Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Commercial Exchange Building

commercial exchange building
The Commercial Exchange Building in 2020

The South Park neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles is undergoing enormous change at the moment, as new apartment and condominium blocks sprout upwards and older buildings (such as the beautiful Herald Examiner Building and the Commercial Exchange Building) are renovated and repurposed, often as lofts or ‘creative’ offices. The Arena and the many restaurants, galleries and trendy watering holes that surround it are steadily luring Angelenos to the area, and property values are correspondingly sky-rocketing. 

However, despite South Park’s popularity and in spite of having housed the publishing offices of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs (who gave the Tarzana neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley its name, after his ranch there), the imposing structure that is the Commercial Exchange Building, on 8th and Olive Streets, sat lonely and vacant for decades, not commercially viable due its need for costly modification and renovation. Over the years one developer after another rejected it – until 2013. This is even more noteworthy due to the building’s very unique engineering history. 

The Commercial Exchange Building was constructed in 1924 as offices with ground floor retail space, to a design by the well-known Los Angeles architectural firm Walker and Eisen, architects of the nearby Fine Arts Building (whose beautiful lobby we often visit on our LA in a Day and Central Downtown LA tours) and many other significant buildings in Southern California. It’s a great example of the Beaux Arts architectural style that was all the rage in the U.S. at the time, although the design itself is not truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, only a few years after the building had been completed the growing car culture of Los Angeles (which really took off in the 1920’s) necessitated widening many of downtown’s roads, including Olive Street. In 1929 the city demanded that five feet be taken off the west side of the building, entailing the destruction of its beautiful bay windows and the brick and terracotta cladding on that side. What a disaster for the owners!

Downtown Los Angeles has been transformed over the last two decades

Enter George Kress, a house-mover since 1902, who’d had no formal engineering training, but had made a successful business from this popular service. Believe it or not, at that time homes were often moved, sometimes more than once in their lifetimes, although usually by a team of horses and a big flatbed wagon. Elsewhere in the U.S., and especially in fast-growing Los Angeles, entrepreneurial property owners found it profitable to sell the downtown land that their house sat on and then move their entire home to an outlying area. So, when the widening of Olive Street threatened the Commercial Exchange Building, Kress devised a plan to save it. 

In 1935 he demolished eight feet of brick, masonry and steel from the CENTER of the structure (which contained a staircase and store rooms), top to bottom, as if removing a slice of bread from the middle of a loaf. Then, an inch at a time, using a series of jacks, tracks and a crew of seventy-five men, Kress proceeded to move the western side of the building to join it back together with its other half. All this, apparently, while the workers inside went about their daily business at their desks (bear in mind that this was the same house-mover who was reputed to have transported a mansion in three pieces, from downtown to Hancock Park, while a party went on inside, undisturbed). The two Commercial Exchange Building pieces were reunited in nine hours, not one worker was injured and, Kress boasted, not a single window was broken. According the Los Angeles Times the whole operation cost $60,000. A truly remarkable piece of engineering, for a very reasonable price!

In 2016 the Commercial Exchange Building became the home of the Freehand Hotel, with a wonderful rooftop bar and swimming pool. Since downtown Los Angeles’ unique adaptive reuse ordinance has resulted in massive residential development ‘between the four freeways’ over the past twenty years, many Angelenos expected the Commercial Exchange Building to become expensive condos or apartments, but since hotels add more to the city’s coffers than almost any other potential use that a historic building could have, it makes sense that the Freehand developer was the one to finally bring the building back to life. I’m sure that practical, solutions-oriented George R. Kress would fully approve.

Commercial Exchange Building
The Freehand Hotel now occupies the Commercial Exchange Building

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– By Maggie Wineland (Twitter)

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