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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

March 22, 1993|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

It was built in 1935 as a monument to Southern California's citrus industry. But like the orange groves it celebrated, the eight-story Sunkist Building was destined to disappear when it could no longer withstand the economics of redevelopment.

The building's dazzling white facade was a familiar sight at the corner of 5th and Hope streets. Its jutting wings formed a U, and the building was topped by palm-decked roof gardens. Nearby stood offices of the Richfield Co., the Central Library and the Southern California Edison Co.

It was one of the first earthquake-resistant buildings in Southern California. Construction costs? A princely $365,000. The land, which cost an additional $117,000, was a real Depression-era bargain.

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There was no mistaking who owned the building: a tower bore the word "Sunkist." The facade was accented with stylized relief figures.

Architect Robert Field, the building's designer, called his creation "one of the early stylistic contemporary structures in the United States."

Right next door, almost lost in the shadow of the looming building, sat Mama Maru's coffee stand at 5th Street near Flower Street. Francis Wilcox, Sunkist general manager and chief executive officer from 1957 to 1965, would arrive at work about 6 every morning, walk next door to Mama Maru's and help the tiny owner set up the tables and umbrellas while his coffee was brewing. At his retirement party, Sunkist employees created a likeness of the coffee stand and invited Mama Maru to the celebration.

A harmless transient frequented the building's Hope Street entrance. He never begged for money, but had a fingernail fetish. He would always walk with his hands held high so he wouldn't break his eight-inch fingernails.

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For 35 years the building was headquarters for the giant Sunkist growers' cooperative that was organized 100 years ago. Pioneer William Wolfskill planted the seeds of what was to become Sunkist Growers in the 1840s. Many of the fortune-seekers who flocked to California during the Gold Rush developed scurvy because fresh fruit was not widely available. As word spread that citrus fruits could prevent the disease, demand skyrocketed. Soon lemons sold for $1 each.

When the arrival of the railroad in Los Angeles in the 1890s made possible the fast shipment of perishable fruit to the East, the orange industry became firmly established. During the depression of 1893, a group of 60 local growers formed a cooperative to advertise and market their crops. That group reorganized in 1905 to become the California Fruit Growers' Exchange.

In 1908, when growers began casting about for a trademark to set their fruit apart, admen came up with "Sunkissed." It was quickly shortened to "Sunkist." A few years later, the slogan, "California for Wealth, Oranges for Health," was coined.

Citrus growing overcame weather, insects and labor problems and expanded to account for 40% of California's economy in the 1930s. The industry netted $200 million in profits in 1938, when Los Angeles County was the top orange producer in the nation. Orange County was second.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, many citrus trees were quarantined after being hit by a virus called tristeza, Spanish for "sadness." Growers had another name for it: "quick decline." Developers came offering money for what were in effect useless groves, and some growers were more than willing to sell their land. Others pulled up the infected trees and replanted.

But the developers kept coming and the citrus groves are now gone--uprooted and transplanted to other counties. A way of life has been replaced by industry and mini-malls.

Sunkist moved too. In October, 1970, it traded its downtown land and building for a larger property in Sherman Oaks in a deal valued at about $1.6 million.

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Before the Sunkist building was demolished in 1972, it sat empty for two years on the approaches to Bunker Hill. In 1981, Wells Fargo Bank was built on the empty land. Five years later, Wells Fargo bought Crocker Bank and moved to South Grand Avenue. Today, the old Wells Fargo Building has become the 48-story Four Forty-Four Plaza, housing about 80 firms.

Sunkist Growers Inc. has become the nation's largest citrus cooperative. With 6,500 member farms and a trademark that is all but synonymous with oranges, its annual revenues now reach $1 billion.

And while the citrus boom is traceable to Gold Rush-era scurvy, Cleopatra had done her part in boosting lemons centuries before. She is said to have made the lemon very popular with her habit of rubbing the tart fruit on her skin to tighten pores and reduce oiliness.

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