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 the corner of 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. 

Early Years of Commercial Exchange Building

The Commercial Exchange Building was constructed in 1924 as an office tower 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!

A Delicate Operation

Enter George Kress, a house-mover since 1902, who 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 halves were reunited in nine hours, not one worker was injured and, so 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!

Commercial Exchange Building Transforms Again!

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.

However, hotels add more to the city’s coffers than almost any other potential use that a historic building could have, so 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.

DTLA Neighborhood Today

In fact, DTLA has become home to several other office towers that have become popular hotels. In 2015 the old United Artists Building (with its beautiful theater inside) became an Ace Hotel. In addition to creating a lovely rooftop bar (with a swimming pool, natch), the theater has been restored and now hosts a regular program of events (check here for more info).

A couple of years later the imposing Bank of Italy Building on 7th Street also became a hotel, first a Nomad, and then a Hotel PERLA (the old bank vault is .now a bar). It’s great to see these long vacant buildings open their doors to the public and come back to life.

Other buildings have become loft apartments and creative offices. Fortunately, due to historic preservation rules, demolition is no longer an option and, in any case, the history and design of these buildings makes them very valuable as it leads to them being more popular with potential tenants.

Downtown Los Angeles has been transformed over the last two decades

If you have any feedback on The Commercial Exchange Building please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Maggie Wineland (Twitter) and Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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