As envisioned in the preliminary sketch this viewing platform would be cantilevered off the roof of the Pickle Factory and would utilize the same stair and elevator structures that provide access to the roof-top loft units.
In all reuse options The Art Dock would be re-created in its original location, and become a centerpiece of this new project. The middle of the Pickle Factory, an area that encompasses four of the original lofts could be altered to become a viewing warehouse like the Schaulager – www.schaulager.org – in Basel, Switzerland. In this viewing warehouse works of art by Downtown artists could be preserved and displayed. The Art Dock could become an essential element in this American Schaulager scheme.
Please join me in this effort to preserve a worthy piece of Los Angeles building history and create a vibrant artist community close to the designated Art District, where artist housing units are being lost to more costly “Loft Style Living Spaces.” The Arts District without a significant artist housing project will soon be an arts district in name only.
What is outlined above is a vision of what could be. There is a long way to go to make this vision a reality. This vision needs to be examined to develop the appropriate program for the Pickle Factory Artist Colony. Financial analysis will be required. Political and Community support will have to be gathered. Plans for demolition of the old building will have to be delayed. A means of putting all the pieces of the development plan has to be created including: the purchase of all the buildings involved; potential profit or non-profit developers found; and funding for the professional services needed to convert this idea in reality raised. The Schaulager idea will need in depth examination. How to make a new Art Dock come to life, establish a mini-art park, and create a meaningful and significant mural will have to be unearthed. Future blog articles will be written on all these subjects. They will document the way and what is being done to convert The Pickle Factory Artist Colony from a “tilting at windmills” dream into a feasible project. In addition, I will write about the people contacted to further this project and what their viewpoint is. I will write about the road blocks that will arise, and finally the outcome of the effort. If it fails, I will analyze why. If it succeeds I will celebrate the creation of artist housing that is truly artist housing which is affordable and designed for creative work. Success will only come if many people support this effort. After all the United States was a dream of a few until many made the cause a priority. I have not given up my dream of real artist housing. I ask for your backing of this cause. Realizing it will make Los Angeles a beacon for artists not just the arts as personified in new museums.