COMMERCE — For years, the abandoned Uniroyal tire plant alongside the Santa Ana Freeway was a shabby monument to an era when a rapidly growing Los Angeles attracted the nation's major tire producers.
The plant was boarded up in 1978 after tires were manufactured there for nearly half a century. Its windows were broken and its facade was dingy from exposure to years of freeway exhaust fumes.
But the imposing factory, built to resemble an Assyrian palace complete with turrets, never ceased to turn the heads of the tens of thousands of motorists who pass each day. Its stylized facade had done a good job of concealing a collection of steel buildings in the City of Commerce, five miles south of downtown Los Angeles.
Now the freeway Goliath is being resurrected as a $120-million complex of office buildings, retail stores and a hotel. Some of the stores opened for business earlier this month.
Preservationists laud the work done by developer Trammell Crow Co. to breathe new life into the structure. Its six-story administration building is intact, as is all but about 150 feet of its massive wall. Even a portion of the tire plant's original metal-truss ceiling has been retained as a decorative cover for a food court.
"There was a question of whether it was going to survive in the long run," said Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "It's a very important reminder that Southern California was second only to Detroit as a center of the automobile industry for a good part of the century, and second only to Akron (Ohio) in producing tires.
"Those industries associated with cars had a great impact on the development of the city."
The human-headed, winged bulls surrounding the entrance to the administration building have been spruced up, as have the winged genii and kings who grace the turrets along the massive wall. Steel reinforcing beams have been added to make the building and wall earthquake-safe. A fresh coat of paint covers the royal facade. The firm that designed the colors for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles produced the paint scheme.
Newly cast friezes depicting Assyrian warriors in horse-drawn chariots adorn the lobby of the tower, which served as the administration building for tire manufacturer Adolph Schleicher in 1930.
Offices in the tower are being leased, as is space in newly constructed office buildings. Construction has not yet started on the hotel. The entire project will not be finished for more than a year, a Trammell Crow spokesman said.
But for the last decade, the plant had been a tombstone marking the death of Los Angeles' robust tire industry that sprung up in the 1920s and '30s.
The nation's tire manufacturers were entrenched in Akron in the early part of this century. Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber, established his factory there in 1871.
But Southern California was growing, and its longstanding love for the automobile made it increasingly attractive to the tire industry. Akron was a long way from the growing Western market.
Schleicher had started his Samson Tire and Rubber Co. in a tiny wood-frame factory in Compton in 1918. Schleicher chose the name because it symbolized strength and endurance, and his future factory would symbolize the same.
In 1920, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. became the first of the four major tire companies to open a plant in Los Angeles. The B.F. Goodrich Co. opened its factory in 1928, the same year the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. opened shop.
Schleicher decided to make his push for a bigger share of the market, and in 1928, started developing his new factory, according to Martin Weil, a restoration architect who wrote a brief history of the old tire plant. He hired the prominent Los Angeles architectural firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements to design the plant.
The local tire manufacturer had named his company after the biblical Israelite judge, noted for his great strength. His building would embody the same qualities.
But apparently there was one problem: Little archeological research had been done in Palestine at the time, and there was virtually no information about the architecture of biblical Israel, Weil said. So the designers turned to Assyria for architectural style.
Assyria was an ancient empire in Southwest Asia, in the region of the upper Tigris River, that reached its height in the 7th Century BC.
Architectural detail in the old tire plant is from three Assyrian cities: Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh, Weil said. The administration building and walls were based on the ziggurats and fortified walls of Khorsabad.
The plant's groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 23, 1929, was marked with a parade and other festivities. One Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce official declared: "Los Angeles now is known as the Akron of the West."
The plant would cost $8 million to build and employ 2,500 people. It would churn out 6,000 tires and 10,000 tubes a day.