Los Angeles Fire Battalion Chief Ray Gomez could tell instantly that the two downtown buildings ablaze early Monday were old -- at least by Los Angeles standards. The mortar between bricks was soft, made before the 1933 introduction of reinforced concrete, making the buildings more vulnerable to heat and water -- and to collapsing on firefighters.
Most others, however, would have a hard time recognizing from appearances any historical value from the buildings at 4th Street and South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. A mix of bridal and quinceanera dress shops, shoe stores, fortune tellers and money repatriation services lined the first floor. Tattered brown shingles sheathed the upper floors, interspersed with placards that said "Watches" and "14 KT $10."
Until the fire, that is.
It took about 160 firefighters roughly 90 minutes to largely extinguish the blaze that lighted the downtown sky at 5 a.m. Monday. By late morning, as they tended to the smoldering remains and secured the site, they began to strip off the shingles. And like some architectural Cinderella turning into a beautiful princess, long-hidden details emerged, revealing the once-dignified buildings beneath.
Not only were there windows on the upper floors, but they were huge and arched. Fluted columns etched the facade.
A check with historical groups revealed that the adjacent buildings were probably built around the turn of the century. The one at 350-354 S. Broadway was designed by architect R.B. Young in about 1895, according to Mike Buhler, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Its neighbor at 356-364 S. Broadway had once been known as the O.T. Johnson Building, named after its financier-philanthropist owner. It was designed by well-known architect John Parkinson about 1900. Somewhere along the way, it lost five of its seven stories.
The building had once been sheathed in glazed brick, its ground floor made of iron and glass, with paired columns flanking its main entrance, according to an internal report by the Los Angeles Conservancy. It was one of dozens of buildings Parkinson's firm designed or co-designed in Los Angeles through the 1950s, including City Hall, Union Station, Bullocks Wilshire, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and several buildings on Broadway and Spring Street. About 60 survive in L.A., most of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"This may be one of the most significant losses to that district in recent memory," said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources. "While its historic detail was covered up in recent years, it still contributed significantly to the unique historic fabric of Broadway."
That fabric includes more than a dozen old theaters and dozens of century-old office buildings on Broadway and Spring Street -- "One of the most intact historic districts in the country," Bernstein said.
It isn't clear whether the two buildings gutted by Monday's fire were designated as historic properties. Bernstein said they were originally included in the 1978 designation of the Broadway Theater and Commercial District, but the next update 20 years later excluded them. The L.A. Conservancy's Buhler said they weren't included because the buildings had been significantly altered.
While watching firefighters douse flames, Eli Sasson, president of Sassony Commercial Real Estate Development in Beverly Hills, said he had owned the buildings for about 30 years. The floors above the stores had been vacant most of that time, he said. He said business had been good, despite numerous "for lease" signs with his phone number that hung above the occupied first-floor storefronts.
Sasson said the fire had rendered the buildings unsafe and that they will have to be demolished. He hasn't decided whether to rebuild. "I'm still in shock," said Sasson, who said he had driven into the city at 7 a.m. as soon as he heard about the fire.
The cause of the blaze hadn't been determined by late Monday. Meanwhile, the displaced store owners confronted a very uncertain future. Some suffered only smoke damage to merchandise. In La Franja Sports, a soccer-paraphernalia and memorabilia store next to the burned buildings, owner Guillermo Cordero, his mother and son rushed to pack soccer jerseys and shorts into gym bags to keep the smell of smoke from penetrating the clothes.
Bridal Moments, however, was just about gutted, its interior largely black shards.
Marta Rayas, who has owned the shop for 11 years, said she probably lost $100,000 worth of dresses, sewing machines and fabric -- including about 10 fancy dresses she and her sister had finished for customers who ordered them for carnivals in the next two weeks. She has no insurance.
Outside the darkened windows, a headless mannequin clad in a strapless purple lace gown, its puffy gauze skirt blackened with soot, lay in the gutter.